Cocaine, illiteracy and football could not stop Dexter Manley by Sarah Kogod @SarahKogod

Photo: Mike Powell/Getty Images

It's a warm spring day and Dexter Manley bounds out of the office and jumps into his boss's truck like a kid heading to the playground. As the new director of marketing for Rockville, Md.,-based CE Construction Services, he'll be paying visits to both potential and current clients, and I'm along for the ride.

"Where's my wallet?" he asks, after we leave the office.

It's a question he'll ask multiple times throughout the day, even after it's determined that he left his wallet in his own car. After surgeries to remove a quarter-sized cyst in his brain, his short-term memory isn't the greatest.

Manley is wearing khaki pants, a button-down shirt, boots and a sweater, a curious outfit considering the day's 80-degree temperature.

"I always wear a sweater," he says, wiping the sweat off of his brow. "It's preppy."

Manley also wears red socks every day of his life. Sometimes they have a pattern, but mostly they are solid red, dozens of pairs of them lining his sock drawer like a monochromatic army of cotton footwear.

It's not that red is his favorite color, or even that they match the rest of his wardrobe. To the former NFL star, the red socks are a symbol of how far he has come. Twenty-four years of drug addiction, 38 visits to various rehab facilities, homelessness, four arrests and years of jail time defined him for so long. Now, nine years sober, those socks remind him of his journey.

"Abraham Lincoln said we have the power to change our condition," says Dexter. "And I use the red socks as a symbol, as the power to change my condition. It's a symbol of changing one state from darkness to light."

As we visit with various clients, it's easy to see why he has found success in sales and marketing. His imposing size is balanced out by his engaging smile and a laugh that is equal parts giggle and high-pitched cackle. It's one of those laughs that you can't help but laugh along with.

"You guys don't have one of these," he says good-naturedly as he shows off one of his two Super Bowl rings to an Eagles fan client. He then charms him with with an NFL story before taking picture with him.

"I met someone in the bathroom I want to introduce you to," he says at lunch before bringing over a fan and introducing him to us all as if we were the ones to meet.

"So when do we get started," he says, more statement than question, to a potential client who had yet to commit to a contract.

Throughout the day, Manley proves through charm, wit and a winning smile that he's a very hard man to say no to. He's also naturally curious, and often times ends up interviewing me about my life, career and family. It's a trick he uses to connect with people, and his wife Lydia says that he's always been very adept at reading others because of it.

"Dexter has this way of learning about people, sometimes without them knowing it," says his wife, Lydia Manley. "People are just drawn to him and he really connects with people."

Manley and Lydia went to the same high school, but didn't become friends until 1988 when Manley invited her to a Monday Night Football game in San Francisco while she was living in Silicon Valley. At the time, Manley was married to his second wife and while fidelity wasn't his strong suit, both insist that they remained just friends until eventually getting married almost 10 long, hard years later.

Manley was drafted by the Washington Redskins in 1981. A standout at Oklahoma State, he was taken in the fifth round.

Manley says he had never done a drug in his life until he reached the NFL. But in the late-'70s and early-'80s, the NFL was experiencing an influx of drug use among players. He heard other players in the locker room talking about cocaine and women, and an experience with a veteran teammate during his rookie year planted the seed that drugs were exciting.

"I went to a veteran teammate's house," he recalls. "I'm not going to name names, but he was an All-Pro cornerback. I was so impressed with him. He had big fancy cars and a big fancy house in Reston, Va. I go in his house and he has two ladies walking around there in robes. And then I see another guy come to the door in a big fancy white car and give him a brown bag."

Manley says the teammate made it clear that he was going to do drugs and have sex with both women. An innocent and slightly naïve Manley had never heard of such provocative things, and was intrigued.

"I thought, ‘This guy has got to be the baddest dude ever. How do you get that?'" says Manley. "I was just floored. I was like, ‘Is this what happens in the National Football League? I wanna do that.' I didn't then, but it stayed on my mind."

Manley managed to stay clean throughout his rookie year, largely because he had no idea how to get drugs in the first place. But in his second year, he met a woman at Pall Mall in Georgetown, a bar frequented by Redskins players, and he gave in to his impulses.

She was sophisticated and well dressed. A government worker, she had a home in McClean, Va., where she invited Manley to join her. Cocaine had already been discussed, and he knew that he would be doing drugs that night for the first time in his life.

"The only thing I can remember is I was sitting at a table, chopping up the cocaine," he recalls. "I'm sitting at the table listening to Johnnie Taylor, and next thing I know she comes out the bedroom with high heels and a G-string on. I was like, ‘Wow, drugs are cool.' I had never experienced anything like it. And was on the chase since then."

Manley continued to do cocaine for years after. In the meantime, the NFL began cracking down on the league's substance abuse problems, and it eventually caught up with him. Manley had positive drug tests in 1987 and '88. A third in '89 got him suspended from the NFL for a year.

During his struggle for sobriety, Manley was also battling a deep, dark secret that he had been keeping for most of his life.

Dexter Manley was illiterate.

"When you play football in the state of Texas, you're like God," says Manley.

We're driving around Washington, D.C.'s notorious beltway as he recounts how he ended up at age 29 reading at only a second-grade level.

Growing up a superior athlete in Houston, Manley learned quickly that he could charm his way through most situations. He always went to class and sat in the front. He was polite and well behaved, and so his teachers kept passing him. Manley was eventually diagnosed with a learning disability in elementary school and was placed in a special-ed class where playing with blocks took the place of reading and writing. When he ended up in a middle school with no special-ed classes, he fell even further behind.

Manley's illiteracy followed him to Oklahoma State, where his perfect attendance and charm combined with his athlete status saw him through. He faked it when he needed to read something in class. When he had to sign forms, he filled out his name and address and had someone else do the rest. He used the same guise when filling out NFL contracts.

"When you're a good football player, you don't have to do too much of anything for yourself," Manley notes.

But when it came time to learn the playbook, his disability caught up with him.

Manley was sensational in minicamp. At 253 pounds he ran a 4.5-second 40, and so he caught the eye of the entire coaching staff. He was placed on special teams, where there were no plays to learn. But when he was promoted to starter, he began making mistakes.

"On special teams there aren't plays," he says. "Really, you're just running down the field, you gotta stay in your lane, that kind of stuff. It's just barbaric. But now I was a starter, and I couldn't grasp the defense. When I went to training camp, I would make a lot of mistakes, but I would be aggressive. But if you don't know the plays, you can't play."

Joe Gibbs, his coach at the time, was more patient than most NFL coaches. They went over plays again and again and again. He had the defense come early to practice and stay late to do walkthroughs and through repetition, Manley began to learn them.

Despite now knowing the playbook Manley still couldn't read, and was doing a fine job of faking it. As part of his disguise, he would carry the Wall Street Journal into the building every day. He would let other teammates drive because, by himself, he couldn't read the road signs. He sometimes got lost on his way home.

"When I came to D.C. in 1981, I could not get off this beltway because I couldn't read and write," he said, his voice rising and getting emotional. "I didn't know where to go, I didn't know how to get off. Where do I live? I would ride with Darryl Grant sometimes, I would ride with these people and they'd tell me ‘This is where you gotta get off.' How do you get off?"

Despite these obstacles, Manley considered himself functional until teammate Joe Thiesmann's career-ending injury in 1985 shook him up.

"I was ashamed and embarrassed," he says. "I was in belligerent denial. I didn't want to face that stuff, because I was comfortable looking at my shoelaces. At least I thought I was until I watched that man go down. I was functional until that night."

As he watched Theismann on the ground, he realized how fast everything could change for him. If football ended, what would he do?

He began taking classes at the Washington Lab school in 1987. Two years later he had achieved a 10th-grade reading level. He studied through his suspension in 1989 and worked with a tutor during his 1990 season with the Phoenix Cardinals.

Dexter Manley was no longer illiterate.

Manley played for one season in Phoenix and managed to steer clear of drugs. But when he ended up with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1991, he found himself surrounded by temptation.

Manley began hanging out with the younger players, some of whom were doing drugs. They would frequent strip clubs, where Manley had flashbacks to the woman in the G-string who got him into cocaine back in 1982.

"Every relapse I've ever had was because of a woman," he says.

One Friday night at a club in Tampa, Manley once again lost control and took the cocaine he was offered. Unfortunately the league was testing him three days a week, and he was due for a test the following Monday. Two days later, Manley got a call from the league telling him he had tested positive for a fourth time.

Knowing a lifetime ban was coming, Manley and his lawyer decided to get ahead of the league and announce his retirement.

Manley officially retired on Dec. 12, 1991. He moved back to Reston, and was still using drugs. He would leave his family to go on drug sprees, sometimes for four or five days. His wife finally kicked him out and filed for divorce. He moved out and lived with teammates for a while before deciding to move back to Houston in 1994.

It was a very bad decision.

Manley was known in Houston, but didn't have the same celebrity status that he had earned in D.C. It was jarring to a man who was used to adulation, but it also allowed him to fly under the radar. He moved into a luxury apartment, but quickly fell into a pattern of drug use that often spanned days at a time.

He began to experiment with crack, a drug that made him so paranoid that he would often call the police on himself. Fearing that people were coming to get him, he hung sheets on his walls to keep light out. When the paranoia continued, he began to use an empty apartment in the same building to do drugs. Behind in his rent and clearly a substance abuser, he was kicked out of his apartment.

Homeless, he moved around among friends and relatives, sleeping on couches and floors. Manley ran up his credit cards on hotel rooms and spent his cash on drugs. He was arrested for the first time while buying crack at an abandoned house across town. He was arrested three more times after that, including once after a strange phone call to a friend.

"One night I got really loaded full of that stuff," Manley recalls. "I called [local D.C. broadcaster] Steve Buckhantz and said, ‘I want my ashes to be at RFK Stadium,' and I hung up the phone."


"One night I got really loaded full of that stuff. I called Steve Buckhantz and said, ‘I want my ashes to be at RFK Stadium,' and I hung up the phone."

Buckhantz, a former media colleague, assumed Manley was suicidal and called the police, who traced the call back to the hotel where Manley was holed up. When they arrived, they found Manley high and surrounded by drug paraphernalia.

Manley had moved to Houston with almost $1 million in the bank. Within a year, he was broke.

He was arrested again in 1995 and did 15 months on a four-year sentence in federal prison. Lydia, still a friend, feared for his well-being and wrote him letters every day.

"I didn't think somebody like him could survive that," she says. "Dexter's such a positive person and well-liked person.  I could be an encouragement and also help him practice his reading and writing."

Dexter wrote back and stayed clean while in prison and was determined to continue his sobriety after his release. Their daily letters led to the two falling in love, and he and Lydia got married that fall. Unfortunately he wasn't able to shake his demons, and began using again.

He went from rehab facility to rehab facility chasing sobriety. He checked himself into Betty Ford and then left in a cab four days later. He convinced the cab driver to lend him $1,000 cash to buy drugs.

"He knew if he was picking me up at Betty Ford Center, I had to have money," noted Manley.

Manley's lawyer wired the money back to the cab driver. After a days-long binge he tried to check back in, but Betty Ford wouldn't accept him again.

They sent him to a sister program, Anacapa by the Sea, an inpatient facility that has since closed its doors. He was kicked out of Anacapa after getting into a physical altercation with a goalie for the Blackhawks, who Manley says was in the facility for a pill addiction. The fight was over a female patient and ended with Manley throwing a cooler full of salad mix on the goalie.

He bounced from facility to facility, sometimes with long stretches of sobriety dotting the time. But he struggled to stay sober, and out of trouble.

In 2002 Manley was convicted of evidence tampering for swallowing cocaine during a 2001 drug bust. He stayed clean for the two years he was in jail and was released on March 5, 2004. He relapsed in August of that year, went to a rehab center in Houston and then decided a change of scenery was in order.

Manley moved back to Washington, D.C. with the help of a nonprofit called Second Genesis. The organization, which has since closed its doors, was created to help drug addicted men stay clean, and Manley was being paid as a spokesperson. It was during his work with Second Genesis that he began an affair with a female cocaine dealer. Manley relapsed again.

With Manley's behavior getting more destructive, Lydia decided to leave in 2005 and stay with friends. Manley battled his addiction over the next several months, often spending days at a time in strange apartments. He was kicked out of a halfway house and forced to find couches to sleep on, and sometimes the bed of his dealer. He kept all of his possessions in his car, and found himself robbed more than once.

One Saturday night he was wandering around Georgia Avenue in D.C. after a night of drug use and was pulled over by the police. Manley was acting erratically, and the officers recognized that he was not well. They decided to take him to Washington Hospital Center instead of arresting him. It was a decision that saved his life.

What most people didn't know was that Manley had been carrying another secret around for 20 years, one that even he had forgotten about. In 1986 after collapsing in a department store in Georgetown, doctors discovered a cyst the size of a dime on his brain. The neurologist told him he would eventually need surgery, but wanted to take a wait and see approach. Manley was released with the instructions to have the cyst scanned every six months to monitor its growth. Manley ignored the instructions.

"I wanted to play football," he said. "Brain surgery? I didn't think about it. I was always bigger, faster, stronger than most of my colleagues. I just didn't want to face that. So I ignored it."

Ignorance turned into denial and Manley soon forgot about the cyst that was quietly growing in his brain.

At the hospital, Manley became disruptive and assuming his behavior was due to drug use, he was released the next day to Lydia, who had been called to pick him up. Having nowhere to take him, she checked him into a hotel in Georgetown.

On Monday she got a chilling call from the hospital.

"We made a mistake releasing him," said the voice at the other end of the line. "You have to get him to a hospital immediately."

A scan taken at the hospital showed that the cyst had grown to the size of a quarter. He was taken to Georgetown Hospital where he underwent brain surgery to remove most of the cyst. A second surgery months later completed the process.

When the cyst disappeared, so did all of Manley's urges. He has remained sober ever since, and says he doesn't struggle with temptation. Multiple doctors have told him that the cyst was located in the part of the brain associated with impulse control. His therapist believes that the cyst itself was the root of his addiction.

This June 17 marked nine years sober for Manley. These days he lives a clean life. He wakes up at 2 o'clock every morning and meditates while listening to gospel music. He watches the news and leaves for the gym with Lydia at 4:15 a.m., getting there early and waiting for them to open the doors. He works out for just over an hour doing cardio, walking the track with Lydia where they spend the time talking.

He is home by 7 a.m., gets dressed and goes to work, stopping for a shot of wheat grass on the way. He goes to support group on Thursdays and on the Sundays that he doesn't go to church. He's in bed by 8 p.m. after watching Access Hollywood and Entertainment Tonight.

Every day is the same, a life built on routine. He embraces the monotony after a lifetime of chaos that almost killed him more than once.

"Sometimes I think that if I had gotten that cyst removed in 1986, maybe my life would have been different," Manley says quietly, thinking about all of the struggle. "I overcame it. But I paid a heavy price."