There was no question that former Denver Broncos defensive end Lyle Alzado was a freak of nature on and off the football field.
Alzado trained like a beast in the weight room dating back to his high school days. He also held his own in the boxing ring. In fact, he fought the great Muhammad Ali in an exhibition match in 1979.
Alzado wasn’t just intense in his athletic endeavors, however. He also displayed volatile, bizarre, and erratic behavior off the gridiron several times during his pro football career.
Nonetheless, Alzado, a two-time Pro Bowl defensive end, also had a soft side. Some people viewed him as a warm, caring, and gentle soul. His charity work during his tenure with the Broncos helped him win the Byron “Whizzer” White Award in 1977.
Sadly, Lyle Alzado passed away in the spring of 1992. Football fans will forever remember him for his intensity and tenacity on the gridiron.
Lyle Martin Alzado was born to parents Maurice and Martha in Brooklyn, NY on April 3, 1949.
According to Sports Illustrated’s Sarah Pileggi, Alzado inherited Spanish and Italian blood from his father’s side of the family. On the other hand, his mother’s side was of Jewish descent.
Alzado grew up in Long Island, NY in a suburb of Inwood. He remembered enduring freezing conditions in their house after his dad tore off the remaining heater in frustration.
Maurice Alzado’s failed paint business and bar ventures prompted him to become a professional boxer in subsequent years.
He began teaching Lyle the so-called “manly art of self-defense” when he was just six years old in the mid-1950s – an era dominated by famous boxers Rocky Marciano, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Floyd Patterson.
Lyle met his best friend Marc Lyons, a future high school football coach, during their junior high school days. Each boy stayed at the other’s house when their family life became unbearable at certain points in time.
Maurice Alzado left his family when Lyle was a sophomore at Lawrence High School in Cedarhurst, NY, per Pileggi.
Before long Martha Alzado and her children had to move to a dilapidated apartment. She found a job at a local flower store that paid a measly $60 per week to feed her starving family.
Lyle somehow found ways to make ends meet. He worked as a janitor at Lawrence High when he was 16 years old. His dire financial situation also prompted his high school coach to lend him lunch money regularly.
Lyons told Pileggi in 1977 that Alzado worked out regularly and skipped liquor and drugs when they were in high school. He, Lyle, Richie Mollo, and Sal Ciampi pumped iron at Mollo’s father’s garage. The boys made it a habit to write their lifting records on the walls.
— ONE HUNDRED PLUS (@100Plus2) November 29, 2014
However, Alzado didn’t have a clean track record, either. He got into bar fights, stole cars, and trespassed on private property. Consequently, authorities arrested him several times.
Alzado took pride in never getting beaten up when he was in high school. He credited the bouncer job his dad gave him for that. He had picked up the nuances of back-alley fighting back then.
Although Alzado had his fair share of shenanigans, he was undoubtedly an incredible athlete. Aside from excelling at defensive end with head football coach Jack Martilotta’s Lawrence Golden Tornadoes, he also excelled in the boxing ring and track.
At one point, Alzado racked up 27 consecutive bouts in the Police Athletic League. He also finished the 100-meter dash in 9.9 seconds and the 200-meter dash in 21.9 seconds.
Alzado envisioned himself playing for his hometown New York Giants back in high school, per Sports Illustrated.
Although that never became a reality, Lyle Alzado eventually became a big-name defensive end with the Denver Broncos when he entered the pro football ranks some four years later.
Before that transpired, Alzado made a name for himself at the little-known Yankton College in South Dakota in the next phase of his gridiron journey.
College Days With The Yankton Greyhounds
As Alzado’s high school football career reached greater heights in his senior year, he received feelers from some renowned college football programs.
Unfortunately, he had to overcome a huge stumbling block – his below-average high school marks.
Seemingly out of nowhere, the New Mexico State Aggies offered Alzado a full scholarship, which he accepted. For some strange reason, the school reneged on its commitment to Alzado two weeks before he was about to set foot on campus grounds.
Alzado never knew why the Aggies did that. He told Pileggi that school authorities must have obtained his police record.
Undaunted, Alzado tried his luck at Kilgore Junior College in Texas. The coaches sized him up at split end because of his speed. Regrettably, Alzado didn’t have adept catching skills so they passed on him.
A distraught Alzado hitched a ride to New Orleans, LA, and called his old football coach, Martilotta. The latter sent him money, so he could go back to New York.
Martilotta lent Alzado a helping hand again in the next few weeks. He reached out to Yankton College in South Dakota which had previously recruited players from Alzado’s part of New York.
Lyle Alzado finally found the school that would help him lay the foundation for his career in the National Football League.
Today would have been Lyle Alzado's 73rd Birthday. One of Yankton College's famous alums, Alzado was Super Bowl XVIII champion & the 1982 NFL AP Comeback POY. When YC closed in 1984, Yankton wasn't to see college football again until @MMULancersFB hit the field in 2021! pic.twitter.com/8iKANxNqKc
— ESPN 101.5FM, AM1570 (@1015FM1570AM) April 4, 2022
He initially wanted to major in physical education but had a change of heart and majored in special education instead, per Sports Illustrated.
Alzado promptly picked up where he left off at his friend’s father’s garage in New York. He pumped iron like a madman in his freshman year at Yankton. The results were astonishing. He had packed on 40 pounds of lean muscle mass by Christmas Day 1967.
Alzado became so enamored with lifting that Yankton College soon named its weight room in his honor.
Alzado’s efforts in the weight room also translated to more accolades on the gridiron. He earned All-Tri-State Conference twice in his four-year college football career. He also won the Copper Bowl MVP award and made it to the College All-Star roster.
Not only that, but Lyle Alzado also excelled as a pugilist. He made it to the Golden Gloves tournament final in Nebraska only to lose to Ron Stander via a controversial split decision in 1969.
Alzado and Lyons got their hands dirty during their summer breaks. They helped dispose of trash for the Inwood Sanitation Department. Their 20-pound vests and ankle weights supplied additional resistance for their makeshift five-mile workouts. For many people, that would’ve sufficed as a workout.
Not Lyle Alzado and Marc Lyons, however. They lifted weights for another three hours in their friend’s garage before they went their separate ways for yet another workout – Alzado in the boxing ring and Lyons on the baseball diamond.
Despite Alzado’s otherworldly work ethic in the weight room, gridiron, and boxing ring, he had a dark side few people knew about.
In a first-person essay Alzado wrote in Sports Illustrated in 1991, he admitted he began taking steroids in 1969. He remembered taking 50 milligrams of Dianabol daily. It was a decision Alzado would regret many years later.
Alzado’s chance encounter with the NFL’s Denver Broncos was serendipitous, to say the least.
Toward the end of Alzado’s college football career, Broncos assistant coach Stan Jones’ car engine seized in Butte, MT. Jones spent the next few hours watching film at Montana Tech where he saw Lyle Alzado in action.
Jones initially scouted a Montana State halfback. However, Alzado kept making one play after another, and his strength, quickness, and toughness impressed Jones to no end. At that point, he wanted Alzado in Broncos Blue and Orange.
Jones’ hunch was right on the money – Lyle Alzado would eventually emerge as one of the toughest and meanest defensive ends in the National Football League in his heyday.
Pro Football Career
The Denver Broncos made Lyle Alzado the 79th overall selection of the 1971 NFL Draft.
Broncos co-owner Gerald Phipps told Pileggi that Alzado was immature when he first played for the team. Alzado had a quick trigger and didn’t play to his potential during his first few years in the Mile High City.
From Alzado’s perspective, he was a step ahead of everyone else on the gridiron.
“My first year with the Broncos, I was like a maniac,” Alzado wrote in Sports Illustrated in 1991 (via ESPN’s Mike Puma). “I outran, outhit, outanythinged everybody. All along I was taking steroids and I saw that they made me play better and better.”
Fortunately, Alzado’s infectious demeanor and intensity quickly rubbed off on his teammates as he gained experience in the National Football League. He became the Broncos’ difference-maker.
The Denver Broncos selected no. 7⃣7⃣ Lyle Alzado in the 4th round of the 1971 NFL Draft. Alzado passed away in 1992 & would have turned 73 today. He was a Bronco DL from 1971–1978. He played with a ferocity and tenacity seldom seen. He was a 1977 1st-Team All-Pro & the DPOY. RIP. pic.twitter.com/T84eDggH99
— Mile High Moments (@MileHighMoments) April 3, 2022
Alzado racked up a team-leading 10.5 sacks and 91 tackles in his second season in 1972. He set a new franchise record with 13.0 sacks two years later.
Denver’s nine wins in 1976 were the most in head coach John Ralston’s five-year tenure with the squad. To the Broncos’ fans’ dismay, they missed the postseason for the seven straight year since joining the NFL in 1970.
To make matters worse, Lyle Alzado injured his right knee in the Broncos’ first game of 1976 and had to sit out the rest of the season.
Assistant trainer Steve Antonopulos told Pileggi a year later that he considered Lyle Alzado the hardest-working player he had ever seen. He typically rehabbed for an hour-and-a-half in the gym before his teammates showed up for work.
Little wonder Alzado became Denver’s strongest player as his pro football career progressed.
Alzado was far and away the most popular Bronco at the peak of his pro football career in the Mile High City. A mid-1970s poll asked junior high school students from the Denver area who was the Broncos player they would like to meet the most.
Alzado received 700 votes. His closest pursuer, running back Floyd Little, was a distant second with just 12 votes, per Pileggi.
Alzado wasn’t popular just because he was a football player. He also earned a reputation as a stellar philanthropist. He contributed to various charitable causes focusing on various disorders including leukemia, diabetes, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, cystic fibrosis, and cancer.
Remarkably, Alzado did most of his charity work every Tuesday – his lone day off during the football season. One time he had commitments at the Children’s Hospital, Cancer Society, and a local drug prevention center. He had to promise the attendees he would do more at the end of the NFL season.
To nobody’s surprise, Alzado won the Byron “Whizzer” White Award for his exceptional community service in 1977.
According to Sports Illustrated, Alzado getting to meet former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali at the award ceremony in Chicago was the greatest moment of his life.
It was arguably also the most memorable time in Alzado’s NFL career. He earned consecutive Pro Bowl nods in 1977 and 1978. He had a combined 17.0 sacks, three fumble recoveries, and one safety during that memorable two-year span.
Alzado also became a First-Team All-Pro and Second-Team All-Pro selection in 1977 and 1978, respectively.
After averaging barely seven wins per year and missing the postseason from 1971 to 1976, the Broncos turned the corner under new head coach Red Miller in 1977. Denver averaged 11 wins per season in Alzado’s last two years with the squad from 1977 to 1978.
The Broncos played in the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history in 1977. Unfortunately, they lost to Tom Landry’s Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XII, 27-10. Alzado and Rubin Carter became the first teammates in team history to record multiple sacks in a playoff game, per ESPN.
Unfortunately, Alzado’s eight-year tenure in Denver ended following the 1978 NFL season due to a contract dispute. Consequently, the Broncos traded him to the Cleveland Browns.
At this point in Alzado’s career, he toyed with the idea of making the transition to boxing – a sport he was familiar with since he was just six years old.
The thought crossed Alzado’s mind after he sparred eight rounds with legendary heavyweight Muhammad Ali – the boxing icon he had met in Chicago two years earlier.
August 12, 1979: #Browns acquire vet All-Pro DE Lyle Alzado from Denver. Alzado a colorful person on & off field infused CLE defense w/ spark & presence from ‘79-‘81 it lacked. Angered Broncos, forced trade w/ contract demands + boxing Muhammad Ali 1 month earlier! #KardiacKid pic.twitter.com/DlcybzkVqe
— On This Day: Cleveland Sports (@CityfanC) August 12, 2021
Alzado ultimately decided to remain on the gridiron. He racked up a combined 17.5 sacks in the 1980 and 1981 NFL seasons.
Cleveland averaged eight wins per year during Alzado’s three-year tenure in Northeast Ohio from 1979 to 1981. They made the postseason in 1980 but lost to Jim Plunkett’s Oakland Raiders in the AFC Divisional Round, 14-12.
The Browns traded Alzado to the Los Angeles Raiders for an eighth-round draft choice on April 28, 1982.
According to UPI’s Sam Burnett, Alzado didn’t feel as bad as he did when the Broncos traded him to the Browns three years earlier. He looked forward to the opportunity with the Raiders, who had just relocated to Los Angeles from Oakland in 1982.
By the time Alzado joined Al Davis’ Raiders, his steroid use had reached epic and full-blown proportions.
He spent approximately $30,000 annually on steroids. He bought them at various fitness centers all over the country, per ESPN.
Alzado’s extreme fascination with performance-enhancing drugs took a toll on his second marriage. Alzado’s mood swings wore thin on his second wife Cindy, who claimed to ESPN that she reached out to authorities at least five times because he abused her physically. Alzado never served time in jail.
Lyle and Cindy met during their high school days in New York. After the former divorced his first wife, the two reunited in 1981, per The Los Angeles Times’ Lance Pugmire.
When the couple tried to conceive, Cindy told Lyle his steroid use could affect their ability to have a baby. He dropped the habit for several months, and they welcomed their son Justin in 1982. Unfortunately, Alzado started taking steroids again after he was born.
When Alzado joined the Silver and Black in 1982, he confessed to ESPN that he helped supply some of his Raiders teammates with anabolic steroids.
Alzado also mentioned in his first-person essay in Sports Illustrated that he never slept more than four hours a night during this time.
His teammate, defensive end Greg Townsend, witnessed the two sides of Alzado’s personality first-hand.
“The guy had a split personality,” Townsend told ESPN. “On the field, he had this tough image he projected. Off the field he was a gentle giant. So caring, so warm, so giving.”
Alzado also argued constantly with Raiders team doctor Robert Huizenga, who told him his steroid use had drastically affected his liver and cholesterol levels.
Alzado would have none of it. He told Dr. Huizenga to leave him alone, per The Los Angeles Times.
On the other hand, Raiders defensive back Mike Haynes told Pugmire in 1992 that he remembered hearing Alzado, whose room was next to his during training camp, regularly screaming at the telephone.
When Haynes ran into Alzado some fifteen minutes later, the latter had mellowed considerably and acted as if nothing had happened.
Alzado made an immediate impact with the Raiders. He recorded 7.0 sacks in the 1982 strike-shortened campaign and promptly earned NFL Comeback Player of the Year honors.
Although Alzado had earned another feather in his cap, he manifested bizarre behavior on and off the football field.
In a game against the New York Jets in 1982, he took off offensive tackle Chris Ward’s helmet in a violent manner and threw it away. Alzado’s actions compelled the NFL to ban helmet throwing from that point onward.
Alzado recorded 7.0 sacks in the 1983 NFL season. He racked up 2.5 sacks in Los Angeles’ 38-10 dismantling of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Divisional Round.
Leading up to Super Bowl XVIII at Tampa Stadium on January 22, 1984, Alzado told the media he would decapitate Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann.
Although that never materialized, Lyle Alzado earned his first and only Super Bowl ring after the Raiders prevailed over the Redskins in lopsided fashion, 38-9.
Alzado’s production declined in the final two years of his NFL career. Not counting his injury-riddled season with the Broncos in 1976, he recorded a career-low 3.0 sacks with the Raiders in 1985.
Lyle Alzado retired from the pro gridiron following the 1985 NFL season. He tried making a comeback with the Raiders at the age of 41 five years later. Los Angeles released him after just one preseason game.
Alzado confessed to taking human growth hormone (HGH) during his comeback attempt, per Sports Illustrated.
Alzado finished his 15-year NFL career with 112.0 sacks, 20 fumble recoveries, one fumble recovery for a touchdown, and three safeties.
Through it all, Lyle Alzado gave credit to football for turning his life around.
“I owe everything to football,” he told Sports Illustrated in December 1977. “Without football I’d probably be dealing dope on a street corner or sitting in a jail somewhere.”
Post-Football Life And Death
Lyle Alzado had a son Justin with his second wife, Cindy. He married his third wife Kathy, a fashion model, in the spring of 1991, per Sports Illustrated.
Sadly, Lyle Alzado passed away on May 14, 1992. He was 43 years old.
According to ESPN, Alzado succumbed to a rare form of cancer known as brain lymphoma. At the time of his death, there was no link between anabolic steroids and that particular disorder. Nonetheless, Alzado was sure the drugs were the root cause of his cancer.
Alzado wrote in his first-person essay for Sports Illustrated in 1991 that he knew his health had deteriorated drastically when he watched his wedding video. His limping movements as he walked his bride down the aisle was the clearest indication.
Alzado experienced dizzy spells two days later. He lost his appetite and didn’t consume food for four days. After doctors examined his brain biopsy, they told him he had cancer.
A remorseful Alzado admitted he didn’t tell the truth about his steroid use for many years.
“I lied to a lot of people for a lot of years when I said I didn’t use steroids,” Alzado wrote in Sports Illustrated in the summer of 1991.
Alzado appeared in several movies including Ernest Goes to Camp, Destroyer, Mike Hammer: Murder Takes All, Club Fed, and Neon City in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Lyle Alzado became a member of the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 2008.