Spellman returns to football after addressing disorder
Alonzo Spellman's life and NFL career were turned upside down due to bipolar disorder, writes Greg Garber.
LAS VEGAS -- Alonzo Spellman has lived the dazzling high of being an NFL first-round draft choice. He also knows the lows; he once spent six months in the depths of a depression in a darkened bedroom.
Today, Spellman will tell you the only place he can function with success is somewhere in between: the murky shadows of the gray area.
Spellman, sitting in a quiet hotel suite 27 floors above the circus that is the Mandalay Bay Casino, exhales deeply. There is an undeniable wisdom in his weary brown eyes. His face, creased and framed by sparse coils of unnaturally yellow hair, seems far older than 34 years.
|SPELLMAN ON 'SPORTSCENTER'|
Alonzo Spellman recently sat down with ESPN for an exclusive, in-depth interview to discuss his comeback. The feature will air Sunday during SportsCenter (10:30 a.m. ET, ESPN).
• Spellman fighting bipolar disorder
"It gets vanilla -- every day is like the same routine. It's about playing as fast as humanly possible and, when you leave the field, living a slow life. It might sound easy, but it's extremely difficult to do."
Gray, Spellman has come to learn, is good.
Many athletes struggle to separate life on and off the field, but for Spellman the degree of difficulty has been extraordinary. For while he was blessed with a magnificent 6-foot-4, 300-pound body, his brain is tragically flawed. Spellman suffers from bipolar I disorder, a disease that prematurely ended his nine-year NFL career and, on a number of occasions, nearly ended his life.
Dr. Xavier Amador, a professor at Columbia University, examined Spellman several years ago. "You think that the up periods are super -- they feel great -- you have energy, you have focus," Amador said. "The problem is when you invariably crash, you end up in that depressive period.
"It's chemical chaos in the brain."
The good news? After an initial diagnosis eight years ago, Spellman finally has accepted that he must take his daily medication, which calms the urge toward erratic and dangerous behavior. The disease is under control to the extent that, after a five-year absence, he is playing football again. Spellman just completed his first season with the Arena Football League's Las Vegas Gladiators, who went 5-11 and failed to make the playoffs.
The bare numbers suggest that Spellman's season was a failure, too. Spellman played nose tackle in all 16 games and produced this seemingly meager line: four tackles, three assists, two forced fumbles, one sack.
Make no mistake though, Spellman is exceedingly happy to be here. Unlike former Oakland Raiders center Barrett Robbins, who also suffers from bipolar disorder, Spellman is still in the game.
The video of his junior and senior seasons at Rancocas Valley Regional High School in Mount Holly, N.J., is, frankly, amazing.
Spellman, a head taller than most of the other players, virtually engulfs opposing runners. He seems to almost absorb them into his imposing body. That was the overwhelming thing, even back in the beginning -- his impossibly outsized body.
"He was bigger than life. I mean, you're not 6-foot-4, 245, 250 pounds with a 28-inch waist walking around the school building without attracting attention," said Raj Mackara, his high school defensive coordinator.
The attention came from all corners of the country. Spellman was a USA Today All-American, and many of the major schools recruited him as a linebacker and defensive end.
"He just had everything that they were looking for: size, speed, aggressiveness," said Bruce Lazaruk, Spellman's high school coach. "And that body everybody was like 'what a specimen.'"
Spellman went to Ohio State, where he stayed for three seasons. He was 20 years old when the Chicago Bears selected him in the first round of the 1992 NFL draft, making him one of the youngest picks ever.
"They always thought his potential was going to be great and he would grow into a great football player," said Don Pierson, who covered the Bears for the Chicago Tribune. "But here was a guy who was trapped inside of a man's body from the time he was a kid."
Spellman signed a four-year, $3.06 million rookie contract and, suddenly, he could have almost anything he wanted: cars, trucks, a house for his mom, a house of his own that was furnished completely in white.
"I was waking up every morning coming out of my house, looking at my car, looking at my clothes, and I was like 'man, this is great,'" Spellman said. "It was like lights, cameras, action every morning when I woke up.
"Money ain't everything, but it's right up there with air, you know what I mean?"
In 1996, the Bears matched a four-year, $12 million free agent offer from the Jacksonville Jaguars and Spellman responded with eight sacks, giving him a total of 23½ in a span of three seasons. But his relationship with the team began to deteriorate, and a shoulder injury forced him to miss the last nine games of the 1997 season. The Bears wanted him to undergo arthroscopic surgery, but he refused.
Yet that situation was minor relative to an offseason incident the following March.
He arrived early in the morning at the Tower Lakes home of his publicist, Nancy Mitchell, in suburban Chicago for a league-mandated steroids test. But when the doctor called to say a snowstorm would make him late for the 8 a.m. appointment, Spellman became angry. Spellman told Mitchell that he was going to kill himself. Mitchell, who had lost a son to suicide two years earlier, believed him and called 911. Spellman ground a cigarette into the rug, then pulled the phone off the wall. Police arrived and the story was suddenly all over Chicago radio and television.
Former Bears linebacker Mike Singletary, whose last season with Chicago was Spellman's first, heard reports of Spellman's being armed, having hostages, and threatening to kill himself. Singletary immediately drove to the house.
"Alonzo Spellman's in this house and he's surrounded by police, FBI helicopters flying around -- and I'm thinking, I'm hearing it, but I'm not really believing or understanding it," said Singletary, now the San Francisco 49ers linebackers coach . "I walked in the door. Alonzo was sitting there on a chair in the middle of the room. He had been drinking a bit.
"It was very obvious he was afraid and angry."
Yet very aware of the seriousness of the situation.
"I was manic, moving 100 miles per hour, my mouth was moving 100 miles per hour, my thoughts were moving 100 miles per hour -- and I wasn't putting my hands on anybody," Spellman said. "Somebody that big, moving that fast, talking that fast -- it gets scary, you know what I mean? And not only gets scary for them, it gets scary for the person that is bipolar too.
"And that's how bipolar starts. And some people, unfortunately, they die in that transition. That's how serious it is."
With Singletary at his side, Spellman checked into the Good Shepherd Hospital in Barrington for observation. But a day later, he walked out of the hospital, dressed only in his hospital pants, walking barefoot along Illinois Highway 22.
Later, a doctor told Spellman what was wrong.
"He said, 'you have bipolar [I] disorder,' and he went into explaining it," Spellman said. "I was like 'What? What?' Who wants to hear that they have chemicals in their brain that do what they want to do sometimes? Who wants to hear that?"
In June 1998, the Bears cut Spellman, who was growing increasingly dependent on alcohol and illegal drugs. That same month, he was arrested and charged on a felony weapons count in Michigan. In September, police found Spellman sleeping in his car parked in the fast lane of a highway. In November, he was still in denial over his medical diagnosis.
"The medical diagnosis, as far as I'm concerned, it doesn't apply to me at all," he said then in an ESPN interview. "I don't take the drugs, haven't taken them ever since this thing in the hospital, and haven't had any problems. And I'm not going to have any problems."
Nearly eight years later, Spellman listens attentively as the quote is read to him. He forces a thin smile.
If you have the athletic ability, the NFL can be a forgiving league. In the summer of 1999, still only 27, Spellman remained the physical specimen that had excited college recruiters. In fact, he was at an age when many players are just reaching their prime.The Dallas Cowboys gave Spellman a second chance to play in the NFL. With the aid of medication and a supportive staff, he recorded 10 sacks in two productive seasons. In 2001, Spellman signed with the Detroit Lions, who cut him after five games.
"I pretty much thought that was it," Spellman said. "That was the end, so I started to act out, and in acting out, going back into the fast-paced lane of living again. [Then] I had another manic episode."
The July 23, 2002 passenger manifest for Delta Flight 2038, a relatively short trip from Cincinnati to Philadelphia, included three members of the Spellman family. Alonzo, off his medication for some time, was heading back to New Jersey accompanied by his mother Dorothy and sister Lorraine. Their plan was to seek help at a psychiatric hospital.
Before the plane took off, Spellman, in Row 21, began talking loudly. Kris Riscavage, sitting two rows in front of Spellman, was startled.
"I believe he had a drink; after that he started quoting things from the Bible," Riscavage told ESPN recently. "And then from there, he started saying, 'If God didn't want us to get to Philadelphia, God would allow us to crash.'"
In retrospect, it wasn't the wisest thing for Spellman to say. "Whatever came to my mind, I said it, and I said it out loud, and I said it very aggressively," Spellman said. "It rubbed a lot of people the wrong way."
Spellman's size was intimidating enough to nearby passengers, but the context of his remarks was even more terrifying. Only 10 months earlier, terrorists had crashed planes into the World Trade Center.
"It just wouldn't seem right to do at the time, it was so close to 9/11," Riscavage said. "He's making threats of crashing into mountains, crashing the plane, possible bomb on board, 'I could possibly rip off the door' ... a man of his size, I could imagine he could probably rip off the door."
According to court documents, Spellman verbally abused a flight attendant, essentially threatening to kill her for interfering. When a young mother of two asked him to stop using profanity, Spellman turned on her. He called Karen Weaver, among other things, a whore and told her to silence her crying baby.
When the plane landed and he was approached by Captain Robert Freund, Spellman said, "I can feel the adrenaline rushing through my hands. I'm about to rip your throat out."
If police came aboard, Spellman said, "They are going to have to carry me off in a body bag."
Spellman's mother and sister never brought him under control, but Philadelphia police permitted Spellman to leave the plane and pick up his baggage. After another episode, during which he damaged the house of his brother John in Willingboro, N.J., Spellman was taken by police to the Lourdes Health System-Rancocas Hospital.
A week later, he was arrested by federal authorities and placed in a Philadelphia jail.
"I know that 9/11, seeing those planes hit those buildings, it was a lot of people's worst fears came to, came to surface in their mind," Spellman said. "Anybody that got on a plane after that, acting up, had to get spanked."
Dr. Amador, on behalf of the defense in federal case 02-494, U.S. vs. Alonzo Spellman, interviewed Spellman for 10 hours in prison in an attempt to determine whether he was legally insane during the incident.
"What my opinion was, and still is today, is that his illness created a situation where he couldn't monitor himself, he couldn't stop himself," said Amador, author of "I'm not Sick, I Don't Need Help." "We'd have a lot of sympathy for him if it was heart disease. People wouldn't stop and question, 'Did he do this to himself?' He didn't do this to himself, this is a no-fault brain disorder."
In January 2003, Spellman pleaded guilty to interference with a flight crew and two counts of simple assault on an aircraft. He was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison, where taking his bipolar medication was mandatory.
This is when, more than five years after the original diagnosis, Spellman finally learned to take his medicine.
"Handcuffs, shackles, an orange suit, dark room, that you can't control the light -- yeah," Spellman said, "that'll pretty much put it in perspective for you."
Football, always, was on his mind.
After he was released from prison in 2004, Spellman returned to New Jersey and strategized with his high school coaches. A return to the NFL was the objective.
"He still looked like this physical specimen, chiseled out of stone," Lazaruk said. "I said to him, 'Alonzo, you look great. You look like you're ready to step out and play.' He said, 'That's all I want, Coach, another chance to play.' "
Spellman contacted all 32 teams with the hope of landing a tryout. There were no takers. He participated in several regional combines, but nothing came of it.
"I was like, 'All right, fine, someone else is saying the cup is half full, not half empty, so I'm going to go there, and I'm going to do that."
That turned out to be the Arena Football League. The AFL's Gladiators had been investigating Spellman for more than a year when they finally signed him to a contract before the 2006 season. It was a relatively modest deal, something south of $100,000, but it was a new beginning for Spellman after five years out of the game.
Head coach Ron James and general manager Dan Dolby agreed that Spellman might be worth the risk.
"We saw an upside," Dolby said. "[He was] a prominent football player who could walk in here, who has had a great track record at the collegiate level and in the NFL and could come into Las Vegas and put a little bit of a name brand behind our product and then also deliver on the field for us."
There were rules, of course. Under the guidelines of his three-year probation, Spellman was required to see a psychiatrist twice a week and take his medication every single day.
"He knows this is his last chance," James said back in April . "When I sat him down, I said, 'Alonzo, this is your second chance, there won't be a third.' He understands that."
But in a February game in Dallas, Spellman momentarily lost control and was ejected for spitting at an opponent.
"He felt so dejected and distraught about that that he came to my hotel room that evening and broke down," James said. "We had a very long heart-to-heart conversation about that, and I knew that he was sincere. I also knew that the circumstances got overblown, and it hasn't even been close to an issue ever since."
The Gladiators' season ended on May 13 with a 44-27 defeat to the Los Angeles Avengers. Spellman was credited with zero tackles, zero sacks and one quarterback hurry. His primary position was in the middle of the defense at nose tackle, where team officials say he did a solid job of stuffing the run. This, they point out, accounts for his lack of impressive statistics.
Spellman is a free agent, but the Gladiators say they plan to talk to him about a 2007 contract.
While Spellman consistently downplayed his motivation to return to the NFL, those who know him say it has never left his mind.
"I know he wants to play in the NFL," Mackara said. "I know he wants to return, I know he wants to get it right."
It's a heartwarming thought, a comeback every football fan can root for. The reality, however, is that it probably won't happen. People in and around the league believe that a 34-year-old, with his history and who isn't as quick off the ball as he used to be, won't be given an opportunity to prove himself in NFL training camps later this summer.
So, should people feel sorry for Alonzo Spellman?
"No," Spellman said, "that would be the worst thing. Make me stand up and do the things I am supposed to do. Just like the next person, don't be sorry for me one bit.
"Pray for me, but don't be sorry for me. Pray for me, though."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.