Let the rest of the country have its glamorous passers and flashy running backs. Let Baltimore have its Bert Jones, Chicago its Walter Payton, Dallas its Roger Staubach and Tony Dorsett, Oakland its Kenny Stabler. In Denver the defense is king, and Lyle Alzado, defensive end, is the man for this season.
Denver fans are connoisseurs of defensive play, mainly because until this season the Broncos had never given them much of an offense to shout about. Now, after 11 wins in their first 12 games, including last Sunday's 24-14 triumph over Houston, the Broncos can't keep their fans quiet. That victory, coupled with Oakland's 20-14 loss to Los Angeles, clinched the AFC West championship for the Broncos, who had never won a title of any kind in their 18-year history, and also assured them of the home-field advantage when they appear in the playoffs for the first time ever on the day before Christmas.
The reason for Denver's sudden success is its defense—the Orange Crush, as it styles itself—a unit that features a 3-4 alignment and is the best in the NFL against the run, yielding a measly 112.9 yards per game.
Alzado is the irresistible and irrepressible force who works at the right end of the Broncos' three-man line, the player whose mere presence forces opponents to run their plays in the other direction—either at Nose Tackle Rubin Carter or Left End Barney Chavous, both of whom are also enjoying their best seasons. Alzado is a 6'3", 250-pound black-bearded package of menacing energy and speed who drives himself so hard that his coaches say their problem is to keep him on, not ahead of, schedule.
"Lyle is overcritical of himself," says Defensive Line Coach Stan Jones. "He thinks he should have three or four sacks and 10 unassisted tackles every game, or he's had a bad day. He is outstanding against the run, and we have convinced him that sacks are second in importance to that." Maybe they have—and then again, maybe they haven't. Although the Broncos' 3-4 is designed for the linebackers, not the linemen, to get to the quarterback, Alzado has had five sacks and 71 unassisted tackles in 12 games.
Denver's success this season may well win for Alzado the All-Pro recognition that has always escaped him in the past. "I'm not going to tell you I don't think about being All-Pro," says Alzado, "but I don't care as much as I used to. The power of the press lies in New York and L.A., and everyone in between dies. I'm tired of year after year watching people being passed over."
During a game Alzado emits waves of energy that radiate clear into the stands. On the field he never stops running. He pursues the quarterback relentlessly, brushing away offensive tackles as if they were big, annoying bugs. Off the field he stalks the sideline—talking, remonstrating, gesticulating, rarely pausing to join his teammates on the bench. He pats heads with his huge bandaged forearms and roars with laughter when things are going well. When they are not, there is no one in the stadium who looks more anguished.
And Denver loves it. A young fan once wrote, "Dear Lyle, you are the meanest defensive end I have ever seen. The way you rip apart all those quarterbacks is terrific. I sure am glad you play for the Broncos. I remember when you played the Redskins in the preseason, you killed their dumb halfbacks...."
Alzado is by far the best known, most easily recognized Bronco in town. A couple of years ago when some Denver junior high schoolers were asked which of the Broncos they would most like to meet, 12 of them voted for star Running Back Floyd Little, 700 voted for Alzado.
Alzado is the Frank Gifford of the Rockies. He is everywhere—in the papers ("Come meet Lyle Alzado at Andre's Flower Shops"); on television ("Burt Chevrolet, they've been your friend for a long"—Alzado pauses, and points skyward—"long time"); on the radio ("This is Lyle Alzado for the Sawmill Restaurant. The Sawmill serves beef, fish, fowl and spirits.... For reservations call 755-4979. And ask about the Bronco Brunch Bus").
Alzado is at his best, though, when he is mixing it up with people. His face, with its Mesopotamian sort of nose as centerpiece, is framed by a thick black beard and decorated with a mustache that in its downward droop is more Middle Eastern than Oriental. He looks fierce and dangerous, even in repose. But as he awes people with his size and presence, he disarms them with broad grins, friendly needles, gentle jabs to the biceps, and questions about their wives, children, jobs and problems. And if all else fails, he will, like some demented puppeteer, make his pectoral muscles dance individually.
At the NFL Players Association awards banquet last June at Chicago's Hilton Hotel, Alzado was given the Byron (Whizzer) White Award for his exceptional record of community service. There is a photo in his house in Denver that shows Alzado at the banquet with an arm draped around the trophy and his eyes filled with tears that are about to spill over onto the ruffled front of his evening shirt. The emotion was genuine, but the source debatable. It may have been the award, but it may also have been meeting Muhammad Ali face to face, an event that Alzado considers the greatest thrill of his life.
Officially, Alzado won the Whizzer White Award because he seems to be involved in more charitable causes than Jerry Lewis and Sammy Davis Jr. put together—cancer, cystic fibrosis, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, diabetes and leukemia. But there are at least a dozen other Denver organizations to which Alzado gives his time, from Children's Hospital to the Police Athletic League. He has spread himself rather thin lately. On a recent Tuesday, his only day off each week during the season, he went from Children's Hospital to the Cancer Society to a junior high school drug-prevention center called The Untouchables and found himself having to say again and again, "I'm sorry. I'll be able to do more once the season is over."
As Alzado dealt with administrators his face grew sad and his body suddenly seemed too big for its allotted space. But when he walked quietly into the hospital rooms of sick adolescents, his spirits rose and his movements became graceful again. He teased them, made them giggle. He asked about the framed photographs on the tables beside their beds and he signed dozens of autographs, one of them for a frail, redheaded boy named Dale who slept through it all. At one point a father came out into the corridor to shake Alzado's hand, led him back to his child's bedside, and then got watery-eyed as he watched the delight in his child's face.
"I love Denver," said Alzado. "Denver's been so much to me I can't imagine I'd ever want to live anyplace else." He was feeling good, so he sang along with the Bee Gees on the car radio. "Boy, I like those guys," he said, interrupting himself. "More than anything I'd like to be an entertainer, out on a stage in a flashy suit, singing, telling jokes. You know the Hudson Brothers? They're my all-round favorites. They sing, dance, do comedy. I told them once, 'I'd love to switch places with you guys for a year.' And they said, 'You're on.'
"I owe everything to football," he said, fingering a huge diamond ring whose stones formed 77, his uniform number. "How else could I be known everywhere I go? People treat you like you're the President or something if you're a football player. It's ridiculous. Without football I'd probably be dealing dope on a street corner or sitting in a jail somewhere."
Dissolve to Inwood, a community on New York's Long Island, just east of the New York City line but not far enough removed to be a suburb. Inwood is part of an area known as the Five Towns—Inwood, Hewlett, Cedarhurst, Woodmere and Lawrence. It has long been primarily a Jewish middle-class neighborhood, and when Alzado, who is of Spanish-Italian descent on his father's side and Jewish on his mother's, was growing up in the Five Towns in the early '60s, he and Marc Lyons, his best friend, were among the underclass.
"I remember the house we lived in being cold, cold," Alzado says. "My dad would get mad and tear the only electric heater out of the wall. My mother, my sisters, Marc and me, we would all cuddle in one room, hungry and freezing, and light as many candles as we could find."
Alzado's father had been a professional boxer, and he started Lyle on the same road at the age of six. Alzado Sr. owned a paint business and a bar—and lost them both. "He was a drinker and a street fighter," Lyle says. "He was trying to succeed in a world that wouldn't let him, and things built up, frustrations. You can't keep getting knocked down over and over again. He was trying to be something better than he was, but everything he tried failed. Inside, he was a good man, I'm sure. But he just never took care of the family. Maybe he didn't know how."
When his father left home for good, Lyle was a sophomore in high school. The Alzados moved to what Lyons calls, without elaboration, a "terrible" apartment, and Lyle's mother Martha, with five children to feed, went to work in a flower store for $60 a week.
"We were very poor," says Alzado. "My high school coach used to buy me lunch out of his own pocket. I remember his office had a glass window and I'd manage to be going by in the hall about 11:45 and I'd look in and he'd see me and he'd wave me in and slip me some money. I was hungry in those days." Lyle went to work, too. His first job, at the age of 16, was as a janitor in his own high school.
Lyons is 29 now and the head football coach at Stamford (Conn.) High School. "I met Lyle when we were in junior high, and we became like brothers," Lyons says. "When things were bad at home he'd come live with us, and I'd do the same. The trouble we got into was mostly fights. Lyle was a tough guy with a tough reputation. I would tag along. We weren't really bad guys, but we were always underdogs because of the economic situation in the Five Towns. It sort of gave you an inferiority complex. We'd break some kid's nose in a fight and then, when we'd get home, there would be the cops on our doorstep because the kid's father was a lawyer or a big doctor and he'd have complained and the police chief would have hopped right on it."
While he was still a juvenile, Alzado hung out in Manhattan's Spanish Harlem and was arrested several times for stealing cars and breaking and entering. As he grew older, though, fighting in Long Island bars became Alzado's main antisocial activity. Sometimes he went looking for fights, sometimes he didn't. Either way he usually wound up in the Nassau County jail. According to Lyons, Alzado never drank, never smoked a joint, never missed a single workout, but he fought like crazy.
"I've never been beaten up," says Alzado. "I learned how not to be, how to use my hands and feet. My dad had a bar in Inwood called the Golden Dream. He made me a bouncer when I was still in high school. I learned my back-alley fighting in that bar. You pick up a pipe or you cut somebody when you need to."
Sharon Pike Alzado, a pretty, 26-year-old blonde from Yankton, S. Dak., says, "At first I didn't believe Lyle's stories. I'd see a scar and I'd say, 'What's that from?' He'd say it was from a stabbing and I wouldn't believe it."
For Alzado, athletics were the good part of life in the Five Towns. He was a 6'3", 190-pound Police Athletic League boxer with a stone jaw who won 27 straight bouts. He was a trackman who ran the 100 in 9.9, the 220 in 21.9. And he was a defensive end on the Lawrence High School football team under Coach Jack Martilotta.
For a time Alzado was thrown out of almost every game for fighting, but by his senior year he was taking football seriously. "I was always going to play for the Yankees," says Lyons, whose true love was baseball, "and Lyle was going to play for the football Giants." Alzado and Lyons, along with Richie Mollo and Sal Ciampi, two older local football players who now are high school coaches, used to lift weights in Mollo's father's garage in Inwood. "It was a little old garage," says Lyons. "The weight records were written on the wall, and we'd have a ceremony every time we broke a record."
Lyons, Mollo and Ciampi, along with Ira Gordon, then a bashful center on the Lawrence team, kept after Alzado. "They were succeeding in the same environment I was in and they wanted me to succeed," says Lyle. "I guess you could say I love those guys, even though we're far apart and I only see them maybe once a year now."
The first step toward succeeding, however, was college, and Alzado's high school grades were bad. He had dozens of offers and inquiries from football powerhouses, but he could not even consider them because of his poor record, in and out of school. New Mexico State did offer Alzado a full ride, and he accepted. Then, two weeks before he was supposed to arrive in Las Cruces, he received a letter saying the scholarship was not available after all. "They didn't say why," says Lyle, "but I think they must have got hold of my police record."
So he tried Kilgore Junior College in Texas. "A meat factory," says Lyons. "The kind of place where they make you try out. They tried Lyle at split end, because he was fast, but he's got board hands. He can't catch anything. So they told him he wasn't good enough. He hitched all the way from Kilgore to New Orleans and then he called our coach for help. Martilotta wired him the money to get home. Lyle was really discouraged."
Martilotta did not give up though. He made one last call, to Yankton (S. Dak.) College, a small private school that occasionally had recruited Long Island players. Yankton said yes, and so was born "The Yankton Flash," as Denver sportswriters now love to call Alzado.
Typically, Alzado did not have close friends in Yankton. Sharon was a student at the University of South Dakota, 30 miles away, and their paths never crossed until he met her two years after he graduated. But Lyle was happy enough. The school provided him with tutoring, the townspeople gave him credit, and he was grateful. Sharon explains, "South Dakota has so many state schools that they get all the local athletes. So Yankton had recruited quite a bit in the East. People were used to...." A tactful phrase eludes her for the moment. "Riffraff," Lyle volunteers cheerfully.
Alzado started on a weight-lifting program at Yankton, and he went from 190 pounds to 230 by Christmas of his freshman year. By the end of his four years at Yankton he had been All-Tri-State Conference twice, MVP in the Copper Bowl in Butte, Mont, and a College All-Star Team selection. He also boxed, losing to Ron Stander in the final of Omaha's Golden Gloves tournament in 1969. (One judge had it 59-60, another 60-59 and the third called it 59-59, but gave the nod to Stander for aggressiveness. "The most unpopular decision in years," said the Omaha Herald). Alzado lifted so many weights, always looking ahead to the pros, that Yankton later named its weight room for him.
Alzado had planned to major in phys ed but changed early to special education. He explains, "One day the wife of the athletic director asked me to come over to the grammar school to move some chairs, and while I was there I saw some little kids playing kickball. A little girl—she was retarded, only I didn't know it then—asked me to play, and I said, I can't play your game,' and she said, 'It's not my game, it's everybody's game.' Can you imagine a little kid saying that?"
Alzado spent his summers on Long Island, and he and Lyons, who was at Central Connecticut on a baseball scholarship, picked up garbage for the Inwood Sanitation Department. "It was tough working behind a rotten smelly garbage truck," Lyons recalls. "We wore 20-pound vests and ankle weights and we'd run along behind the truck, which was going 6 mph. We'd get in five miles a day of roadwork that way. After the garbage route, we'd go to Mollo's father's garage and lift weights for three hours. Then I'd play baseball, and Lyle would go box. By the end of the summer we were in great shape, and so sick of lifting weights we couldn't wait to go back to school."
Alzado came to the attention of the Broncos in a peculiar way. Assistant Coach Stan Jones was on a scouting trip, when his car broke down one day in Butte, Mont. To pass the time, Jones paid a call at Montana Tech, the only college around, and watched a film of the 1969 Copper Bowl game between Montana Tech and Yankton. "I was particularly watching a Montana Tech halfback, but one guy on the other side popped up all the time," Jones says. "I asked, and they told me it was Lyle Alzado. We went into the draft convinced the kid could play defensive line for us. He had that kind of strength and quickness and he was a good, tough kid. I liked everything I had heard about him, and I was relieved when we got him."
"Lyle was like a kid when he first came to us," says Gerald Phipps, who, with his brother Allan, owns the Broncos. "He would lose his temper, get upset and not play as well as he was capable of playing. Pete Duranko hurt his knee in a preseason game in Lyle's rookie year, and Lyle became a starter right off the bat. That's very tough to do. The first game was against Chicago, the dirtiest team around, and five minutes into the game Lyle was totally useless." He emerged from that game with four stitches in his nose and two in his forehead, but he was in the line to stay.
"Alzado makes things happen," says Red Miller, the Broncos' new head coach. "You get a guy like that once in a while. His intensity rubs off on the other players. He's moody, he has his ups and downs, but let him go sit in a corner, I don't care. I know the next morning he'll be jumping all over the place."
"We have a few holes in the walls around here," says Bob Peck, the Broncos' public relations man, "and we've had to fix some doors."
"That's good," says Miller. "I like people to show emotion."
Last year Alzado had to struggle to hide his emotions. On the first play from scrimmage of the first game of the 1976 season, a Cincinnati offensive tackle landed on Alzado's right knee and sent him to the hospital for surgery that ended his year. "If it happens again I'm packing my bags," says Sharon. "It tore him up a bit," says Defensive End Paul Smith, Alzado's friend and road roommate for seven years.
What really tore Alzado up was that the Broncos had their best record in history (9-5) and he was not part of it. He was at home in suburban Greenwood Pines, lying on a couch with Bronco, his beloved Samoyed, watching his team on TV and dying violent, noisy deaths.
"He didn't want anybody to look at his leg," said Steve Antonopulos, the assistant trainer who supervised Alzado's year-long rehabilitation. "He always wanted to work when nobody was around. He'd say, 'Meet me at eight in the morning,' and then he'd work an hour and a half before anybody else showed up. He's the hardest working guy I've ever seen. Before he got hurt he was the third or fourth strongest guy on the team, after Rubin Carter, Otis Armstrong and Paul Howard. Now he's first."
As Antonopulos talked, Alzado was strapping himself into the Cybex II, a machine that resembles an electric chair with vinyl upholstery. Carter was dangling a leg in a whirlpool in the corner, and linebacker Joe Rizzo was having his shoulder taped by Allen Hurst, the head trainer. The Cybex II produces a printout, like an EKG, of the intensity of muscle contractions during a set of leg raises against a selected amount of resistance.
Alzado did two sets of 15 leg raises that day, one on each leg. The effort he put forth was total. His features became contorted beyond recognition, and he emitted inhuman sounds of strain. Each set left him drained for a few moments, his massive head drooping, his shoulders heaving.
This is the life that Lyle Alzado has always wanted. Nothing good or bad that ever happened to him has been wasted. It is not an easy life, but then again, his life never was.