One thing is sure about Lyle Alzado. He was a wild man, even by the standards of other wild men. But wasn’t he more than that?
From the mid-1970s to the early 1980s, Lyle Alzado was a defensive force in the NFL who kicked, crawled and fought his way to two Super Bowl games, three All-Pro designations and cult status in two cities -- first, Denver, and at the end of his career, Los Angeles, where he resurrected himself with the Raiders.
Undersized and overzealous, Alzado sprung out of a dysfunctional family with a chip on his shoulder and a violent streak that helped convert him from an unwanted small college player in Yankton, South Dakota into a rookie starter on the Broncos' 1971 defense. Both opportunities were, like him, spawned from unusual places.
After getting no college scholarship offers, Alzado went to Kilgore Junior College but was eventually run off and landed at Yankton College. It was there that two things happened that changed his life: He found anabolic steroids and a Broncos' scout’s car broke down in Montana.
The former bulked up his body and gave him ungodly strength for his size. The latter led that scout to the Montana Tech campus where he decided to take a look at game film of Tech players while he waited for his car to be repaired.
What he found on that tape was Alzado destroying Tech’s offense.
From that brief moment and that scout’s adamant advocacy, Alzado was drafted by the Broncos in the fourth round in 1971. Feisty and always fighting that first summer, Alzado made an impression. And when defensive end Rich “Tombstone’’ Jackson was injured, Alzado stepped in and never left.
He registered eight sacks, made the All-Rookie team and became a cornerstone of what would become Denver’s “Orange Crush’’ defense that led the Broncos to the Super Bowl six years later.
By then Alzado had been shifted to defensive tackle and was racking up sacks. He became both an All-Pro and *UPI’*s AFC Defensive Player of the Year in 1977 on a team that went 12-2 but lost to the Cowboys, 27-10, in Super Bowl XII.
By then Alzado was also known as much for his violent outbursts on and off the field as he was for his dominating play. Yet he was a Jekyll- and-Hyde personality, one moment explosive and the next kind and caring, especially with children and teammates.
What no one knew at the time was it was his obsessive use of steroids that was fueling much of his intensity, a decision that would, he later believed, come back to haunt him.
Caught in a contract dispute after a 1978 season when he had nine sacks, Alzado was traded to the Cleveland Browns …. and two years later he would again be named All-Pro.
But an injury-plagued 1981 season led some to believe he was finished. Alzado disagreed and continued to look at the world as a place to physically dominate.
“If me and King Kong went into an alley, only one of us would come out … and it wouldn’t be the monkey,’’ Alzado said.
He also once opined that, “I never met a person I didn’t want to fight.’’ The latter was a clever re-write of the famous Will Rogers quote that he’d never met a man he didn’t like. And that was a concept Alzado couldn’t quite fathom, especially if the other person was wearing football gear and an opposing team’s jersey.
Traded to the Raiders, both he and they moved to Los Angeles upon his arrival. That offseason he worked out with renewed vengeance, hell-bent on proving the Browns as wrong as the Broncos had been when they sent him away.
The longest player strike in NFL history limited the 1982 season to nine games, but it didn’t limit Alzado. He had seven sacks, was again named All-Pro and became the heart of a defense known for mayhem and winning. Back at defensive end the following season, he had 7 ½ sacks, five tackles for losses and won a Super Bowl ring.
By then, Alzado later claimed, he was spending as much as $30,000 on steroids. As much as they once built up his body, now they and age were beginning to tear it down. He retired after the 1985 season after struggling with a number of nagging injuries, starting 195 of 196 games he’d played and having been the most impactful member of every defense he was on.
Sacks did not become an official statistic in the NFL until 1982, so he is credited with only 23. But film study of the years before reveals that unofficially he had 112.5 sacks, 24 forced fumbles, 20 fumble recoveries and three safeties. That last figure ranks second all-time behind his Raiders' teammate and Hall-of-Famer Ted Hendricks, Jared Allen and Doug English, who each had four.
Alzado launched an abbreviated comeback in 1990, telling the L.A. Times, “I miss the violence. It’s just that simple.’’
His knee did not hold up for long, however, and he was forced to retire for good that summer. Shockingly, within two years he was dead at the age of 43 from a brain tumor that left him unable to walk without assistance.
Shortly before his death, Alzado was featured in a Sports Illustrated article saying, “I Lied,’’ on the cover about his repeated denials of having used steroids and human growth hormone. Although there was no direct medical link, he believed his brain tumor was a result of over 20 years of using and abusing steroids in what he claimed was an addictive manner.
Violent by nature and inclination, those performance-enhancing drugs brought out both the best and worst in him, but there is no denying his naturally fierce nature and often fabulous play during his 15-year career. The violence that punctuated it led his brother Peter to say, “Lyle used football as a way of expressing his anger at the world and the way we grew up.’’
The way he grew up made Lyle Alzado a fighter and a football star. It nearly made him a Midwest Golden Gloves champion in 1969 and 10 years later put him in an exhibition match with Muhammad Ali -- one that, as he put it, “didn’t go as well as I expected.’’
Certainly Lyle Alzado’s football career did. Three All-Pro designations, two Pro Bowl selections, four times named All-AFC as well as the 1982 Comeback Player of the Year. The question now is was that enough to make him a Hall of Famer?
That is an open debate. But there are only 25 men since the NFL began keeping official sack statistics who got to the quarterback more often than Lyle Alzado. What that makes him is for you to decide. But it surely made him this: a guy not many offensive linemen wanted to see coming.