By Mike Wise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 5, 2010; D01
FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA.
For almost 10 years, Dexter Manley asked his friend and benefactor the same question any retired NFL gladiator with gnarled fingers here this week would demand to know: "What happened to my Super Bowl ring?"
John O'Quinn stalled at first -- and then lied.
O'Quinn told the former defensive end that the showy championship ring he won as a Washington Redskin on Jan. 30, 1983, had been given to Manley's wife, Lydia, for safekeeping.
When Lydia told her husband, "You know I don't have it, Dexter," O'Quinn hid the ring, where no one could ever pawn it for drug money again.
"Part of me had a resentment," Manley says now. "I'd be clean for nine months and say, 'Where is it?' and O'Quinn would say, 'I gave it to your wife,' and we kept going back and forth until I would just forget for a while.
"Another part of me knew why he did it and understood that that might have been one of his greatest gifts to me."
The ring was first given to a big-eyed pass rusher for his efforts in crumpling David Woodley, causing the Dolphins quarterback to fumble almost 30 years ago, the night the Redskins won Super Bowl XVII, the franchise's first. It went on to symbolize the depths one man could fall.
John O'Quinn never played in a Super Bowl. But as one of the nation's most prominent trial attorneys in Manley's home town of Houston, the flamboyant millionaire shared the player's hyper-competitiveness, his life and career as frenetic as the 6-foot-3, 250-pound man he called "Dex" through his South Texas twang. O'Quinn had gone almost two decades without losing a case when he met the former Redskins player through another attorney in the mid-1990s.
At the time of their meeting, Manley was trying to "beat the beast," the addiction to cocaine that led to a lifetime banishment from the NFL in 1991. After crack cocaine brought Manley back home to Houston, after he began treating rehab centers as if they were musical chairs, unsuccessfully jumping from one to the next, he got the gumption to ask O'Quinn for a job in 1998.
Manley, O'Quinn knew, could not read until he was 30 years old, an indictment of the college sports machine more concerned with performance on the field than in the classroom. O'Quinn hired him on good faith at the prominent firm he founded. Manley flourished as a researcher and was eventually given his own office on the firm's main floor.
The relationship between the two men grew, to the point where O'Quinn told Lydia, during one of Dexter's relapses, "Don't stop talking to him. He might not hear everything. But he hears something. We all hear something."
"John loved Dexter and believed in him," said Gerald Treece, O'Quinn's best friend, former partner and now the associate dean at the Southwest Texas College of Law. "A lot of people don't know this, but he was fighting his own monster at the time. Alcoholism almost got him, but he wouldn't let it. He understood Dexter's fight for sobriety and the destructive things the disease made you do."
During a relapse in 1998, Manley walked into a pawn shop in the southwest part of Houston. Low on cash, on the verge of eviction, he took the first of two Super Bowl rings he won in Washington and gave it to the man behind the counter.
Manley walked out with $5,000, which soon disappeared in puffs of white smoke. And that was that. The symbol of the grit he had shown as a champion, the grime on his mud-caked jersey, was gone.
O'Quinn heard the story second-hand. Unbeknownst to Manley, he walked into that pawn shop about a year later to find the ring had not yet been sold.
Forking over the $15,000 resale value in cash, he presented the ring to Manley as a gift on Aug. 5, 1999, as he and Lydia hopped aboard O'Quinn's Learjet to attend the Hall of Fame induction of Eric Dickerson in Canton, Ohio.
"I couldn't believe it -- I couldn't believe O'Quinn would do such an unbelievable thing," Manley said.
But after the weekend was over, the recovering addict in him gave the ring back, "for safekeeping."
"I didn't want to pawn it again," Manley said. "See, in order to know your history, you got to know yourself. I knew myself enough to know someone else needed to have that ring then."
Thus began the shell game played by O'Quinn over the next decade, continuing even after Manley left O'Quinn's firm and returned to the Washington area with his family to start a new life.
"John kept telling him he gave it to me on the plane that day and finally I said to him, 'Dexter, you know John has it,' " Lydia recalled on Wednesday night by telephone from Houston. "I said, 'He's not giving it back to you yet because he doesn't believe you're whole. He still thinks the ring needs to be safe."The ring resurfaces
Manley thought he would never know of its whereabouts after Oct. 29 of last year, the moment his boss at Certified Building Services in Bethesda informed him of a tragedy: O'Quinn died at age 68 with his personal driver in a single-car crash in Houston.
About a week after his death Dexter called Treece, the executor of O'Quinn's estate, to share condolences. "The first time I smiled after John's death," Treece recalled. "Dexter was so much like John -- a golden heart who would do anything for anybody."
Near the end of the conversation, Manley remembered the ring. "Dean Treece, help me out. Do you know what happened to it?" he asked.
"I said, 'Let me speak to Lydia,' " Treece said. "I had specific instructions I had to speak to her."
O'Quinn, in turned out, had put Manley's ring in a safe-deposit box years ago. He had written a note to Treece "with explicit instructions," Lydia said.
"He would only give the ring back if Dexter was now sober and healthy," said Lydia, whose husband has not had a relapse since June 16, 2006. "That was real important. He asked me that about four times."
Said Treece, "John beat his monster. He had to know Dexter was beating his own."
Afraid to send the heirloom by mail, Treece suggested Lydia reclaim the ring for Dexter during her annual trip to Las Vegas over Super Bowl weekend with friends.
On Wednesday night, pulling her rental car up to Treece's office in the rain, she swallowed hard, got out and walked in. "I'm a little nervous," Lydia said.
After visiting briefly with Treece, he gave her the ring, which she admired before she phoned her husband.
It is 18-carat solid gold, heavy and gaudy. On its crown is a diamond-encrusted football with burgundy backing. One side is engraved with the Roman numerals XVII and the words "Super Bowl." Under the words "Hail to the Redskins" are the Lombardi Trophy and the Capitol. Engraved on the other side is "MANLEY," which sits above a Redskins helmet and his No. 72.
"It's beautiful," Lydia said. "When I called Dexter and told him, 'I got it,' he got very excited and emotional."
Manley trudged through the convention center in South Florida here Thursday among other former NFL gladiators, their gnarled fingers poking through large pieces of ornate gold. The gaudy rings, they tell themselves, make up for the limps and the arthritic hips and the surgeries.
When Manley gets home to Washington next week, the ring he once pawned will be his again. It still signifies the bonding of men, including those who never played the game.
"Not a day goes by I don't think about O'Quinn," Manley said. "He was loyal. He understood. He was a brilliant man. He knew what would happen if he gave it to me then. Not to say that I don't still struggle, but I don't have temptation anymore."
Said Lydia, "It's bittersweet because John is gone. If I had courage and compassion second to none, John had courage, compassion and resources second to none. I have to believe that's what he was sent here for: to help people like Dexter.
"And you know what? He fulfilled his purpose. He kept that ring safe. He kept that ring safe until Dexter could keep himself safe."