Dexter Manley had lost them already. He'd spent barely five minutes on stage, and the 400 Anacostia High School students sitting before him had grown tired of his speech, turning instead to their own entertainment.
The group of girls near the back wall stood and danced. A boy sitting up front slipped on head phones. All around Manley, students chatted derisively about the dangers of drugs and drug use -- the topics of the day -- until the chaos swallowed the keynote speaker.
"Anywhere he goes, he gets showered in love and attention. It makes him so happy," Lydia Manley says of her husband Dexter, a former Redskin standout.
(Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
"How can I control them?" Manley recalled thinking as sweat rolled down his face. Control and respect had become the two most important tenets of his life. His desire for both had delivered him to sustained sobriety after almost 20 years of drug abuse, delivered him back to Washington D.C., delivered him to this high school auditorium on a Friday afternoon when, suddenly, control and respect seemed far out of reach.
Manley frantically tapped the microphone. He yelled for quiet. And when nothing worked, he caved to desperation, screaming so loudly that he shocked the students into silence.
"Listen!" Manley said. "I'm up here trying to save your lives."
He's trying to save his own, too, which is why respect and control are paramount. Seeking respect, he moved back to Washington four months ago, to the city that still remembers him more as the thrilling defensive end for the Redskins from 1981 to 1989 than as the self-destructive cocaine and crack addict he became. In Washington and nowhere else, he is approached by well-wishers in restaurants, asked for autographs in malls and -- usually -- valued as a speaker.
Seeking control, he has remodeled his daily life at 46, often waking up at 4 a.m. to exercise before working a regular, eight-hour day as director of community outreach for Second Genesis, a local, non-profit drug rehabilitation program. Manley schedules daily calls with each of his three children and relies on weekly get-togethers with a close group of local friends.
So far, Manley's strategy has worked. He's been clean, he said, for 2 years and 11 months, his longest sober stretch since he began using regularly in 1986. He lives in a modest one-bedroom apartment in Silver Spring with his wife, Lydia, and works to escape the severe debt caused by spending $12 million on an addict's lifestyle.
But even those closest to Manley still celebrate his latest successes with caution. Only about half of crack-cocaine users who undergo treatment kick the addiction, experts say, and Manley has recovered and relapsed a handful of times before. If he loses control and respect, friends said, a relapse is likely.
"The way people react to Dexter here, I'd have to liken it to the president," said Lydia, an engineer and Manley's third wife, whom he married in 1997. "Anywhere he goes, he gets showered in love and attention. It makes him so happy. It heals him. That's why we wanted to come here."
They also wanted to escape Houston, Manley's home town and his self-described hellhole for the last decade. He moved there in 1994, three years after he was kicked out of the NFL for failing his fourth drug test, ending an illustrious career that included two Super Bowl titles and 97.5 sacks.
In Houston, his addiction had worsened. He frequently threatened to commit suicide, calling 911 more than 20 times to keep from hurting himself. He was arrested four times and sent to prison twice.
He stayed clean during his most recent sentence -- two years in a state prison in Humble, Tex. And when he emerged from jail last March, he found Houston hard to stomach.
"I went to visit him right when he got out of jail and everything was a trigger for him," said Dalis, 18, Manley's youngest daughter from his second marriage. "We couldn't drive by this hotel because he had used there, or we couldn't go to that neighborhood because that's where a crack house was. Those streets were haunted."