Lyle Alzado, who became a crusader against steroid use when he was found to have brain cancer a year ago, died yesterday at age 43.
The NFL's defensive player of the year in 1977, he played 14 years for the Denver Broncos, Cleveland Browns and Los Angeles Raiders, retiring after the 1985 season. He tried a brief comeback in 1990 that ended in Raiders training camp.
Alzado attributed his brain cancer to steroid use, but there is no proof linking the two. He said he began using the drug in 1969 and spent $20,000 to $30,000 a year on steroids in the days before the NFL tested players for the performance-enhancing drugs.
"I had my mind set and I did what I wanted to do. So many people tried to talk me out of what I was doing and I wouldn't," he said.
One of those players was Washington Redskins linebackerMatt Millen, a teammate of Alzado's with the Raiders.
"We used to jokingly say to Lyle, 'Don't invest your money, you're not going to live past 40," Millen said last year. "I'm a believer in you reap what you sow . . . . Howie Long, myself and Bill Pickel, we'd get on him about it. Lyle lived a hard life. It's unfortunate."
In a first-person story in Sports Illustrated last year, Alzado wrote, "I lied. I lied to you. I lied to my family. I lied to a lot of people for a lot of years when I said I didn't use steroids. I started taking anabolic steroids in 1969 and I never stopped."
Although researchers haven't proved steroids can cause brain cancer, doctors say the drugs can lead to prostate and liver cancer.
Dr. Forrest Tennant, a former NFL drug adviser, said yesterday, "Alzado will be the first of a lot of big names to come down with cancers."
PTC Alzado fought his cancer -- a rare form of brain lymphoma -- with the same aggressiveness he displayed on the football field.
"He was as determined and as brave as any of our patients are," said Raymond Hogan, the clinical coordinator of his treatment program in Portland, Ore. Alzado went to the Oregon Health Sciences University for an innovative "blood brain barrier" chemotherapy treatment.
"His idea was to throw the book at the tumor," Hogan said. "He wanted us to go in with both guns blazing. I never knew him to believe that he wasn't going to beat it."
Craig Morton, a teammate of Alzado's in Denver, said: "He had a great career and did everything with gusto, whether it was football, acting or whatever. But I think what he wanted to be remembered for most was his fight against steroid use by youngsters. Hopefully, they will use this as a lesson."
Alzado was a larger-than-life character who told so many interesting stories, nobody knew if they were exaggerated.
He often said he was a bully growing up in Brooklyn. "I thought you got attention by being the toughest kid in school, beating up everybody," he said.
He became a bar bouncer at 15 and said he once knifed two guys who wouldn't move when he said move. Alzado said he was stabbed four times and had several stints in jail on assault-and-battery charges.
He turned to boxing and advanced to the Golden Gloves semifinals. He said he finally got his life straightened out when he played football at Yankton College in Yankton, S.D.
Drafted by the Broncos on the fourth round in 1971, he didn't get much national attention until the Broncos made Super Bowl XII after the 1977 season.
The way Alzado told the story, he was so frustrated watching the Broncos lose a 1976 game on television while he was sidelined with a knee injury that he picked up his crutch and threw it into a 27-inch color television set.
"Damn right, I was frustrated," Alzado said later. "But that's when I made up my mind to do something about [coach John Ralston]."
Alzado led a player revolt against Ralston that led to the hiring of Red Miller, who took the Broncos to the Super Bowl in his first season with Alzado as a key member of the "Orange Crush" defense.