SI Vault
Sarah Pileggi
December 12, 1977
Off the field, Lyle Alzado is a tireless worker for charitable causes; on it he shows no mercy as the head pulper for Denver's Orange Crush defense
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December 12, 1977

No End With This End

Off the field, Lyle Alzado is a tireless worker for charitable causes; on it he shows no mercy as the head pulper for Denver's Orange Crush defense

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Alzado is at his best, though, when he is mixing it up with people. His face, with its Mesopotamian sort of nose as centerpiece, is framed by a thick black beard and decorated with a mustache that in its downward droop is more Middle Eastern than Oriental. He looks fierce and dangerous, even in repose. But as he awes people with his size and presence, he disarms them with broad grins, friendly needles, gentle jabs to the biceps, and questions about their wives, children, jobs and problems. And if all else fails, he will, like some demented puppeteer, make his pectoral muscles dance individually.

At the NFL Players Association awards banquet last June at Chicago's Hilton Hotel, Alzado was given the Byron (Whizzer) White Award for his exceptional record of community service. There is a photo in his house in Denver that shows Alzado at the banquet with an arm draped around the trophy and his eyes filled with tears that are about to spill over onto the ruffled front of his evening shirt. The emotion was genuine, but the source debatable. It may have been the award, but it may also have been meeting Muhammad Ali face to face, an event that Alzado considers the greatest thrill of his life.

Officially, Alzado won the Whizzer White Award because he seems to be involved in more charitable causes than Jerry Lewis and Sammy Davis Jr. put together—cancer, cystic fibrosis, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, diabetes and leukemia. But there are at least a dozen other Denver organizations to which Alzado gives his time, from Children's Hospital to the Police Athletic League. He has spread himself rather thin lately. On a recent Tuesday, his only day off each week during the season, he went from Children's Hospital to the Cancer Society to a junior high school drug-prevention center called The Untouchables and found himself having to say again and again, "I'm sorry. I'll be able to do more once the season is over."

As Alzado dealt with administrators his face grew sad and his body suddenly seemed too big for its allotted space. But when he walked quietly into the hospital rooms of sick adolescents, his spirits rose and his movements became graceful again. He teased them, made them giggle. He asked about the framed photographs on the tables beside their beds and he signed dozens of autographs, one of them for a frail, redheaded boy named Dale who slept through it all. At one point a father came out into the corridor to shake Alzado's hand, led him back to his child's bedside, and then got watery-eyed as he watched the delight in his child's face.

"I love Denver," said Alzado. " Denver's been so much to me I can't imagine I'd ever want to live anyplace else." He was feeling good, so he sang along with the Bee Gees on the car radio. "Boy, I like those guys," he said, interrupting himself. "More than anything I'd like to be an entertainer, out on a stage in a flashy suit, singing, telling jokes. You know the Hudson Brothers? They're my all-round favorites. They sing, dance, do comedy. I told them once, 'I'd love to switch places with you guys for a year.' And they said, 'You're on.'

"I owe everything to football," he said, fingering a huge diamond ring whose stones formed 77, his uniform number. "How else could I be known everywhere I go? People treat you like you're the President or something if you're a football player. It's ridiculous. Without football I'd probably be dealing dope on a street corner or sitting in a jail somewhere."

Dissolve to Inwood, a community on New York's Long Island, just east of the New York City line but not far enough removed to be a suburb. Inwood is part of an area known as the Five Towns—Inwood, Hewlett, Cedarhurst, Woodmere and Lawrence. It has long been primarily a Jewish middle-class neighborhood, and when Alzado, who is of Spanish-Italian descent on his father's side and Jewish on his mother's, was growing up in the Five Towns in the early '60s, he and Marc Lyons, his best friend, were among the underclass.

"I remember the house we lived in being cold, cold," Alzado says. "My dad would get mad and tear the only electric heater out of the wall. My mother, my sisters, Marc and me, we would all cuddle in one room, hungry and freezing, and light as many candles as we could find."

Alzado's father had been a professional boxer, and he started Lyle on the same road at the age of six. Alzado Sr. owned a paint business and a bar—and lost them both. "He was a drinker and a street fighter," Lyle says. "He was trying to succeed in a world that wouldn't let him, and things built up, frustrations. You can't keep getting knocked down over and over again. He was trying to be something better than he was, but everything he tried failed. Inside, he was a good man, I'm sure. But he just never took care of the family. Maybe he didn't know how."

When his father left home for good, Lyle was a sophomore in high school. The Alzados moved to what Lyons calls, without elaboration, a "terrible" apartment, and Lyle's mother Martha, with five children to feed, went to work in a flower store for $60 a week.

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