Until He Tackled His Illiteracy, the Redskins' Gridiron Terror Lived in Fear of the ABC's

updated 09/25/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/25/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Dexter Manley, the Washington Redskins' defensive end, has been called many things in his eight-year career. Like "fearsome"—the mountainous, 6'3", 257-lb. All-Pro is the Redskins' career leader in sacks. And "brash"—he once told reporters he'd like to "ring the clock" of San Francisco QB Joe Montana. And particularly "self-destructive"—in 1987 he spent a month at the Hazelden Foundation in Center City, Minn., being treated for alcohol abuse, and last year he was suspended for 30 days for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy. About the only thing Dexter Manley, 31, has never been called is "humble."

One day last May, however, Manley sat speechless in front of the TV cameras. Testifying before a Senate hearing on illiteracy, he struggled valiantly, and in vain, to read a statement he had prepared. Reduced to tears by the anxiety of reading in public, Manley sat in silence for almost a minute. Finally, he was able to abandon his script and simply tell the legislators about the learning disability (poor auditory memory) that left him functionally illiterate and, until recently, able to read only at second-grade level.

Manley's problems had eluded his parents and his elementary, high school and college teachers. Like an estimated 23 million adult Americans unable to read above fourth-grade level, Manley, the youngest of four children of a chauffeur and a nurse's aide in Houston, grew up feeling isolated, angry and frustrated to the point of violence. "I'm baffled I ever made it this far," he says. "Usually, people like me end up in jail, or dead."

Three years ago, in perhaps his gutsiest move on or off the field, Manley finally—although at first secretly—sought help at the Lab School of Washington, D.C., an institution for the learning disabled. To the delight of his family—wife Glinda, 32, an image consultant, and children Derrick, 12 (his son from a previous marriage), Dexter II, 4, and Dalis, 3—Manley can now read "almost anything I want." He described his struggle to correspondent Marilyn Balamaci.

Having to repeat the second grade was the beginning of a life of frustration. I got 19 F's, so they put me in a special-ed class. Well, that's the professional name for it. Kids called it the dummy class. Most of the other kids were physically handicapped. My defects were that I couldn't read, write or spell. I couldn't understand why I was there. I felt like I wasn't normal. Other kids would call us retards. In fact, I was called so many negative things that after a while I began to believe them. And I began to hate myself.

I was kept in special ed through the sixth grade, and by fourth grade I had started taking out my frustrations on others. One time I went to sharpen my pencil and when I got back to my seat, I stuck the pencil into this girl's neck. Our neighbor's son delivered newspapers. One day—I don't know exactly why—I set the papers on fire and burned them all. The fire spread and destroyed a room in their house. My father had to work overtime to buy the family new furniture, and to this day I can remember the beating he gave me. I was also punished by being stuck in a closet for seven straight days. I went to school during the day, but as soon as I walked through the door at home, I was put into the closet. The closet! I ate and slept there. The only thing I saw was darkness. Because of that, I'm still afraid of the dark. Ask my wife. I have to have light.

I suppose some people would call that child abuse. But that extra dose of discipline in my father's house did help me. After that, I feared doing any wrong. Instead, I learned how to act, to cover up my defect, come up with excuses. Once, when I was about 12, a Sunday school teacher called on me to read a Bible passage. I just patted my pockets and pretended I'd lost my glasses. And I never went back.

In seventh grade I switched to Ryan junior high. There was no special-ed class there. I could walk around like a normal person. That's where I began to feel better about myself—especially because I was becoming a good football player. That gave me self-esteem. I knew I was gifted, but I still had problems. In school I could spell "dog," "cat," and write my name, but not much more. I could count my money and get the right change, but I didn't know any other math. I guess the reason hardly anyone flunked me—I got mostly C's and D's—was because I could be a nice kid. I always went to class and always wanted to learn. That goodwill and determination on my part really helped me get in good with the teachers. But I couldn't do the work. So I started looking at other kids' papers, you know, cribbing.

As a sophomore at Yates High School, I started for the varsity. Being unable to read didn't fit my image as a football star, so I just kept denying my problem and ignoring academics. I wanted to focus on what was good about Dexter Manley, not on the negative stuff. By the end of high school, I had 37 football scholarship offers. I went to Oklahoma State because I thought they had courses in hotel management and I figured, "I could do that." All you'd have to do is greet the customers, hand them the keys and ask them to spell their names.

At first I took a lot of phys ed classes. Basketball. Bowling. In other courses, like business or history, I would never do the essays on tests. All I could do were the multiple choice questions, and I would usually guess on those. My senior year it got real close when I had to pass a religion course to play sports. My girlfriend wrote the final paper for me. I never graduated, though, because I didn't have enough credits for a business major.

I never told anyone I was struggling. Why would I want to jeopardize my status as a big man on campus? I was feeling so important with all my scholarships. But inside, I knew that if I didn't make it in football, in four years I'd be nowhere in life. When I got drafted by the Redskins in 1981, I just kind of suppressed my problems. But in many ways nothing had changed. Like the time [Bears coach] Mike Ditka said that I had the IQ of a grapefruit. I've been hearing hurting remarks all my life, so I came back with some remark to show I wasn't hurt. But I was hurting.

I tried to fool my teammates. I'd walk into Redskin Park carrying the Wall Street Journal under my arm and pretend to read it in the locker room. I'd sit there and flip through the pages, move my head, move my eyes. The funny thing is, now that I've gone public about my disability, some of my teammates don't believe me. They think it's some kind of PR stunt. They've even started joking about it. [Defensive tackle] Darryl Grant asked me, "Man, if you can't read or write, how do you get off the Beltway? For seven years, you ought to be still riding around." The truth is I used to have problems with the Beltway. But I memorized the exits.

It's the same in restaurants. I could read "hamburger," "steak," "shrimp." At French and Italian restaurants, I'd order anything other people ordered. And when I'd go to my favorite spots, I'd simply say, "You know my special," and smile. Finally, in 1986, I told my wife I needed help. I was tired of hiding. She said she really felt good about me telling her, but she was sorry that I'd had to live a lie for so long. Up until then I would fake it, even with her. She would be reading—she has a bachelor of science degree from Arizona State—and I'm sitting there acting like I'm also reading. I would get her to read me the articles that were written about me by pretending I was too busy to read them myself.

But then, in November 1985, Joe Theismann, our quarterback, broke his leg. I'll never forget that game. Here's a guy on top of the world, a Notre Dame grad, a very well-spoken man. And in one play his career is over. It filled me with fear. I suddenly realized it could happen to me. I had no choice but to get some help. I knew that I couldn't play football forever.

The following year, I secretly enrolled in the Lab School. I made my teacher, Sara Hines, swear she wouldn't tell anybody. I had daytime tutoring, and sometimes there were a lot of kids around. They'd stop me in the halls and ask, "Dexter, what are you doing here?" I would lie and tell them I was a consultant. For a while I went to classes with other adults. They were just like me. At school I started liking myself better. I found out I have poor auditory memory. I can't remember what sounds the letters make, and I have trouble blending them into words. We use my strong visual memory to make up for my weak auditory memory. Like the word "contract." I first see "con" from "control." Then I see "tract" from "tractor." Now we're using special cards to improve my phonics. I go for private tutoring every Tuesday. Soon I'll go twice a week. The most important thing is patience. At first, when I couldn't get the words right, I'd get real frustrated. Now I can read almost anything I want to, but I get nervous if I have to read out loud in public. Being able to read makes me feel as if I'm finally beginning to experience life.

I've also learned that it's okay to have some weaknesses and admit them. I wouldn't say my alcohol problems were directly connected to not being able to read, but maybe I didn't want to face reality. That's why I'm talking about this now.

I've been getting stacks of letters. Everybody's been writing to me from all over the country, especially kids. I cry when I read their letters. Every time I get a sack this season, I'm going to donate money to the literacy program in Washington. We can overcome this problem. It's going to be a lot of work, but nothing's going to turn me back. It's the priority of my life now, because I have kids. I don't want them or anybody else to have the same struggles I did.

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