Disposable talent


THE COVER of Sports Illustrated is a photographic portrait of Lyle Alzado, former NFL defensive end and current chemotherapy patient. What's left of his bushy hair is hidden beneath a bandanna with skulls printed on it.

Someone made fun of the bandanna when Alzado drove into a gas station with his wife not long ago. "I wanted to beat him up," recalls the man who once looked as if he ate live badgers for breakfast, "but Kathy reminded me I wasn't strong enough."

The cover line is "I Lied," and the sad story inside is about a body made bigger, stronger and tougher with steroids and human growth hormone. The drugs gave him a career, and now, Alzado believes, they've given him brain cancer. It turns out that professional football uses special effects just as surely as "Terminator 2" does.

Athletes learn suddenly, with one hamstring, one Achilles tendon, what the rest of us learn more slowly: that the body betrays, and that our skulls are hard because they protect the only part that means anything.

That's the part Alzado now says he poisoned with performance enhancers, though for years he denied taking steroids. "It's all I cared about, winning, winning," he says.

The people who run professional sports don't like stories like this, and they say he is overstating the number of players who use the stuff.

But his story transcends drugs and football and goes to the heart of professional sports. It is about disposable talent.

During the course of an American kid's maturation, it was possible to go from Reggie bars to Bo Knowing Everything. Whoops! Bo's injured. Make that Bo Knows Nothing.

Last week I thought of Tracy Austin. She became flavor of the week on the professional tennis tour in 1978, when she was 15; you couldn't read a sports page without reading about Tracy Austin's pigtails. She was a fine player with a bad back, and the back won. At 21, Tracy was history.

The big story at Wimbledon this year was not Tracy's pigtails but Monica Seles' new wedge cut, and the fact that she was a no-show. P.S. -- Monica is 17. It seems to me that if a 17-year-old who collects stuffed animals as well as product endorsements wakes up one morning and decides she just wants to veg out and watch MTV, it is well within the normal range of behavior.

The strange tennis story was not Monica and Wimbledon; it was Venus Williams and Don King. Venus plays tennis too, and most recently she's been playing wearing a polo shirt embroidered with the logo of the megapromoter.

Companies are already providing her with rackets and shoes, courting her endorsement.

Venus is hot, just as Tracy Austin once was. She is also 11. No child labor laws apply; she is allegedly playing a game. Kids become cottage industries, and young men become muscle-bound monsters.

"I'm sorry success meant so much to me," Alzado writes. And to the fans. The best athletes have always known that the body will betray them and all they will have left, if they've guarded it as well as they have the basket or the baseline, is their dignity.

At the NBA All-Star game this year, two athletes sat an aisle apart and illustrated the point. Julius Erving, the basketball player who is to sports what Laurence Olivier was to acting, sat with his wife and signed an autograph for every kid who asked.

Evander Holyfield, world heavyweight champion, sat with a phalanx of men who looked as if they ate live badgers for breakfast and when some big-eyed boy approached, clutching a notebook as though it were his heart, one of the phalanx said coldly, "No autographs."

In 10 years Dr. J. will still be a legend, and Evander Holyfield will be a Who? in the sports almanac of life. Because one is talent, and the other has become something more.

Lyle Alzado is trying for more. "My strength isn't my strength anymore," he says. "My strength is my heart."

The managers, the owners, the promoters, the parents, the fans -- they should all pay attention. They should remember that almost as pernicious as steroids is a a star system that gets turned on and off like a light and that leaves the disposable talent in the dust.

It makes you a little bit ashamed of what we all do to fill stadiums, to sell seats.

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