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Dying to Be Heard

July 31, 2002|LANCE PUGMIRE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In May, Justin Alzado became credentialed by the National Athletic Trainers Assn., and has been hired as a personal trainer at a health club near his home in Roswell, Ga. He preaches a natural route to physical fitness and discourages use of legal, over-the-counter supplements such as creatine and ephedrine.

He is so committed to his message that MTV used him for an upcoming episode of the reality show "Flipped." In it, Alzado, 20, meets a Southern California junior college football player who says he is considering using steroids.

"I explain to him why he shouldn't," Justin said in a recent interview. "I tell him my dad died because of that."

Justin is the only child of Lyle Alzado, the star NFL defensive end who attributed excessive steroid use to the brain cancer that killed him.

More than 10 years after Lyle Alzado's pleas to end steroid use in sports were muted by his death, family members said they are frustrated but not surprised that the message has been diminished by time and dismissed by several athletes.

"I understand the goal of some of these guys; that athletes are ambitious people," Justin said. "At the same time, I'm disappointed my dad's words are going unheard. He made a strong effort to warn others of the risks of steroids and, hopefully, they'll see the big picture in the end."

Lyle Alzado, who played for the Denver Broncos, Cleveland Browns and Los Angeles Raiders from 1971-85, died at 43 on May 14, 1992. He insisted that almost 20 years of steroid use was the major contributing factor.

"When you eat right and drink right and you don't stay out late at night and you get sick, in my case, it was from steroids," Alzado told The Times in a January 1992 interview. "I made a big mistake, and I [am] trying to tell the kids of America to stay away from it because I believe wholeheartedly that it has given me cancer. I would hate for anyone else to go through this pain."

The NFL has conducted random steroid testing since 1990. But the use of steroids and other illegal performance enhancing substances has become an increasing concern in sports that do not test, such as Major League Baseball. In a recent admission of steroid use by former National League most valuable player Ken Caminiti, he estimated use in the sport to be at least 50%.

"I actually think Lyle would say he understands completely why steroids continue to be out there," said Cindy Alzado, Justin's mother and the second of Lyle's four wives. "He was proof that when you have a passion, nothing will keep you from it. It took dying for him to understand how bad that logic was."

Alzado admitted using steroids throughout his professional career.

He was an intimidating, 6-foot-3, 255-pound defender, an NFL defensive lineman of the year in 1977 who led Denver's famed "Orange Crush" defense to a Super Bowl appearance. He once fought Muhammad Ali in a boxing exhibition. He was an All-Pro in 1978 as a Bronco and 1979 as a Brown and was the NFL's 1982 comeback player of the year with the Raiders.

The bearded Alzado's aggressive style and colorful personality made him one of Raider owner Al Davis' favorite players. In one game, Alzado ripped the helmet off New York Jet offensive tackle Chris Ward and flung it downfield. The NFL responded by instituting a rule that outlawed helmet throwing.

"Nobody loved that game more than Lyle," Cindy Alzado said. "He truly was a warrior."

Yet, she said that she believes the steroid abuse caused Lyle to resort to rages, including episodes when he would hit her. She said the domestic abuse prompted her to summon Manhattan Beach police to their home at least five times during their brief 1984-85 marriage. She said Lyle was never arrested.

"He was always Mr. Calm by the time they got to the house," Cindy said. "It always ended the same way, with him signing autographs for [the officers]."

Lyle and Cindy met in the 1960s while attending Lawrence High in Cedarhurst, N.Y. After Lyle divorced a woman he met at Yankton College in South Dakota, he reunited with Cindy in New York and they lived together from 1981-85.

"When we wanted to have a child, I was concerned his steroid habit would affect the baby, so Lyle quit for several months, but as soon as Justin was born [in 1982], he was back on them," Cindy said.

Cindy said Lyle was never declared impotent, an occasional side effect of steroid use, but she said his sperm count was diagnosed as low.

She said he followed a disciplined pattern of steroid intake, using three times a week while frequenting Gold's Gym in Venice.

One of the Alzados' numerous arguments was in Gold's parking lot. Cindy said she tried to run over Lyle in her car.

"He asked me more than once, 'Why am I such a success in my professional life and such a failure in my personal life?' " Cindy said. "I told him it was the steroids, but he couldn't let them go because he couldn't let go of football."

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