Black and White and Rough All Over, Ripmaster Howie Long Is Right at Home with Those Nasty L.A. Raiders
updated 10/20/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 10/20/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT
Understand that Long is the leader of the Raiders' defense, their intimidator. And though the team is off to a lackluster start this season, the defense, always as black of heart as of jersey, has played up to its big, bad reputation. Long, a proud man, also has his own image to consider—as the wildest, fiercest and, perhaps, very best defensive lineman in Pete Rozelle's favorite game. "He may be the most dominant force in defensive football today," says Seattle Seahawks coach Chuck Knox, speaking for Howie's many admirers.
To earn such praise Long persecutes quarterbacks and terrorizes ball carriers. Offensive linemen grapple with him in their nightmares. "He's relentless," says John Hannah, the New England Patriots' perennial all-pro guard, now in retirement. "Shoot him in the head is the only way to stop him. If Howie's alive and still kicking he's coming."
Not even pencil-necked front-office types are beyond the reach of Long's fearsome wrath. Take Pat Sullivan, the Patriots' general manager. He and Howie got into a small contretemps following New England's victory over the Raiders in last year's playoffs. Before the game, Long antagonized Sullivan by calling him, among other things, a "wimp." During the game Sullivan baited Long from the sidelines. Afterward the 6'5", 270-lb. Long got in the last word by pushing around the 5'10", 170-lb. Sullivan as players and fans left the field.
"I'm an artist," says Long, turning his back on the froufrou cup of yogurt months later. "Only my art is to assault people."
Howie Long is lying on his training camp bed in the Oxnard (Calif.) Hilton. He is doing the thing he does nearly as well as assault people. Howie Long is talking. "I'm a pessimist," he says. "I'm the first one to yell, 'We're all gonna die!' Each night I lie in bed thinking of all the things I messed up, and I hate myself."
One of the keys to Long's success is that he has harnessed the power of negative thinking. He leads the league in fears, anxieties, neuroses—and he doesn't care who knows it. "Just because I'm insecure," he says, "it doesn't mean you're going to whup my ass."
Long traces his abundance of self-doubt to his childhood. He grew up in Charlestown—a drab, working-class section of Boston where some of the country's nastiest gangsters once languished in prison. His parents divorced when he was 12, and although his mother was granted custody of Howie, he grew up spending more time with his grandmother. His four uncles on his mother's side also had a hand in raising him. But there was little stability in Howie's life. "I went from house to house," he says. "I couldn't understand why I didn't have a home. They tried their best but..." Long shrugs. Since none of his uncles were Beacon Hill Brahmins and all had kids of their own to support, money was always tight, so Howie slept on couches and lived out of his suitcase.
His sense of self began slipping away. "I became an introvert," he says. "I had no confidence." It got so bad he even refused to play Little League ball. "I was afraid I couldn't hack it." No matter, there were plenty of other divertissements on the streets of Charlestown. Hanging out. Petty theft. Fighting. Long was a natural with his fists. At 15, a strapping 200-pounder, Long was offered his dream job—bouncer at the Rusty Scupper, a bar in Boston's North End near the Boston Garden. His grandmother made him give it up.
In his sophomore year at high school, Long was sent to live with his uncle Billy in suburban Milford. And at Milford High he finally got the nerve to play football. That's how the hulking but uneasy street kid won a scholarship to Villanova on Philadelphia's Main Line. There, in his sophomore year, Long met Diane Addonizio, a classical studies student from Red Bank, N.J. "At first," she recalls, "Howie was extremely defensive. He thought everyone was making fun of him or degrading him." Inevitably he felt out of place. "Villanova's a very preppy school," says Diane. "Everyone had nice cars, clothing, jewelry."
Howie didn't, and it took him a while to adjust. One winter break Diane took him home to meet her parents. Her father, director of security for a subsidiary of ITT, was hosting a Christmas party at a local country club. "At one point Howie excused himself to go to the men's room," says Diane. "When he came back he was shaking his head. 'I can't believe it,' he said. 'There was a guy in there who had towels and was watching TV. I think he wanted me to tip him or something.' Everyone laughed. They thought that Howie was being really witty, commenting on the absurdity of it all. But he'd just never seen such a thing as a men's room attendant."
Chosen out of Villanova in the second round of the 1981 National Football League draft, Long was mentally unprepared for the rigors of his first Raiders camp. He realized that one night when linebacker Ted Hendricks, known as the Mad Stork, summoned him to his side in a bar. On the stool next to Hendricks was one of those life-size inflatable party dolls. "Howie," said the Stork, "sit down, have a drink and meet Martha, my date for training camp."
The Raiders of course revel in their reputation as rough-diamond misfits and castoffs. In that sense at least Long fit right in. Most small-college players would have been elated to be picked in the second round. Not Howie. He was afraid he couldn't live up to the Raiders' expectations. An ulcer flared. He began chugging Maalox as if it were Gatorade. Goaded by his sense of inadequacy, he decided to turn his weakness to strength. "I become a student of the game," he says. He watched films endlessly and learned the move that has become his trademark, the rip—an uppercut blow with the forearm designed to tear a blocker's hands off a defender. Long is to the rip what Joe Frazier was to the left hook. "He's so strong he can pick you right up off the ground with it," says John Hannah, himself a mountain of muscle unaccustomed to being used as a volleyball.
That first year Long led the Raiders with 14 quarterback sacks. "I still didn't think I was a football player," he says. Then someone came along to change his mind. In 1982, when defensive end Lyle Alzado joined the team in a trade, one opposing coach called it "the perfect marriage—the kind they make in hell," for Alzado was the king of the misfits. Football for him was pure psychodrama. "I'll let you live but kill everything you love!" he liked to bellow in the faces of shell-shocked opponents. Almost immediately, Alzado became the Raiders' spiritual leader and an inspiration to the sensitive Long. "I tried to impress one thing on Howie," says Alzado. "Always believe you can kick their ass." And perhaps even more important, act that way. "In one year," says his mentor, "Howie was screaming even more than me." Because he is an imaginative man, Long's threats were every bit as memorable as Alzado's. "I'm going to beat you up in the parking lot in front of your family!" he would cry. By the time Alzado retired after the 1985 season, Long was the Raiders' new leader of the pack.
In 1983 Long had been picked for the Pro Bowl for the first time, "one of my greatest moments," he says. That was also the year the Raiders defeated the Washington Redskins in the Super Bowl, and before the game Long delivered a bizarre stream-of-consciousness monologue to reporters in the Super Bowl press tent. "Give me a day to die... Are we in Kansas yet, Toto?...I don't know where I am...Oh, God, I'm in a tent!" And so on. Jaundiced observers considered it a droll commentary on the wretched excess of Super Bowl week. In fact it was a reflection on the tender state of Long's psyche—that old feeling that he didn't really belong. "I was thinking no one was going to be there in the press tent to interview me," he remembers. "I was thinking I'd be sitting there embarrassed as hell." What he found was standing room only.
Lately, Long's lifelong sense of self-disbelief has been butting heads with incontrovertible signs of success. He is earning about $880,000 a year, near the top among NFL linemen, and his agent, Greg Campbell, predicts flatly that "Howie will be the first $2-million-a-year football player." One day Howie would like to be voted into the pro football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, and he has every reason to believe he will make it. "When people look back," he says, "I would like to be thought of as the defensive lineman of the decade." Campbell is looking further, toward his rugged client's enshrinement in Hollywood. "He's going to be a major star," says the agent. "So many people in this town like him." No, love him. When producers see that choirboy face atop that rippling, Terminator-type torso, they get all goose-pimply. Long already does commercials for Personna razor blades and is said to have piqued the interest of Dino de Laurentiis. "Next summer," he says, "I plan to take acting lessons."
That's fine with Diane, who married him three years ago and is about to graduate from the USC School of Law, and presumably with 18-month-old Christopher, whom Howie calls "the light of my life." All in all, Howie is not being made homesick for Charles-town. "I have my own house, my own family, I eat all I want," he says. "I'm living my childhood right now."
Long rises from his training camp bed. It's getting late, and at 6:45 the next morning the coaches will be pounding on his door with a baseball bat. "I have just one fear," says the NFL's Hamlet, its prince of self-doubt. "That the clock is going to strike 12 and I'm going to turn back into Howie. The other Howie—the 12-year-old."
That sets him off. "Howie...I hate that name...It's the name for a fat little accountant...Howard!"
Good night, sweet prince.