Dexter Manley

Redskins History 101: Dexter Manley

Dexter Manley has always been a force of nature. And, like all forces of nature, he was at times simultaneously awe-inspiring and beautiful, dangerous and destructive, a human pendulum moving back and forth between glory and disaster. On the football field and in life, we've never quite been able to turn away from the show. During nine dominating seasons, he was both the best of what it meant to be a Washington Redskin, and the worst.

Manley never really had a fighting chance growing up. Born in 1958, the youngest of four children raised in the 3rd Ward of the Houston projects, Manley didn't have a real childhood, mostly he just looked to survive. His father worked as a chauffeur for the Tenneco Oil Company, his mother worked as a nurse's aide, the family crammed into a small house on stilts in the worst area of Houston. Dexter attended school, but from his earliest days he struggled. Hampered by a learning disability that would torment Dexter throughout his life, he was placed in ‘special education' classes where he was brutally teased and mocked as stupid. He never learned to read or write, yet was passed on from grade to grade. He learned to hide his illiteracy well, and somehow managed to progress through school. The highlights of his young life weren't awards, praise or camping trips.

His best friend at Houston's Yates High School was gunned down on a street corner. His brother was murdered. Manley himself is alleged to have burned down a neighbor's house. Manley's girlfriend became pregnant during his senior year, and unbeknownst to his family, they secretly married. Soon afterwards, Dexter's father was diagnosed with colon cancer, and died later that year. That Dexter Manley escaped his troubled youth relatively unscathed was a minor miracle..

In truth, the only place Dexter Manley's life was not a disaster was on the gridiron. Playing linebacker, he made a big enough impression on the football field to receive a scholarship to Oklahoma State University. The school was perhaps the worst possible college destination for a troubled kid like Dexter Manley. Already on NCAA probation, Oklahoma State's football program was notoriously shady, and despite the attention from authorities, it was widely rumored that Manley received a new car and plenty of cash to play. ‘Hollywood', as Dexter referred to himself in college, had a strategy to make it through his courses, despite being barely able to read. He compensated for his inability to read and write well by attending his courses religiously, establishing personal relationships with his professors, and sitting up front in every classroom. Somehow, he managed to stay football-eligible through his four years at Oklahoma State, although he never graduated, falling 50 credit hours shy of the requirement.

Dexter's college football life got tougher when future Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson was brought in during his final two years to clean the program up. Johnson recognized a program and team out of control and quickly reigned them in. His aggressive ‘my way or the highway' approach was not embraced by Manley, with whom the coach had frequent clashes. Despite the animosity between the two, Manley thrived on the field. Playing linebacker, he led the team in tackles 3 straight years. But as would ring true for most of his career, his on-the-field success was marred by off the field problems.

In 1979, Manley divorced his young wife and found himself pursued by officials from the Social Security administration. Manley had apparently lied about his marital status and number of dependents on legal documents, and was fined by a U.S. District Court. Manley also managed to get into a bar fight, coming out on the losing end of a confrontation with a straight razor and earning a 5†scar on his face for his efforts. Still, Manley's football prowess - a rare combination of size, remarkable athleticism and raw power - ensured him a future as a professional football player.

The 6' 3â€, 260 lb., Manley could run a 4.5 40-yard dash, had the fluid moves of a much smaller man, and could bench press 505 lbs. and curl 145 lbs. He caught the attention of many pro scouts, but concerns about his character and decision-making kept him un-drafted in the 1981 NFL Draft until the Washington Redskins decided to take a chance on him in the 5th Round. Manley was selected with the 119th pick of the draft, perhaps one of the best bargains in NFL draft history. Although Manley was clearly an accomplished linebacker, the Redskins felt his amazing quickness and agility were ideally suited for a change to defensive end. Their instincts proved to be on the mark. In his inaugural season, Dexter soon earned the coach's trust and started 9 of 16 games, recording 6 sacks and 67 solo tackles, gaudy numbers for a 5th round project. Despite the Redskins going 8-8 his rookie year, things were looking up in Washington D.C., and Manley was part of a promising future.

In 1982, Manley became the entrenched starter, leading the Redskins in sacks, including one of his most memorable; a brutal hit on Danny White that knocked the Dallas quarterback out of the NFC Championship game. Later in the same game, Manley got a hand on a Gary Hogeboom pass, tipping it into the waiting arms of teammate Darryl Grant, who rumbled in for the decisive touchdown. In the Super Bowl win against Miami, Manley again played a crucial role, knocking the ball out of Miami quarterback David Woodley's hands. Dave Butz recovered the forced fumble to kill a crucial Miami drive. 1982 was Dexter Manley's coming-out party, and he reveled in it.

But despite blossoming on the field, Manley couldn't stay out of trouble long off it. 1982 also marked his first arrest. Stopped by local police for having changed the expiration dates on his car's dealer tags, Manley reportedly claimed to be a sheriff's deputy and was charged with impersonating an officer.

In 1983, Manley was joined by another talented rookie defensive end, Charles Mann. Mann and Manley would become the most feared pair of bookends in the NFL, but they couldn't have been more different. Mann's quiet demeanor and solid-citizen morality contrasted sharply with his flamboyant teammate. As his on-the-field reputation grew, so did the audacity of Dexter Manley's personal antics. He was the self-described ‘Secretary of Defense' one month, the next month shaving his head in a bizarre emulation of John Riggins and dubbing himself ‘Mr. D' in parody of The A-Team's ‘Mr. T.' Quickly becoming a media favorite due to his penchant for providing local broadcasters outrageous quotes, Manley mostly stayed out of trouble from 1983-1984, although his burgeoning salary demands led the Redskins to entertain trade offers with the Colts, Broncos, and Rams.

Ultimately though, the Redskins knew they had a potential pass-rushing force in Manley, and decided to stick with him. Manley was also a fan favorite, partially due to his well-known hatred of the dreaded Dallas Cowboys. Manley actually had a personal collection of ‘I hate Dallas' clothing, most of it sent to him by fans. It was one of his most cherished possessions. He had a taste for Cowboy hats as well, something that ordinarily wouldn't endear him to fans, but he wore them mockingly, a testament to his Texas roots and scorn for ‘America's Team.'

Manley helped the Redskins to a 14-2 record in 1983, although he was a non-factor in a forgettable Super Bowl loss to the Raiders. In 1984, en route to an 11-5 record and a playoff loss to the Bears, Manley recorded an impressive 13 sacks, despite missing 2 games with an ankle injury (these would be the only games Manley would miss due to injury his first 5 seasons, a testament to his toughness and durability). Manley set a club record for sacks in a single season in 1985, recording 15. That year also marked a memorable episode during which Manley left Redskins Park at high speed in his vehicle and managed to total it running into an 18 wheeler in the parking lot of the training facility. Manley claimed he may have had a few drinks and offered to give a urine sample, a warning sign of things to come. But the Redskins let the matter drop.

Luckily for Dexter Manley, Joe Gibbs was a patient, decent man; tough, but also capable of showing troubled players kindness, and not averse to giving a guy like Manley the chance to redeem himself. Its likely, had it not been for the gentle guidance Gibbs provided, that Manley would have self-destructed far earlier in his career.

During the mid-1980s, it seemed like Manley and the Redskins organization still had a handle on his combustible, self-destructive tendencies. In 1986, Manley held out of training camp, claiming the Redskins were paying him ‘pennies' and calling Jack Kent Cooke ‘a miser who's tight with his money.' Somehow, working with local track coaches, Manley stayed in shape during the holdout and eventually got a contract offer he accepted. Despite becoming an ever-increasing source of frustration for the Redskins front office, Manley could play. Lord, could he play. And that helped.

In 1986 Manley had his finest season. Only the legendary Lawrence Taylor had more sacks than Manley, who finished with 18 and, despite his reputation as a problem player and blowhard, earned his only Pro-Bowl appearance along with teammates Darrell Green, Gary Clark, Art Monk, Jay Schroeder, Joe Jacoby and Russ Grimm. Manley clearly should have been selected to the Pro Bowl more often. But he began to show the same brashness and volatility on the field as he always had off it.

Prior to a playoff game with the 49ers, he threatened to ‘ring Joe Montana's clock.' Similarly, he threatened to knock Walter Payton out of a game. Prior to a 1987 playoff game against the Chicago Bears, Mike Ditka raised eyebrows by saying Manley had the ‘IQ of a grapefruit.' Not to be outdone, Manley promptly knocked out Bear's QB Doug Flutie, and after the game brandished a plastic flute with ‘Flutie' engraved on the side of it, snapping it in two with his hands for the benefit of the cameramen at his locker. Manley was later fined $1,000 by Pete Rozelle for the hit on Flutie.

Dexter would later acknowledge the comment by Ditka hurt him badly, since the truth was he could not read and write and often resorted to sitting in front of his locker and pretending to read the Wall Street Journal to hide his illiteracy from teammates. Manley was also hospitalized that same season for several days for what was termed an ‘alcohol-related illness' prompting a brief stay at the Hazelden Foundation, a drug and alcohol rehab facility.

Manley's antics were becoming less charming and amusing, and much more of a team distraction. Still, Manley was as popular as ever with Redskins fans. He had his own TV and radio shows, teaming, much to Joe Gibbs chagrin, with another controversial DC personality, The Greaseman, on a DC-101 radio show. The Redskins went on to win the Super Bowl that year against the Denver Broncos, with Manley recording 1 sack on John Elway. Winning masked a lot of things, and the spiraling out-of-control life of Dexter Manley was seemingly one of them. On the outside, Manley was on top of the world, king of DC, invited to the White House by Presidents, heralded and celebrated everywhere he went. Inside, he was a mess, and it was about to get far, far worse.

The warning signs were there, the storm brewing on the horizon. During the 1987 season, Manley had failed his first drug test, testing positive for an unnamed banned substance. It was the beginning of the end, the first crack in a carefully guarded veneer. Manley had no real friends on the team. His teammates and coaches cared, but none were close enough, nor would Manley allow anyone close enough, to reach out and help him.

Although the Redskins struggled to a mediocre 7-9 record in 1988, missing the playoffs for the first time in 3 years, Manley continued to produce. Although he led his team in tackles that year, Dexter was snubbed by Pro-Bowl voters in favor of Charles Mann, despite Manley earning twice as many sacks as his teammate. His reputation was beginning to take a toll on his legacy. 1988's memorable Dexter moment was one in which Manley reportedly spit in the face of the New Orleans Saint Jim Dombrowski during a game the Redskins ultimately won, 27-24. Dombrowski exploded, punching Manley in the face and earning a 15-yard personal foul. The penalty turned a 37-yard FG attempt into a 53-yarder, which kicker Morten Anderson promptly missed. The FG turned out to be the winning margin. After the game, Manley jubilantly claimed he'd only sneezed.

The 1988 season marked a worsening of Manley's ever more obvious drug and alcohol problems. He failed his 2nd drug test in 1988 and was given a 30-day suspension. In May, 1989, Manley testified before a Senate committee on illiteracy. His tearful confession that he had not been able to read at an adult level until age 28, and the pain he'd experienced concealing his secret for years, held those in attendance transfixed. His testimony, coupled with his successful 4-year academic stay at a major university, prompted a firestorm of outrage and spurred NCAA rules changes affecting college athletics across the United States.

During training camp in 1989, Manley's undisciplined personal lifestyle finally came home to roost, as he failed his 3rd drug test and was given a lifetime ban by then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue. A year later, eligible to apply for reinstatement, Manley did so, and showing incredible mercy, Commissioner Tagliabue granted Manley a final chance. Jack Kent Cooke, Joe Gibbs, and the Redskins, however, had seen enough. Despite Manley's incredible on-the-field accomplishments, he had become a distraction and was hurting the team. Many of his teammates also felt his play had tailed off considerably during the previous two seasons, something Manley himself vehemently denied. But his days in burgundy and gold were over. He left the Redskins as the all-time sack leader in Redskins history. He held the team record (along with Diron Talbert) for most single-game sacks (4).

Waived by the Redskins, Manley was picked up by the Phoenix Cardinals, where he played an unremarkable single season before being traded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. There, Manley failed his final drug test and was permanently banned forever from playing in an NFL uniform.

Manley finished his career with an incredible 97 career sacks (46 of those sacks during a 3 year period where Manley literally terrorized opposing NFL quarterbacks). At the time of his final ban, he held the 4th-highest sack total in NFL history. Essentially ending his career at age 32, there's no guessing how many more he might have achieved if he'd been able to resist the lure of drugs and remained a productive player.

Following his NFL ban, Manley played two lackluster seasons for the Canadian Football League's Ottawa Rough Riders, creating so much havoc on the team that several coaches resigned after being forced to play Manley by the team owner. Manley blamed the problems on jealous teammates. His football career over, Manley struggled to maintain control of his life. He was arrested 4 more times between 1994 and 1995, mostly on minor drug possession charges. His 2nd marriage failed, and he became estranged from his two sons, Derrick and Dexter II, and only daughter Dalis (named because he learned of his wife's pregnancy while at Texas Stadium before a game).

In 1995, Manley called up a local WTTG reporter, Steve Buckhantz, with whom he'd developed a friendship. Manley told the reporter to ‘spread my ashes over RFK.' Worried for Manley, Buckhantz called the police, who found Manley in a hotel room along with some crack cocaine and arrested him. Given a choice, Manley declined the opportunity to go into another drug rehab program, opting instead to spend 15 months in prison.

Manley says the prison stint saved his life. He was granted a special leave in 1996 to attend the final game ever at RFK stadium, a win against the Cowboys. Manley, along with a number other famous Redskins, was honored at half-time. Manley was released from prison, and in September of 2000 was inducted into the Redskins Ring of Fame along with Hall of Fame Coach Joe Gibbs and wide receiver Art Monk. He seemed to be turning the corner, and perhaps finally be poised to turn his life around. Early in 2001, Manley had been in Florida promoting an upcoming boxing match with Anthony Munoz for the ‘Tough Bowl,' a Super Bowl halftime alternative show (Manley lost the fight). Shortly thereafter, Manley was at a hotel where police had been called to investigate another matter. Manley had apparently suffered a relapse. Upon seeing the police, Manley panicked, dropping a crack pipe to the ground, and shoved some crack cocaine into his mouth attempting to swallow it. He was arrested, and this time sentenced to a 2-year prison term at the Lychner State Jail in Humble, Texas. Manley was released in Spring of 2004, and claims to have finally come to terms with his addiction.

While a true Redskins fan always wants to remember his childhood heroes for what they did on the field, it is impossible to look at Dexter Manley's life without recognizing the struggles he has had off the field. I remember Manley as one of the most fearsome and dominating defensive ends ever to pursue an NFL quarterback. He was a player who talked the talk, and when it counted, walked the walk. He had a gregarious, joyous personality and a ready smile for all who met him. He was strong, amazingly swift for a man of his size, and gracefully athletic. He was a thing of both beauty and terror to watch. And although one hesitates to call Dexter Manley's life story a tragedy, it is certainly a sad tale. I think Dexter himself would describe it that way.

Manley, despite all his flaws, was happiest on the football field, where he played with joy, skill, wild abandon and passion. Joe Gibbs recognized it in him, and has spoken on Dexter's behalf throughout many of his personal and legal ordeals, because he glimpsed something worthwhile in a man it would be easy enough to cast off, give up on, or marginalize. I hope that Mr. Manley experiences the same joy and peace of mind in future days as he did on the football field as a Washington Redskin. As a fan, he provided me with so many glorious unforgettable football moments, I can only wish him the best of luck.


‘I want everyone to know my name'

- Dexter Manley, 1982

‘It just doesn't feel the same, it seems like the towns in an uproar I guess because Mikhail Gorbachev is here. Its kind of slowing things down. I wish he'd get the hell out of town. The Redskins - Cowboys game is bigger than what's happening at the summit'

- Dexter Manley, 1987

‘Oh, Dexter was a monster. He was as physically gifted a football player as I've ever seen'

- Charles Mann, 2004

‘You didn't fail sir. The system failed you.'

- Democratic Senator Barbara Mikulski at Senate committee on illiteracy, 1989

‘The Beast, cocaine, is the only thing that could stop me. I had so much going on but drugs, cocaine, crack, the Beast, it ruled my life, controlled my very being. Otherwise, I couldn't be stopped'

- Dexter Manley, 2004

‘But I have to say, no matter what I did, I did it to myself. If you can tell those guys playing in the Super Bowl one thing, tell them this - don't take my road. Don't let football use you. Use football. Maximize it. Walk the straight line. Don't be another Dexter Manley. Please, don't be another Dexter Manley'

- Dexter Manley, 2004

‘I want to build my life and put it back together again. I'm going to make smart decisions. I have a willingness to stay sober'

- Dexter Manley, 2004
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