GAITHERSBURG — Dexter Manley did not come to Save A Life Montgomery to talk about all the quarterbacks he sacked or his two Super Bowl rings.
Instead, the former Washington Redskins defensive end once nicknamed “Secretary of Defense” spoke to parents and young people gathered at Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg to speak about his personal story of drug abuse, 38 stays in rehab, and his shame at entering college “functionally illiterate.”
Speakers from the County’s police, schools and government, as well as the offices of the State’s Attorney’s and the governor were featured during a four-hour event highlighting the dangers of alcohol and drug abuse, and how it can crush a person’s dreams.
“In Maryland, right now, we are losing an average of six lives a day,” Clay Stamp, Gov. Larry Hogan’s emergency management advisor, told the audience. “We have to raise the conversation. I meet with people every day who lost a loved one.”
He called for fewer incarcerations and more education and drug-treatment programs.
So far this year, there has been a 66 percent increase in the number of overdoses in Maryland as compared to last year, said Steve Chaikin, a former State’s Attorney,
During one session, Captain Charles Carafano of the Montgomery County Police Department asked several high school students what careers they were interested in. After hearing their lofty goals, he had them sit in a pretend car on route to their homecoming dance. Then another officer with his drug-sniffing dog stopped the car and found a hidden bag with drugs and a weapon.
Within a few minutes of playing out this scenario, the teenagers had all denied knowledge of the bag and were arrested, as Carafano told them to kiss their dreams goodbye.
“Today is about life’s choices,” he said. By getting into a car without really knowing the driver, “you just gave him control of your life.” He urged them to not let their emotions drive their actions.
Manley, who also played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Phoenix Cardinals, knows all too well how bad choices can destroy a person’s dreams and goals. His successful football career ended abruptly in December 1991, when he retired from football after failing his fourth drug test.
Manley grew up in Houston, surrounded by a loving family and his church, but also a bad neighborhood. “I grew up in a community where people were shooting each other,” he said in a booming voice.
Manley started playing football in the seventh grade.
“We kept winning championships,” he said. “I never did drugs and alcohol” until Manley entered the National Football League and saw other players stepping up their game through drugs.
Soon the man who was “so glad to be out of the hood,” where one of his brothers was killed and another ended up in jail, was offered “by a lady in Georgetown” – and accepted – cocaine.
“I started experimenting with cocaine. I want to tell you, I regretted it.”
Soon, the man who had been so successful, was in over his head and ended up in a drug rehab facility.
“I was 27 years old. I was on the second-grade reading level. I didn’t want to face that just like I didn’t want to face that I had a drug problem.”
He continued going on and off drugs as his football career blossomed, but failed drug tests stopped him more than any football blocker could.
Confronted with the fact that he was about to be banned for life from the game he loved when he failed his fourth drug test, Manley chose retirement and headed back for treatment.
It wasn’t until his arrest in 2004 that Manley began to turn his life around.
“They took me to jail. I couldn’t believe it,” he said.
Manley stayed clean for a while but returned to drugs again.
Then in 2006, he was hospitalized for three months following 15 hours of brain surgery to treat a Colloid cyst.
He never used drugs again, he told the crowd as he pulled up his pant leg to show off his bright red socks. Since 2006, he’s been wearing only red socks as his way of marking the end of his drug use.
“This June 17, I have 12 years. I weathered the storm.”