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LIONEL ALDRIDGE: A LONG JOURNEY AND HAPPY DAYS : Former Packer Is Back on His Feet

October 27, 1987|BOB OATES | Times Staff Writer

MILWAUKEE — As professional athletes 20 years ago, Lionel Aldridge and Willie Davis were the defensive ends on one of the great football teams of all time, Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers, winners of Super Bowls I and II.

Years later, out of football, they wound up traveling widely divergent paths.

By 1977, Davis was a millionaire. Aldridge was well on his way to becoming a bum.

With a business school background at the University of Chicago--pursued during his Packer off-seasons--Davis had become, as he continues to be, one of the most successful beer distributors and radio entrepreneurs in the West.

A former sociology major at Utah State, Aldridge launched an equally impressive career in radio broadcasting and network TV--in the midst of which he was abruptly knocked down, and almost out, by mental illness.

Aldridge is a paranoid schizophrenic. But at first, his doctors diagnosed the wrong illness and treated him with the wrong medicine. Within months, he was into the wretched life of a vagrant.

In the flop houses and rescue missions of America, Aldridge's nightmare lasted for a ghastly decade, costing him his wife and family, his jobs in radio and television, other jobs, most of his friends, his money, and eventually his self-respect.

If the people who once knew him best thought of him at all in those days, they thought, very wrongly, that Aldridge was a classic manic depressive--on the loose.

Willie Davis, who runs his many businesses from an office in South-Central Los Angeles, only heard about the nightmare when Aldridge called one day after hitch-hiking into Skid Row downtown, where he touched up his old buddy for $3. Davis gave him $300 and got him a hotel room, from which Aldridge promptly dropped from sight.

Then two years ago, Aldridge telephoned again, this time from Milwaukee. The nightmare was over. He was taking the right medication, Aldridge said. And he was working again, as an account representative at the Milwaukee post office and part-time in radio.

He was also in a cheerful, new eighth-floor apartment overlooking Lake Michigan on the city's fashionable East Side.

"Lionel had come back from the gates of hell," Davis said the other day, recalling that phone call in 1985. "I've never had a conversation with anyone that affected me that much.

"For weeks afterward, I would catch myself whistling or humming to myself, and I'd ask, 'Why the hell am I feeling so good?' Then I'd remember: Lionel is back."

One day last month at a community college in Milwaukee, Aldridge spent his noon hour away from the post office--as he so often does--on a speaking engagement.

Talking to a roomful of students at Milwaukee Area Technical College, he said:

"I could be mad at somebody because I got sick. It was society that allowed me to become a bum and pull cigarette butts off the streets and out of ash trays.

"And I could be angry at God for giving me this disease.

"But I've made a decision not to be bitter. I have done it for one reason. I didn't get well until I quit blaming God and society--and took the responsibility for myself myself.

"Here I am, a black man, (lecturing) white college students, but I feel very deeply about this. You--all of you--are responsible for you. Nobody is going to ride up and rescue you. . . . I know. . . . I've made it back because I learned to lean on myself--and because I learned to like myself."

His text, Aldridge said, was from St. Paul's letters to the Philippians. Reciting a lengthy verse from memory, he said: "Whatsoever things are true, . . . honest . . . just . . . pure . . . lovely . . . think on these things."

Think on the beautiful, he said, not the untrue.

"One way to be a winner is to be honest," Aldridge continued, speaking softly. "Honesty never loses.

"I had a setback, but I never had a drug problem. I gave up for a while, but there was a doctor who believed in me. Now I'm putting it together again--at a pace I'm comfortable with."

Though Aldridge changes the lyrics each time, the music is always the same. And after this particular 23-minute speech, 18 or 20 listeners came up, as they always do, and crowded around, drawing Aldridge out on his themes of self-esteem and self-responsibility.

At 6 feet 4 inches and 300 pounds, he was the biggest man in the room, and one of the neatest in slacks and a long-sleeved white shirt. The tie was blue, the jacket light blue, the expression pleasant and dignified. At 46, Aldridge has the bearing and baritone voice of a cultured talk-show host.

He's also a working man, though. Looking at his watch, he smiled and said goodby.

Driving back to the post office in his red Pontiac Firebird--"It fit me till last January, when I quit smoking and gained 50 pounds"--Aldridge said:

"There is no known cure for paranoid schizophrenia, but I am one of the lucky ones. The disease is in remission. I have largely recovered.

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