If you’ve never heard Dexter Manley laugh, you’ve missed out. The former Redskins defensive end — who is still the franchise’s all-time sack leader — has a squealing chuckle that matches his rather high pitched voice. But in “Dexter Manley: A Football Life,” which premieres Friday at 9 p.m. on NFL Network, we see mostly tears from the man nicknamed “The Secretary of Defense.”
For football fans of a certain age, Manley is a household name. A ferocious defensive end from 1981-89 in D.C., drugs derailed his career and eventually cost him his freedom. This film takes you back to the beginning: Houston, Texas. Growing up in the Third Ward, Manley latched on to sports as a way to make it out of his poor neighborhood and impress his father.
For Redskins fans, though, there are a couple goose bumps moments. The documentary begins with Manley walking through the bowels of RFK Stadium.
“Wow … look at this here. It’s been a lot of years, since I’ve been in here,” a smiling Dexter Manley says as he walks out of the dugout tunnel.”I’m sort of speechless right now. I still got it though, boy!”
Then he takes off down the field, across the bright green grass, with his trademark smile looking right in to the camera.
“If I had to draw a football player, that’s it right there.” Joe Theismann says.
Manley then visits his childhood home, where he details what life was like as the least liked of his brothers by his dad. It wasn’t until recruiters starting showing up at their door that he really believed his son Dexter had a future. After making it through Oklahoma State (though not without a facial scar he got a frat party), the fun begins on his whirlwind NFL career.
It’s easy to forget just how good of a player Manley was. His personality, memorably was even bigger. The old footage of No. 72 sacking quarterbacks with moves that would be nowhere close to legal now is fun to watch. It’s easy to forget he once played special teams, too. The shots of fans at RFK shouting “We Want Dallas!” ahead of the 1982 NFC Championship game is borderline chilling, considering where that franchise is now. It’s also the first time we see Manley cry, when he tears up thinking about the emotion of that moment as a rookie.
He battled a ball in the air that led to a pick-six in that game, then went on to predict the team’s Super Bowl XVII win. His sack fumble in that matchup was a crucial turning point. He had survived a public feud with Mike Ditka, who said he had the IQ of a grapefruit, then became a Super Bowl champion again five years later.
Then comes the fall.
The rest of the film is an unflinching look at exactly how Manley’s career came to a close. He revealed to a U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Education, Arts, and Humanities that he was functionally illiterate. Teammates tell stories about how only later did they realize the giveaways. Then his drug abuse starts to infiltrate his football life. Next thing you know, he finds himself out of the league and homeless in his hometown.
“It was difficult for him being a part of the world of celebrity. He wanted it so bad, but he didn’t know what to do with it when he got it,” Theismann says. “How many people do we all know, that live with demons. And you have no idea.”
Eventually, Manley comes around to crediting Steve Buckhantz with saving his life. In the throes of depression and contemplating suicide, Manley called Buckhantz, with whom he’d done TV work. Buckhantz, then at Fox 5, called the Houston police. The subsequent jail sentence made the former defensive end realize just how close to disaster he was.
“That’s when I realized that I’m not me. I had lost control. Steve Buckhantz pretty much saved my life,” Manley said.
There are a lot of tears in this movie. Manley is a guy whose emotions were always worn on his sleeve, and through the interviews for the film and old footage, we see a lot of the big man crying. If you aren’t familiar with Manley’s road to redemption, it includes learning to read at The Lab School of Washington, getting a job with a Houston lawyer who was a fan and re-establishing a relationship with his now adult children. He has been sober for nearly a decade and lives in Bethesda.
Longtime Redskins supporters will appreciate the trip down memory lane and the extensive cameos from former teammates. NFL fans might appreciate a look into the life of a man whose career and post-career downfall were both somehow dwarfed by the New York Giants’ Lawrence Taylor. Dexter Manley has lived a hell of a long 56 years.
“If you can look at his life and learn anything,” ESPN columnist Michael Wilbon says in the film. “It’s don’t give up on yourself no matter how bad things get.”