Forty-one-year-old Lyle Alzado swings his black Mercedes into a parking spot for the handicapped at the Los Angeles Raider minicamp in El Segundo, Calif. He offers no apology. "Hey, at my age, doing what I'm about to do," he says, "I need to park here."
Alzado, who was a ferocious competitor at defensive end for 14 NFL seasons, is officially marking his return to professional football. It is late May, and he is wheeling into the Raiders' three-day camp after 4½ years in retirement.
The man who once threatened to rip John Riggins's head off swaggers into the Raider locker room and right away introduces himself to one of the players standing in the way of his bid to play again—Anthony Smith, the team's No. 1 draft choice out of Arizona, who is 18 years and probably 3,000 hits his junior. Impressed that Alzado has sought him out, Smith says he feels "ready to kill."
As Alzado slips into his familiar number 77 jersey, his former line mate and best friend Howie Long, dressing nearby, can see that Alzado is sound of body. So the question, he decides, is whether Alzado is sound of mind. "They had Lyle's life story on TV last night," Long says. "Shelley Long plays Lyle. It's the one where she has 26 different personalities. I don't know which Lyle is doing this."
"All I want to know is, who has to room with him?" hollers defensive tackle Bob Golic from across the room.
"Not me," announces Long. "I had to room with him last time."
In an era when geriatric comebacks are commonplace—look at boxer George Foreman, swimmer Mark Spitz and gymnast Kurt Thomas—and when "seniors" are drawing crowds on a golf tour and starting their own baseball league, Alzado stands alone. We're talking about professional football, in which every play carries the potential for serious injury.
"Well, I know Jim Brown thought about doing it [at age 48 in 1984] when Payton was going to break his [career rushing] record," Alzado says. "And maybe a kicker has done it, but they don't count. Yes, I think I'm the first." One thing is certain: If Alzado makes it onto the field during the regular season, he will become the oldest player in NFL history other than quarterbacks or placekickers.
But can he pull it off? Can Alzado make a serious contribution to a team that certainly needs one? And can he do it without ending up in traction?
"Who am I to tell Lyle Alzado no?" says Art Shell, a former Raider offensive lineman and now the team's coach. "If he thinks he can do it, then why not give him a chance?"
If anyone is qualified to judge whether Alzado has the skills to help the Raiders again, it is Shell. The Hall of Fame tackle clashed with Alzado in memorable trench wars before Alzado joined the Raiders, and it will be interesting to see how the relationship between coach and ex-nemesis develops. "We had some great battles, but those are in the past now," says Shell. "Lyle is a unique individual. The fact that he wants to come back is awesome."
Alzado's relentless pursuit of the ball and crazed passion for the game energized—or rankled—teammates, opponents and fans during a 14-year career with Denver, Cleveland and the Raiders that included two Super Bowl appearances. The Raiders reached the playoffs all four years Alzado was with the team, winning Super Bowl XVIII, but they have not had a winning record since his last season, 1985.
"The team has been a lot different since he and some of the other guys left," says safety Vann McElroy. "It's not so much that we were missing something, but a lot of the personality, a lot of the fire seemed so much different. Lyle brings back a lot to us in that way."
Alzado combined desire, quickness, strength and intricate moves to become one of the best defensive ends of his era. With Denver he was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1977 and a Pro Bowl player in '77 and '78. Three times he led his team in sacks, totaling 93½ for his career. He was a starter until the end, when his final season was cut short by an Achilles tendon injury.
In truth, Alzado already has made one comeback. Slowed by injuries during his three years with Cleveland, Alzado was traded to the Raiders for only an eighth-round draft choice in 1982. Stung by the indignity of the deal, he bounced back with eight sacks in the strike-shortened, nine-game '82 season; Alzado was voted the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year.
The league doesn't keep stats on the number of times he ripped off an opponent's helmet and slammed it to the ground, or how often he used violent threats—"I'd threaten their kids, their family, tell a guy he was ugly and that he'd be dead by the end of the game"—and vulgar insults to taunt the player lined up across from him. There is no way to measure the intensity with which he played, to count the number of punches he threw. But it is a fact that Alzado had one of the worst tempers the NFL has known, and it worked to his advantage on the field.
"Anytime we needed a big play, Lyle went out and made it," says Raider defensive tackle Bill Pickel. "There's only one way to see if he's still football-tough—get hit. How he'll hold up, I don't know. But if anyone can do it, he can."
An agonized scream comes from a small room inside Dr. Gary Glum's office, in L.A. It is 10 a.m., and Alzado is lying on his stomach atop a brown velour-covered gurney, biting into a towel, tears streaming down his reddened cheeks. "Enough, enough," he cries. "Aaaaaaaaaagh."
Dr. Glum, whose right elbow is embedded deep into Alzado's left hamstring, reaches under the gurney with his other arm for more leverage. The elbow digs deeper into the hamstring.
Much like a boxer—and Denver fans remember Alzado's threat to pursue a boxing career in 1979 when the Broncos would not renegotiate his contract, a ploy that led to his being traded to Cleveland—Alzado has surrounded himself with trainers and advisers to help him in his comeback attempt. It's a team that borders on the bizarre.
The head trainer, Fred Hatfield, likes to be called Dr. Squat. It's on his license plates. He's a vice-president of Weider Health & Fitness, Inc., in Woodland Hills, Calif., and he's a powerlifting age-group record holder in (what else) the squat lift. Dr. Squat, who has a Ph.D. in sports physiology, has helped to train figure skater Tiffany Chin and boxer Evander Holyfield.
You've already met Dr. Glum, a self-proclaimed neurological reeducator. And there's Pete Siegel, a Marina del Rey hypnotherapist, who is aligning Alzado's "specific sensory factors in a specific sequence to increase his level of inner power." Finally, there is 23-year-old model Cyndi Pass, who moved in with Alzado in January, ostensibly to realign his life and eating habits. "I've been a vegetarian for like 10 years," she says. "It's like, you know, my hobby. We don't drink and we take lots of herbs and stuff."
There are those among the Raider family and the local media who doubt Alzado's motives. The publicity generated by his comeback—newspaper articles and a national talk-show appearance—cannot be bought. He owns a trendy restaurant, Alzado's, in West Hollywood, and he's planning to open another eatery, in Boca Raton, Fla., this summer. And there is his budding career as an actor. Among his credits are his portrayals of a convict recruited to work on an off-shore oil rig in the TV movie Oceans of Fire and a single parent who supplements his teaching job by moonlighting as a pro wrestler in the syndicated TV series Learning the Ropes.
Alzado just signed a two-picture deal with Wind River Productions of Denver, and the shooting of the first film—Destroyer 2: In the Shadow of Death—is scheduled to start in February, on the assumption that he will succeed in his comeback attempt and will not be available until after the NFL season.
"He's got a stack of scripts people want him to read," says Pass, who met Alzado on a shoot for a beachwear company. "But to him, it's football, football, football. He won't even read them. He is just obsessed by this."
A typical workout day for Alzado begins in the company of Dr. Squat, who joins him for an egg-whites omelet at a Venice Beach cafè. Alzado claims he is making this comeback au naturel—meaning no anabolic steroids. He eats six carefully balanced meals a day and swallows a calculated combination of vitamins and amino acids on an hourly schedule. The 6'3" Alzado weighs 264 pounds, almost exactly his old playing weight, and his body fat is 9%. He says he feels better than ever.
An hour of weightlifting at Gold's Gym (actor Jeff Goldblum stops by to offer encouragement) is followed by his one-hour session with Dr. Glum, who pummels Alzado's body with his hands and elbows, kneading kinks and knots out of the player's muscles. A chiropractor, Dr. Glum says he removes adhesion in the muscles to allow for eccentric and concentric contraction. "At first I thought, What am I doing?" Alzado says. "But I started feeling results in two weeks. It's hard to do every day, because the pain is so bad."
After a light lunch and a nap, Alzado joins Dr. Squat and Jeff Turner, a personal trainer, at the beach. They toss a medicine ball in preparation for a session of plyometrics, which exercises the quick-twitch muscles used when one bursts across the line of scrimmage. "If you're wondering what the hell we're doing, don't worry—I am too." Alzado says. Dr. Squat lifts Alzado's legs off the ground and holds them by the ankles while Alzado raises his upper body with his arms. They appear to be ready to run a grade school wheelbarrow race.
"Go," shouts Dr. Squat. Alzado springs up and down on his arms, zigzagging across the sand, as Dr. Squat keeps his legs elevated.
Next comes another hour of weightlifting at the gym, followed by a mind-strengthening session with Siegel, the hypnotherapist, who worked briefly with the New Jersey Devils last year. "Playing on the defensive line in football—well, it's like rams in heat," Siegel says. "They butt heads trying to win the favor of the female. Lyle has this memory information stored in his brain. We want to bring it out at the right time, like Pavlov's dogs."
"I don't know about this," Alzado admits. "I'm always so intense anyway, this could be dangerous."
Nevertheless, Alzado thinks his daily workout routine is unique, so advanced that it will catch on with other athletes. "This won't make you the best athlete in the world," he says. "But it will get done what you want to get done."
The 12 defensive linemen vying for seven spots on the Raider roster trot across the practice field to the blocking sled. The position coach, Bill Urbanik, asks Alzado about the diamond stud in Alzado's left earlobe. "It's radar," Alzado explains. "So I can get signals from the sidelines."
"God, I feel so much younger now that Lyle is here," growls Golic, 32, who lines up near Alzado. "In meetings last night, I looked around at those fresh faces, and then I saw Lyle. I felt so much better."
Alzado leans into a three-point stance and hurls his shoulder into the padded dummy, moving his part of the sled two feet farther than anyone else's. His hits are crisp, his mobility impressive, his strength phenomenal. His new yes-sir attitude catches the coaches off guard, but it's clear that Alzado hasn't totally lost his game face when he rips off the helmet of offensive lineman James FitzPatrick, who was holding him during a drill.
"He did O.K.," Urbanik says of Alzado's camp. "From the films, if you didn't know, you couldn't say there was a big age difference between him and anyone else. I saw a guy attempting to compete."
Alzado has signed a contract with the team, the terms of which have not been disclosed. Alzado says the contract is based on incentives—if he makes the team, if he plays, if he stays healthy. There are no guarantees. "They haven't promised me nothing," he says.
Heading into training camp, which begins on July 20, Urbanik lists Lyle eighth—behind Long, Golic, Scott Davis, Greg Townsend, Mike Wise, Smith and Pickel—in the fight for the seven roster spots. Alzado wants one of them badly.
"I'd go out and sit in the stands over the last four years and watch them lose," he says. "I'd be in agony. I knew I could help. Finally, I decided that maybe I really could. I want another chance so bad. I really missed the violence of the game. It's not like I felt I had to go out and punch somebody out every day or something, but just to hit. Get hit. I'm going to be there after all the cuts are made."
Just watch for a black Mercedes in the parking space for the handicapped.