Forty-one-year-old Lyle Alzado swings his black Mercedes into a parking spot for the handicapped at the Los Angeles Raider minicamp in El Segundo, Calif. He offers no apology. "Hey, at my age, doing what I'm about to do," he says, "I need to park here."
Alzado, who was a ferocious competitor at defensive end for 14 NFL seasons, is officially marking his return to professional football. It is late May, and he is wheeling into the Raiders' three-day camp after 4½ years in retirement.
The man who once threatened to rip John Riggins's head off swaggers into the Raider locker room and right away introduces himself to one of the players standing in the way of his bid to play again—Anthony Smith, the team's No. 1 draft choice out of Arizona, who is 18 years and probably 3,000 hits his junior. Impressed that Alzado has sought him out, Smith says he feels "ready to kill."
As Alzado slips into his familiar number 77 jersey, his former line mate and best friend Howie Long, dressing nearby, can see that Alzado is sound of body. So the question, he decides, is whether Alzado is sound of mind. "They had Lyle's life story on TV last night," Long says. "Shelley Long plays Lyle. It's the one where she has 26 different personalities. I don't know which Lyle is doing this."
"All I want to know is, who has to room with him?" hollers defensive tackle Bob Golic from across the room.
"Not me," announces Long. "I had to room with him last time."
In an era when geriatric comebacks are commonplace—look at boxer George Foreman, swimmer Mark Spitz and gymnast Kurt Thomas—and when "seniors" are drawing crowds on a golf tour and starting their own baseball league, Alzado stands alone. We're talking about professional football, in which every play carries the potential for serious injury.
"Well, I know Jim Brown thought about doing it [at age 48 in 1984] when Payton was going to break his [career rushing] record," Alzado says. "And maybe a kicker has done it, but they don't count. Yes, I think I'm the first." One thing is certain: If Alzado makes it onto the field during the regular season, he will become the oldest player in NFL history other than quarterbacks or placekickers.
But can he pull it off? Can Alzado make a serious contribution to a team that certainly needs one? And can he do it without ending up in traction?
"Who am I to tell Lyle Alzado no?" says Art Shell, a former Raider offensive lineman and now the team's coach. "If he thinks he can do it, then why not give him a chance?"