“Lyle Alzado – A Football Life” premieres Friday, November 21st at 9pm/ET on NFL Network.
by Neil Zender, Co-Producer
HISTORY HAS NOT BEEN KIND TO LYLE ALZADO. He was once one of the brightest stars in the National Football League; the most intimidating player in football; a fixture on Johnny Carson; and one of Madison Avenue’s most sought after pitchmen. Today, more than two decades after his death in 1992, he’s largely forgotten and mostly remembered for an iconic Sports Illustrated cover that broke the silence on performance enhancing drugs.
Long before cable television was revolutionized by Tony Soprano and Walter White, Alzado captivated the football world by reveling in playing the anti-hero. He was the face of three franchises – the Denver Broncos, the Cleveland Browns and the Los Angeles Raiders – and a master showman with the manic flair of a professional wrestler. He was also a human volcano. As Sports Illustrated noted “Alzado has one of the worst tempers the NFL has known.” Fans dubbed Alzado “Darth Raider”, Howie Long called him “Three Mile Lyle” after the nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island. He played with a fury and intensity that even in that bygone era could be troubling. Alzado once threatened to decapitate Joe Theismann and the NFL had to re-write its Rulebook because of his imaginative use of a football helmet.
“Darth Raider” loved a good donnybrook. “If me and King Kong went into an alley,” Alzado famously said, “only one of us is coming out. And it ain’t the monkey.” Out of admiration, he challenged his greatest hero, Muhammad Ali, to a fight. Alzado wanted to prove that a football player could go toe-to-toe with the Heavyweight Champion of the World and in July of 1979 did just that, taking on Ali at Mile High Stadium in one of the most bizarre and entertaining events in sports history.
He was, despite all the bravado, a great football player. Sacks were not an official statistic until the tail end of Alzado’s 15-year career but he was one of the premiere pass rushers of his generation, by one estimate recording 112 ½ career sacks, an impressive number now, jaw dropping then. When he joined the Broncos, the Browns and the Raiders, each team had a losing record. With Alzado as their spiritual leader, the Broncos reached Super Bowl XII, the Raiders won Super Bowl XVIII and Cleveland’s Kardiac Kids came close to the prize, losing in the 1980 playoffs on the notorious play “Red Right 88” .
Despite playing the bad guy, Alzado was a good man. He was a tireless advocate for children’s causes and frequently won NFL Man of the Year Awards for his philanthropy. In 100 Things a Raider Fan Should Know and Do Before They Die, Paul Gutierrez notes, “Off the field, Alzado was known as a gentle giant, often visiting children’s hospitals and raising $10 million for charity.”
He starred in Hollywood camp classics like Ernest Goes to Camp, made a guest appearance as a licensed physician on Trapper John, M.D., mocked his own image as a high school teacher who moonlights as a professional wrestler in his own sitcom, Learning the Ropes, and challenged Jane Fonda’s Workout by releasing his own exercise video.
All that, of course, has been forgotten. Alzado’s public admission to using Steroids changed everything. “I Lied,” he told Sports Illustrated. What was a Lie? And what was the Truth? What was Steroids? And what was the real Lyle Alzado? A Football Life: Lyle Alzado will answer those questions.
LYLE ALZADO: A Football Life is produced by Neil Zender and Greg Bocchetti. The film premieres Friday, November 21st at 9 p.m. eastern on NFL Network.