updated 01/05/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 01/05/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST
"At that point, as we got back into the car, God gave me one sane thought. It was, 'Tony, you need to get some help.' My friend said to me, 'Hey, I know another dude we can—' I didn't even let him finish. 'Man, hell no!' I said. Take me to De Paul!' "
Tony Elliott did get help that night 2½ years ago in New Orleans. He checked into De Paul Hospital's drug treatment center for 85 days, then spent another four months in a halfway house. He went in as a cocaine addict, but came out a man with a calling. Despite everything, the lying and the thievery and the betrayal of almost everyone he knew and loved, he had been spared. Given a second chance.
In return, he had been charged—he was sure of this—to travel the land at his own expense and to describe the geography of hell for anyone who would listen, preferably adolescents on the cusp of incorrigibility. In a word, Tony Elliott had been charged to testify. His story simply had to be told.
I'm not here to preach to you. I'm here to tell you about myself, because if you hear what happened to me, well, you might identify. You see, I woke up one day at age 4 to the sound of my father stabbing my mother.
It happened in the kitchen. He knew this because, whenever he called up the memory, there was always a stove and steam rising from water boiling in a pot. There was a quarrel. Then his mother was on the floor and Bobby Lee was standing over her, straddling her waist. He remembered the screaming and then the quiet and looking down at the lifeless form on the linoleum. He remembered Bobby Lee throwing a television out the window. He remembered being downstairs and a nice lady offering him a piece of fruit. He remembered eating the fruit and throwing it up, then waking the next day in the hospital with Uncle Wilbert and Aunt Alice standing over his head.
It was the crucial event of his life. His mother was dead and his father was in prison and nothing would ever be the way it might have been.
Tony and his brothers, Michael, 3, and Phillip, 1, traveled from Roxbury, Mass. to Bridgeport, Conn, to live with Wilbert and Alice. Uncle Wilbert was a man of principle, someone who believed in the obligations of blood. But there was a history between him and Bobby Lee. It went back to when Wilbert and Bobby Lee were kids and had paper routes. Bobby Lee stole money from the other paper boys and Wilbert turned him in. From that day forward the brothers were enemies.
Bobby Lee did seasonal work, but basically he was a hustler. Wilbert was a hard worker, a machinist and then a draftsman and, finally, a nurse like his wife, Alice. After Wilbert and Alice got married, they had three kids. Bobby Lee and Ruby got married, and they had three kids too. Fate seemed to throw the two families into competition. Ruby dressed her kids up, put Tony and his brothers in matching hats, matching coats, matching shoes. "I mean we were the cleanest, sharpest little guys you'd ever know," says Tony, now 27. "Every time there was a family function, everybody used to be marveling over me and Michael and Phillip." It was only years later, when he was forced to come to terms with his life, that Tony realized how the praise for Bobby Lee and Ruby and their stylish brood must have rankled Alice and Wilbert. For they knew how Bobby Lee and Ruby came by the money to turn their kids into fashion plates. They knew that Bobby Lee had been pimping for his wife for years.
It was an untenable situation. Here was Alice, just 22 or 23, the mother of three and now the stepmother of three more, and not just any three more, but the offspring of, well, Cain. "You ever been in a household and not feel like you're part of it?" asks Tony's younger brother, Phillip. "The three of us felt we were brothers living in somebody else's house." Tony didn't make things any easier when he alone of the three refused to call Alice Mother. Taking in the hip way he carried himself and the jive way he talked, Alice told him he was just like his father.
You see, my problems started when I was your age. When I look back on my addiction to drugs, I have to look further than the first time I smoked a joint. I have to look to the time when I used to eat until I got sick. Anything I enjoyed in life I always did to excess. Other people seemed to know when to stop, but I never did.
The hunger started in childhood, and it started with food. But it wasn't really about food. It was about love and acceptance and approval.
Tony was ravenous all the time. At home he would regularly knock back his own meal, then scavenge for leftovers. Alice would send him off each day with lunch money for school, yet he always spent it beforehand on Ring Dings and Twinkies. By lunchtime he was as famished as ever. Desperate, he would raid the other kids' lunchbags. When the teacher stopped him, he resorted to begging.
School was one humiliation after another. Tony seemed to stand out for all the wrong reasons. His clothes were not up to Bridgeport chic. He was as big as a bear, and in the early grades he stuttered, which made him a source of endless mirth. By sixth grade he'd had enough. "I said to myself, 'I'm going to become the class clown.' I said, 'I'm going to write notes and spit spitballs and be a pain in the bee-hind.' I was obsessed with being accepted." His antics worked. He was liked. What did it matter that he was suspended and his education was a joke?
He discovered another way to shut out the laughter. One day, when he was just 6 or 7, he picked a cigarette butt out of an ash tray and lit up. The effect was immediate and euphoric. Smoking took the sting out of his misery and made school and the sense of inadequacy itself go away. Soon he was buying packs and then cartons of cigarettes. And he began tapping into Wilbert's Scotch.
He didn't mean to get into drugs. It just happened, during his junior year in high school. By then Tony was tall, 6'1", and well-muscled. He was good-looking and articulate, plus he was a football player. Not just any football player, but a star, someone who would be voted his state's most valuable player. Yet beneath his confident patter and his life's newfound glamour, the hunger was as voracious as ever.
There was a party one night. Tony was 16. He was the captain of the football team, and he was dating the captain of the cheerleading squad. A bunch of them were outside and a couple of guys from the team were smoking a joint. They passed the joint to Tony's girlfriend and she took a drag and passed it to Tony. He didn't want the joint, but he was sure his girlfriend would take up with someone cooler if he didn't. So he took a drag and then another, and pretty soon he was not just smoking marijuana but acquiring it—to turn the girl on and, yes, to keep her. It ended up that he lost the girl and kept the habit.
The hunger had one positive aspect. It brought him into the orbit of two men who served him as surrogate fathers. John Lewis was the high school football coach and Ernie Parker the head of the Upward Bound summer program at the University of Bridgeport. Both men were won over by Tony's intelligence and by his extraordinary eagerness to please. Both knew about Bobby Lee and Ruby. They knew, as well, about Tony's waywardness, his susceptibility to peer pressure and to the tinsel of the day.
Lewis was the man Tony saw on a daily basis, the one who mediated with Alice and Wilbert, who wangled him out of scrapes at school and gave him new clothes. He also tried to keep him in line. "He wanted to grow up fast," says Lewis. "He was like 15 or 16 wanting to be 25. I was rough on him. He put me in the position where I had to be. When he was a junior he was dating grown women. There was many a night I pounded the streets looking for him till 2 and 3 in the morning."
If John Lewis was Tony's D.I., Ernie Parker was his dream of what he could become. Twenty years older than Tony, Parker could get down with the kids, but he could also hold his own with the university president. Tony followed him everywhere, listened as he talked about Martin and Malcolm and Freud, too. "You're different from the others," Parker would tell him. "You're going places your friends will never see."
Tony, unfortunately, was already on the move. At 16, he left Wilbert and Alice and lived for a time in a boys' home in Bridgeport. At one point, when Ernie Parker moved to Virginia, Tony tried to go with him. Another time he even considered moving in with his father.
Bobby Lee was back. He had done his time for killing Ruby, had remarried and moved to Bridgeport. He had a factory job, and he wanted his three boys to live with him. But he was still Bobby Lee, and after a couple of years he began to unravel. He lost the job and his woman and sank deeper into booze and drugs and insanity. One day in 1975 Bobby Lee went over to his brother's house and ran upstairs with a pistol. He found Wilbert in the bedroom and shot him twice, then chased him down to the porch, where he emptied the gun into him.
Tony had never loved Wilbert, but his death was still devastating. And then there was Bobby Lee, whom he was beginning to think of as his nemesis, a dark shadow bearing down on his life.
I must have had a hundred colleges wanting me to come and play football. USC, UCLA, Ohio State, they all wanted me. But I picked the University of Wisconsin. You know why? Because of Wisconsin's marijuana law. Marijuana wasn't legal. But if you got caught with a small amount, it was a misdemeanor instead of a felony. That's how far gone I was, how badly I had compromised my values.
He got caught up in the whole swirl of college football. All the coaches required of him was that he practice hard and play harder. And for that they didn't just give him a scholarship, he claims. They gave him a car and an apartment and money too. "I had a sugar daddy who would give me whatever I wanted," he says. "He would pay my bills and I would walk around with a thousand in my pocket. You know how it works. You get so many season tickets and the boosters would buy them from you for about $2,000."
Cocaine was part of the trip. Where marijuana made the world go away, cocaine gave Tony a rush of virility. "Cocaine was power," he says. "The attraction was the mandate it gave you over other people's lives. You could make a guy be your friend or you could make him beg and crawl. You could make a woman compromise her morals. The more power I had over other people, the more I thought of myself."
All Tony did was play football and party. It was small wonder that he flunked out at the end of his freshman year. He joined the Marines and was posted outside Palm Springs. But drugs still governed his life. He made trips to L.A. to buy the stuff so he could deal on the base. But these excursions cost money, so he and a couple of buddies would wait outside the enlisted men's club and mug their fellow grunts as they came out. When Tony got caught, he spent 75 days in the brig and eventually was tunneled back into the world with a less-than-honorable discharge. No big deal. He was still 6'3" and 255 pounds, and they wanted him at Pratt Community Junior College in Kansas. Someone pulled the right strings and—presto!—Tony's discharge turned honorable, allowing him to play football. Once more Tony had a coach in his life, helping him out, and he would soon have another one at North Texas State. He also had a wife, Dorothy Baskin, whom he had met in Wisconsin and whom he married because she was willing to work and pay bills, enabling him to keep his assets liquid for drugs. But what Tony really needed was someone like John Lewis—someone to say no.
In 1982 I was drafted by the New Orleans Saints. I got a bonus of $30,000. The first thing I did, I got it all changed into $100 bills. Then I went to my aunt's house and put $5,000 on the table and I said to her, "The next 21-year-old son you get to come home with this much money, you give me a call." She took the money, but she said it didn't change anything. She said I was still no good. I tried to buy my aunt's love and I failed. I went out and got loaded, and I stayed loaded for weeks.
The next two years read as a chronicle of Tony's deterioration. His first season with the Saints he was able to keep his problems under wraps. Yet he was concerned. He went to the team doctor, who sent him to Timberlawn Psychiatric Hospital in Dallas. Tony stayed there 30 days during the summer of 1983, but when he came out he got deeper into the powder than ever.
In the fall of 1983 he started missing practices, then games. Then he got caught by the police, and the team stopped his pay. This time they sent him to a real treatment center, Hazel-den outside Minneapolis, but once again the cure didn't take. Tony made close to $3,000 a week playing football, but it wasn't nearly enough to cover his habit. By the summer of 1984 he had gone through his wife's savings and had literally taken the wedding ring from her finger. He hocked his gold and silver, sold his furniture and car. After he lost his condo to the bank, he began writing bad checks all over New Orleans. Then he started breaking into mailboxes and cashing his neighbors' government checks. Finally he began taking off dealers, sticking them up in the middle of the night, until that fateful moment when he found himself eye-to-eye with a .357 Magnum.
It was a sobering moment—in fact, Tony has been sober ever since. The first thing he did during recovery was to move out of New Orleans to the suburbs, far from his old playmates and the siren call of Bourbon Street. The second was to get a divorce from Dorothy. "I had to," he says. "She was part of the insanity. I was using her. The relationship started sick and it was going to remain sick." Last April he married again, tying his hopes to 29-year-old Rhonda Windon ("My inspiration and backbone"), who wants to be a psychiatrist. But before he and Rhonda could embrace the future, Tony had to square things with the past. As part of his recovery he wrote long letters, alternately remorseful and forgiving, to friends and kin, including Aunt Alice. "Now that I'm the age she was then, I can see the pressure on her," he says now. "I was a bad kid. But I always loved her even when I didn't get along with her." He even forgave Bobby Lee at last for the violence he had done to both of their lives. He could do that now because he too had experienced a passage of insanity. He understood how Bobby Lee could have loved Ruby and still have killed her and been sorry for it afterward.
"It was not until I got back into a relationship with a higher power whom I choose to call God that I started to feel serene," Tony says. "Then I didn't need people to pat me on the back, to praise me, to love me. With God there was always somebody who loved me."
Lately people have been lining up to pat Tony on the back. After several undistinguished seasons in the NFL, this year he played at a level close to All-Pro. Then there are the kids, nearly 50,000 of them. That's how many youngsters he has talked to over the past couple of years, absorbing close to $75,000 in expenses himself. It has been a part of his recovery, part of the deal he cut with the God he now believes in. Yet there is clearly more to it than that. Telling his story is a way of getting acceptance and approval in massive doses, a way to placate the hunger that still rumbles within him. Telling his story, you might say, is Tony Elliott's latest addiction.