Alonzo Spellman Head In The Game

Discussion in 'History Zone' started by KD, Apr 16, 2006.

  1. KD

    KD Well-Known Member

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    By David Haugh
    Tribune staff reporter

    April 15, 2006, 8:29 PM CDT

    LAS VEGAS -- A shock of hair aptly describes the blond, bushy mass on top of Alonzo Spellman's head.

    Spellman still looks every bit the football Adonis the Bears selected in the first round of the 1992 NFL draft, with the same sinewy, sharply defined triceps and pectoral muscles ripped like someone posing for the cover of a romance novel. He still wears a familiar No. 90 jersey, though for the Las Vegas Gladiators of the Arena Football League, and rushes the passer as if the quarterback has stolen his lunch money.


    But as Spellman exited his tan SUV and ambled across the parking lot last week before practice at the Thomas and Mack Center, puffing a cigarette every couple of steps, the most noticeable change appeared to be above the shoulders.

    That was even before Spellman, 34, started talking like a man focused more on rehabilitating a life beset by bipolar disorder than on a football career.

    Asked about his new 'do, Spellman answered, "I'm letting my hair do what it wants to do for the first time in my life."

    Then he paused, as if to acknowledge the irony.

    Spellman's situation, which requires him to take medication daily, meet with a therapist weekly and submit to blood tests every two weeks, never has entailed more structure. His hair, which he shaved during most of his NFL career, never has received less maintenance.

    "Usually it's groomed this way or that way, but as long as I keep it clean, keep it respectful, it's OK," Spellman said, rubbing his head. "If you get caught up in the look of it, that's your problem."

    Bears fans can see for themselves next Sunday when the Gladiators play the Rush at Allstate Arena and Spellman returns to Chicago for the first time as a professional football player since his stormy departure from Halas Hall.

    Spellman's appearance in town six days before the NFL draft also could serve as a reminder to draftniks that the next can't-miss prospect just might miss and finish his career in a remote football outpost where the sport is an afterthought.

    That is, as Spellman is doing.

    Nowadays, the only can't-miss things about Spellman are his golden locks and matching goatee. A thoughtful Spellman stroked the scraggly beard often as he described how he differs from the man once so troubled that he threatened suicide in a bizarre 10-hour standoff with police at his former publicist's Tower Lakes home eight years ago.

    And Spellman wasn't referring to the changes in his appearance.

    "You can't look at the outside cover of Alonzo Spellman and say this is what you're getting, not with me," Spellman said.

    The blond's ambition every day is to make the inner Spellman feel as relaxed as the outer Spellman looks. A recent episode during a Gladiators team flight suggested, as friends have, that Spellman uses humor to hasten the process.

    A computer glitch forced the airline to assign seats manually on an alphabetical basis, sandwiching the 6-foot-4-inch, 301-pound Spellman in a middle seat. A flight attendant advised him to stand up and announce he wanted to change seats and see if a passenger would accommodate him.

    The woman clearly did not realize that in July 2002, Spellman had been sentenced to 18 months in federal prison for disrupting a Delta Air Lines flight in a bipolar rage so violent that he threatened to tear off a lavatory door and rip open the pilot's throat.

    So when he was advised how to handle the seating situation, he just smirked.

    "The last time I did that," Spellman deadpanned, "I got 18 months."

    Spellman bent over to touch his toes at the front of the calisthenics line, one of five Gladiators to lead the team in stretching before practice. A player belched loudly, cutting through the chatter, and Spellman and several teammates laughed.

    A few minutes earlier, two Gladiators staged a good-natured wrestling match in the end zone. A nearby conversation between teammates assessed the appearance of a waitress who had served them the previous night. Others made fun of a new player who got lost on his way to the locker room.


    More than anything, this was the type of camaraderie Spellman missed, the male bonding he sought when he paid money to attend a tryout camp last spring and start the clock on his football comeback. This is the medicine Spellman considers almost as powerful as the daily cocktail he ingests to combat his bipolar disorder.

    "If you're on the manic side of bipolar, you're going to need a job," Spellman said. "You can't sit still."

    Lined up over the ball during a team drill at his converted AFL position of middle guard, Spellman loudly reminded his defensive teammates of the importance of their next game.

    "Got to make plays this week, fellas, let's pick it up!" Spellman said in a voice that commands respect, similar to James Earl Jones'.

    One play later, he stuffed a running back diving into his hole and loudly announced to his defensive linemates, "They won't make a living off that [stuff], I'll tell you that."

    "Alonzo sets a good example," Las Vegas coach Ron James said. "He has a very deep sense of making the point, 'Don't let what happened to me happen to you guys because you can take control of who you are as a person.'"

    Worthwhile target

    James pursued the one-time first-round pick relentlessly, navigating the family maze in Willingboro, N.J., that had insulated Spellman from the day he left prison in November 2003 after serving 16 months. Spellman did not own a cell phone and often stayed at relatives' homes between odd jobs.

    "It was like he was a man without a country," James recalled.

    One day last summer, James dialed Spellman's mother's home just as her son had come through the door. She handed him the phone, finally.

    "I made arrangements to fly out there because I needed a face-to-face meeting," James said. "And I found him to be earnest."

    By then, all 32 NFL teams had informed Spellman either directly or through intermediaries that his age and erratic medical history made him too big a risk even to invite to training camp. Concerns over another meltdown, deteriorated skills or Spellman's commitment to staying on his medication trumped his 43 sacks in 123 NFL games. Those concerns remain, if off-the-record conversations with a handful of NFL scouts and personnel types are any indication.

    "I wanted to go to the big show, no doubt about that, but when I found out what the buzz was behind closed doors and what was really being said about me, I had braced myself for the negativity," Spellman said.

    "Canada and NFL Europe didn't work out, probably for the same reasons, but then I had a chance in the AFL to be part of something that's growing. … That's progress."

    Progress on several fronts

    The progress Spellman showed personally clinched the deal. Before going to prison, Spellman never truly believed he needed his medication as badly as his missteps eventually taught him. But he educated himself about how chemical imbalances in the brain set off the manic-depressive illness that afflicts an estimated 2.3 million Americans.

    In time, Spellman came to grips with the reality that the well-being of a man as large as him depends on a few tiny pills.

    "Bipolar disorder is like a diet program that is specifically for each person," Spellman said. "Everybody who suffers from bipolar, they suffer in a different way. The only thing that's consistent is you have to have a physician and you have to take your medicine. You have to be extremely responsible about your outside stresses in your life. I know that now."

    If Spellman starts talking too fast or using mannerisms that suggest he is on the verge of a manic episode, for example, he relies on his therapist to notice. He lives with his 4-year-old daughter and her mother in an apartment complex about 10 miles from the Strip, where the rest of the Gladiators reside in team-furnished housing, so keeping an eye on Spellman involves a community effort.

    The Gladiators' medical staff also oversees the distribution of medication and schedules biweekly blood tests to ensure he takes it. That was a condition of the one-year contract Spellman signed, rigid guidelines his parole officer had to endorse because of his probationary status.

    "Alonzo and I had come to the agreement early in the negotiations we were not going to use this as a bridge to get him back to the NFL," Las Vegas general manager Dan Dolby said. "He was using this as an opportunity to continue to do something he loves, get paid for it, and get that football fix that he really needs in his life."

    Dolby said he plans to soon extend Spellman's contract two or three years. Spellman has honored his commitment to good mental health off the field by taking his medication. On the field, he has volunteered to anything and everything, including covering kicks because "I live for physical contact," Spellman said.

    Andrew Siciliano, the Gladiators' play-by-play announcer who also covered Spellman with the Bears as a reporter in Chicago, was at Soldier Field on Sept. 2, 1996, when the defensive end proclaimed after a dominant defensive performance in a 22-6 victory over the Cowboys, "There's a new sheriff in town!"

    Siciliano has seen glimpses of that same intimidating presence a decade later.

    "He's still the biggest, meanest [guy] out there," Siciliano said. "He still has that look in his eye that says, 'Stay away.' When the other team is standing on the field before the game and Alonzo walks out in a T-shirt, jaws still drop."

    His salary is hardly jaw-dropping. Dolby would not divulge details, but Spellman, who has one sack and five tackles this season, is thought to make slightly more than the league average of $85,000.

    "He's not making the type of money he did in the NFL, but this has given him the opportunity to raise his family, provide benefits and be a productive member of the Las Vegas community," Dolby said.

    Leadership role

    Teammates who initially had to be sold on Spellman's sanity now pepper him with questions about the NFL and tease him about issues in his past that were previously taboo. In that way the Gladiators treat Spellman as one of the guys, which is all he really wanted when he started the comeback.

    "There was a little trepidation at first because we all knew his story, but we didn't know the real story until we met him and got comfortable," receiver Joe Douglass said. "He's not afraid to talk about what he has gone through."

    Eleven-year AFL veteran Wilky Bazile laughed when asked whether Las Vegas, a place full of moral land mines, provided an appropriate setting for someone trying to put his life back together one cautious step at a time. Bazile has known Spellman since his Syracuse team played Spellman's Ohio State squad in the 1992 Hall of Fame Bowl.

    "If you have no discipline, Vegas is the city of Sodom and Gomorrah because there's a lot of filthy, evil stuff," Bazile said. "But 'Zo doesn't go out now. He does stuff with his family. He laughs a lot and is philosophical. He's a deep dude."

    Example: Spellman considers playing defensive line the purest form of expression. So in his mind, he is simply an artist expressing himself.

    "I want to show my art form, and if I get some cheers for it, wonderful. But if not …" he said, shrugging his shoulders.

    If not, Spellman says he finds all the adulation he needs at home with his daughter and girlfriend or in the family back east that stuck with him through adversity after he supported many of them with the millions he made in the NFL.

    For Spellman, the return to football isn't about rediscovering fame or fortune. It is about rediscovering a purpose.

    "What I used to think about first when I left work was what part of the fast lane I was going to get in, but now as long as my family is cool, I'm happy," he said. "All my brothers and sisters are doing wonderful [financially], and it's all thanks to Alonzo Spellman.

    "When I get on my knees and speak to Jesus, I'm like, 'Look, Jesus, just make sure I'm able to help other people around me as long as I possibly can.'

    "Because Alonzo is going to be all right."

  2. k19

    k19 Active Member

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    glad to see he's TRYING to get it together again. Unfortunately we've been there done that with him. Move along nothing to see here :D

  3. burmafrd

    burmafrd Benched

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    Actually from all accounts it seems he finally gets it- never to get off medication again. He is too old now to make it back to the NFL, but he seems to be fairly happy now. Considering all that happened to him, that is actually quite an accomplishment. He certainly had more reasons for messing up then morons like Clarret, White and company.
  4. KD

    KD Well-Known Member

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    ^^^^^ Outstanding post, agree 100 percent. ^^^^^
  5. CrazyCowboy

    CrazyCowboy Well-Known Member

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    Nice read...thanks
  6. Yeagermeister

    Yeagermeister Active Member

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    Good for him at least he's trying to get his act together. It's not easy to do.
  7. big dog cowboy

    big dog cowboy THE BIG DOG Staff Member

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    Hopefully at 34, he is finally getting everything figured out. He is still a young man.
  8. Lifetimeboyzfan

    Lifetimeboyzfan Well-Known Member

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    Can't imagine how anyone would do anything but pull for Alonzo whole heartedly.
  9. jrumann59

    jrumann59 Well-Known Member

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    Bipolar disease is tough thing to treat and in men I can imagine its harder due to pride and in some cases the drugs cause sexual dysfunction. My brother in law has it and every year or so he has to go in for test just to make sure they have the dosages right because they can change from time to time. Many mentally ill people have to stumble and fall repeatedly before they realize they are stuck with what they have and no amount of pill popping will make it go away permanently. Many feel after a period of time that they got it beat then they go off meds and at first they are fine then things go down hill, they all strive to be normal even though they probably know they never will be.
  10. 2much2soon

    2much2soon Well-Known Member

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    I agree. I have had several friends and family members who suffer(ed) with it.
    Two friends committed suicide.
    It really ticks me off when people like the genius Sean Salisbury equate this with drug/alcohol abuse as he did once when Spellman and Underwood were having their problems.
    There is some degree of choice involved with drug/alcohol additions, there is none with mental health problems.
  11. cowboyeric8

    cowboyeric8 Chicks dig crutches

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    I liked Spellman and I wish him the best of luck.

    And I will never forget this


    He knew how to represent:)

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