Crack Baby keeps his dad's football card in his apartment. Maybe it'll jog his memory, because for the life of him, he cannot recall his old man rushing the passer. The cocaine, he can remember. The illiteracy, he can remember. The divorce, he can remember. The jail, he can remember. The weapon by his bed, he can remember. But his old man ringing Joe Montana's clock—he can't place it.
He asks people, Was my dad fast? Was he a beast? The answers are always, "Yes, and a good guy, too." But it doesn't soothe him enough so that he wants to call his dad right then and there. He's tried that. He's tried it and nearly been hung up on. He's tried writing him a letter, too. But the hell with that now. Let Dexter Manley call him. That's right. Let Dexter Manley the first call Dexter Manley the second. Because the kid's about done.
Where did it all go wrong? Dexter Manley, the charismatic All-Pro defensive end from the Washington Redskins' glory days, used to boast, "I treat my son like royalty." He'd kiss his son on both cheeks. He had a bumper sticker that read, "It's Better to Build Children Than Repair Adults." He was considered a role model for learning to read at the age of 28. For telling his story to Congress. For sobbing about it on C-Span. But then a drug test got him, and then Paul Tagliabue got him, and then the police got him, and that left his son hearing a new nickname at middle school: Crack Baby.
It's hard being Dexter Manley the second. And, at one point, his mother, Glinda, wanted him to be Dexter Manley erased. She considered legally changing his name, but he told her no. He told her no, even though a boy at school said, "You're dumb just like your dad." He told her no, even though his dad was in jail when he graduated from high school. He told her no, because "I loved my dad and looked up to him still." He told her no, because he still thought he could, once and for all, fix a teetering relationship.
By playing college football. By killing the quarterback.
That had to work. Right?
A COACH from Washington State University is in a tiny junior college film room, his eyes bugging out.
He has just watched a 6'3", 250-pound man-child with 5% body fat chase down one of the best juco running backs in California … from 20 yards away. And he has just heard the man-child's first and last names. He's sold. He's ready to offer Dexter Manley the second a scholarship.
The head coach at Ole Miss, Ed Orgeron, who helped run USC's defense a year ago, feels the same way. And so do coaches from Marshall and Missouri. Letters have flooded in from almost every Pac-10 school, not to mention Michigan. The man-child is raw and in need of serious coaching, but he seems to have the speed and physique to be a D1 college football animal.
Back in Washington, D.C., the original man-child shakes his head. Little Dexter is excelling at football? The kid they always dressed in bow ties? It is hard for Big Dexter to fathom this. He always considered his son a "suburb kid." A scared kid. A kid afraid of everybody leaving him.
He'll never forget how 5-year-old Little Dexter stood at the door on nights Big Dexter was leaving and said, "Daddy, are you going out to use drugs?" Or how Little Dexter waited at the top of the steps, later that night, saying, "Daddy, let me smell your breath."
Or how Little Dexter told total strangers, "My daddy did crack." Or how Little Dexter, on nights Big Dexter was gone, kept a baseball bat and a toy rifle under his bed in case a burglar broke in. Or how he asked everyone he met, "Are you stronger than my daddy?"
He even asked Big Dexter's teammate, Charles Mann, if he was stronger than his dad, and Mann answered, "No one's stronger than your daddy." But one morning, Big Dexter—hung over on cocaine—told his son, "Daddy ain't strong anymore." And Little Dexter almost lost his mind. "But you're the strongest on this block, right?" he shouted.
So Big Dexter always felt his son was too nervous to play football, thought he didn't have enough of an edge. But what did he know? He was barely around him, and he was slipping deeper inside his addiction. Before a game at RFK Stadium, Big Dexter actually got on his hands and knees to search for a cocaine spoon he dropped. He told the trainer he was looking for his contact lens, even though he didn't wear contacts. Before a November 1989 game at Philadelphia, he let 3-year-old Dexter run on the field at the Vet, because he knew he was being banned from the NFL the following week. He cried that day, because he thought he and his son would never run on a football field again.
He was reinstated after a year and had a cup of coffee with Arizona in 1990 and Tampa Bay in 1991 before being forced to retire because of another relapse. "Daddy, were you bad again?'' 5-year-old Little Dexter asked him. The entire family then joined Big Dexter at a Tucson rehab center, and a counselor asked Little Dexter to sketch a picture to express his feelings. Using crayons, he drew his father walking out the front door of their house. And then he drew himself weeping.
In 1992, Big Dexter signed with the CFL's Ottawa Rough Riders, and he invited Little Dexter to the press conference. The boy was in his bow tie, as usual, and afterward, he and Big Dexter raced each other in the empty stadium. That really was their last time running together on a football field.
Big Dexter just couldn't stay clean. He used cocaine in Canada, and Glinda divorced him. Little Dexter, who felt he had to protect his mom and younger sister, Dalis, would roam the house after midnight, double-checking locks. He would lie in bed crying for his father and throw up his breakfast before school. He had a learning disability similar to his dad's, an auditory memory issue that also left him struggling with reading comprehension, and it upset him that Glinda was sending him in a taxicab to a special school. "Well," Glinda says, "my son was not going to be like his father."
It only got worse. Big Dexter was arrested for cocaine possession in Houston in July 1995. The arrest was videotaped by a TV crew—Big Dexter being chased down the highway on foot—and it was broadcast back to DC. Glinda was furious with him, afraid of what her kids would hear in school. While Big Dexter was serving 14 months in prison, she decided to move them to Atlanta.
But there was no escaping it. Little Dexter began hearing the Crack Baby comments in Georgia, which is why he was in no rush to emulate his dad and play football. He ended up trying the sport for a year in middle school, but showed little fire for it. His dad had played catch with him only once in his life and showed up for just one game all that season. So the boy quit. No dad, no football. "I really needed him when sports came into my life," Little Dexter says. "Just to say, Dad, can we go throw? Can we go talk? Can we take a walk?' Deep inside of me was hurt and pain.
"Part of me didn't want to play football because I had a lot of anger toward him. I'd say, Don't say I'm like my father. Because I'm not. I'm me.' I had a lot of anger in my heart. So I said, `I don't want to be like him. Let me go do this other sport, basketball.' "
So Little Dexter took his football body to hoops. By his junior year of high school, he considered himself a mini-Barkley. Big Dexter came to see for himself. The students were impressed by the celebrity sighting, and Little Dexter-who sensed his dad was reaching out-told coaches he would play football during his senior year at Fayette County High in 2002. But then the news broke: Big Dexter had been found with drugs near his home in Houston, and this time he'd serve two years.
Suddenly, Little Dexter's heart wasn't in football, or anything else. He knew his dad would be locked up on graduation day, knew classmates would ask where he was. "I called him from jail," Big Dexter says, "and Little Dexter cried and cried. I was so sad. I did it to myself. My actions have really disappointed my children."
In a fit of anger, Little Dexter wrote his dad a letter. It was two pages, typed. Little Dexter told his dad they were virtual strangers, that he'd missed much of his life, that it was time to straighten himself out. Big Dexter never responded.
When Big Dexter got out of jail in March 2004, Little Dexter, Dalis and their half-brother, Derrick, flew to see him. The two Dexters hugged and said they loved each other, but the letter never came up. It was an evening full of denial, with Big Dexter saying, "It's great to see you, Little Dexter."
"Don't call me Little Dexter," the son said. "I'm not little any more."
BIG DEXTER'S celebrity followed Little Dexter to California, although maybe that wasn't a horrible thing. He had come to Santa Monica College for basketball, a sport he'd never had the physique for, and what saved him was his name. That name.
His basketball coach, Trevor Shickman, says Little Dexter was known as The Governor because he shook everybody's hand. That was the Big Dexter in him-the never-ending charisma. But the kid also had that learning disability, and it made school a chore. Shickman, who keeps only players who have enough credits to transfer, kicked him off the team. It would have been a setback, except the football coaches had already been in his ear.
A couple of them had witnessed his Barkley act on the court, and when they realized who he was, they asked him why he was playing a soft sport like basketball. "Football's in your blood," they said. They told him to come out for spring practice, that D1 scouts would see his speed and drool. A scholarship? His mom would love that. She worked at a Chico's in Atlanta, struggling to pay his juco tuition, and his dad hadn't made a child support payment since 1999.
But more than that, football felt like home. He'd spent his life trying not to be Big Dexter, but he says the sound of cleats on concrete at spring practice made the hair on his neck stand on end. He'd hear one of his dad's favorite Luther Vandross songs and get emotional. "I kind of forgave him," he says.
And get a load of what happened next: the coaches let Little Dexter Manley line up at defensive end. "That's where I wanted to play," he says. "If I was going to do it, I was going to do it all the way. I did it for my dad."
But to Big Dexter, his son's gesture barely registered. He was just out of a halfway house and borrowing money from his friends. He was distracted and in need of a job. He got lucky when a nonprofit rehab program in DC called Second Genesis offered him work as a motivational speaker.
Little Dexter kept inviting him to games. But Big Dexter made it to only one, the season finale. Little Dexter was still new to the sport, and after every play, he'd look for his dad in the stands for feedback. Big Dexter would give him a thumbs up or yell, "Fire off the ball," and Little Dexter says, "I loved it. Nothing could have been better than that." But, where had his dad been all year? That's also what Little Dexter was thinking. "Well, I do love my son," says Big Dexter. "It's just sometimes I might not know how to show it."
This season Little Dexter's play was markedly better. He had three sacks in a preseason scrimmage-and called his dad immediately. It was 10 p.m. in DC, and the phone woke Dexter and Lydia, his wife since 1997. "I had three sacks today, Daddy." Little Dexter says. "He didn't give me what the person on the street would've give me."
The two Dexters played phone tag the next morbning, but Little Dexter decided that afternoon not to call his dad back. No more calling back. Lydia, who'd watched it all, said jail had "hardened Big Dexter, In terms of the ability to love, to really care about somebody else." He seemed nuimb.
But it wasn't just jail. Lydia had breast cancer and was undergoing chemo. Glinda had sued him for back child support and won. And he'd left his job at Second Genesis because of a money squabble. Big Dexter didn't mean any harm; he was reeling.
But that wasn't Little Dexter's fault. It was rough being Dexter Manley's son, rough carrying his father's demons. Like the learning disability. Little Dexter wouldn't tell teachers he had one-"out of pride," Glinda says-so he was losing his chance to take oral exams instead of written ones. He began dropping classes because he couldn't keep up, and the football coaches warned him he wouldn't be able to transfer to a D1 school next summer if that continued. Glinda finally alerted Little Dexter's counselor, and now Little Dexter will get extra help academically. He's a bright kid. It's not too late.
Ole Miss and Missouri have been particularly enthralled by his 4.5 speed and are recruiting him simply to rush the passer next year. But Little Dexter's missed some sacks recently, and one of his coaches felt he needed a lift. So he brought him something: his father's football card. "Can I have it? Can I have it?" Little Dexter asked. He stares at it, wanting so badly to ask his daddy about the Redskins days, about pass-rushing. But he's not going to call him first. Not anymore. "It hurts to hear that," Big Dexter says.
So Big Dexter's coming out to see him. At the end of October, he says, he's flying out. Of course, Little Dexter's heard this before. He's heard it for months. He's heard it since he was 5, standing at the top of the stairs with a toy rifle. But Big Dexter still thinks he can fix all of this, still thinks he can get it together.
He still thinks he can be the strongest daddy on the block.