Free fall

Once he was at the top, Alonzo Spellman lost everything. Jose Morse for ESPN

This story appeared in ESPN The Magazine's Sept. 21, 1998, issue. Subscribe today!

" I MEAN," Pooh whispers intensely, "They let Dennis act like he does, with his weird ass!" A pretty, rail-thin black waif with facial tattoos, Pooh talks in put-upon terms of Alonzo Spellman's exile. "Dennis" is Dennis Rodman, that other Chicago athlete with dyed hair, a striking entourage and a more than passing interest in women's fashion. But Rodman's life, for all its posturing and cross-dressing, works. He has his career and his money and his championship rings. At this late-August moment, all Alonzo Spellman has is a court date, at which you are an invited observer. Invited but with limits, maybe the only ones in Spellman's life at this juncture. You can watch and ask questions, but no notes. And now you're waiting in the back of a hushed Chicago courtroom for the onetime Bears defensive end to return from a conference with his attorney. Waiting quietly, you think, until a court deputy comes rushing at Pooh -- and you. "Come with me," he snarls, grabbing Pooh's arm. "Getcha damn hands off me!" she snaps back. And before the lawman manages to drag Pooh out, half the courtroom turns to witness the ruckus. You follow them out, and soon you're in the hallway with Pooh, Marshmallow, Undertaker and other charter members of Spellman's inner circle. Or family, or hangers-on, or whatever you call the random ensemble that has assumed the role of his surrogate kin. Most of the crew is here in Cook County Circuit Court to see if Judge G.L. Lott will unfreeze some $1.5 million, control of which Spellman forfeited when he twice failed to appear in court. It seems the mother of one of Alonzo's three children wants an increase from the $2,000 a month he pays in child support. It's a big day for Spellman -- the money is pretty much all that's left of the roughly $10 million he earned in six years with the Bears -- and for Pooh and the gang too. For as Alonzo's finances go, so go theirs.

Within moments, the meal ticket bursts out into the courthouse waiting room. He's gigantic, like the chocolate Incredible Hulk. His knotty hair is dyed straw blond to match his knotty beard. Arms like tree trunks are wrapped in the high-cut sleeves of a flowing, floral, autumnal shirt. Feet the size of parking spaces emerge in sandals from carmel genie pants. Silver hoop earrings dangle from both ears. The vision is a romantic's idea of what a rebel looks like, but this rebel wants to know if you -- and his family -- are okay. He's at a hearing at which his financial grubstake is threatened, and he's checking on how you're doing. You're like, "Dude, go handle your business." Which he does, but not before a look comes across his face, as if to say, "As long as you think it's okay."

This is just one day in the life of Alonzo Spellman, a day that ended with the hearing postponed and Alonzo's money remaining beyond his reach. It's an epic symphony of chaos. And its theme is yesterday's song, and tomorrow's too.

How the 26-year-old man who once celebrated himself as the Last Halas Bear got to be a million miles from this newly minted NFL season and running with a crowd that makes Allen Iverson's crew look like the Huxtables is a story of stupefying complexity. Actually, it is many stories, each feeding the next. It's the story of an athlete whose precocious ability took him from high school stardom to college dominance to the first round of the NFL draft by the age of 20. It's the story of a man-child whose big heart and big paydays have turned him into a 6'4", 300-pound automated teller machine for friends and family. It's the story of a boy whose big body got him started early on sex and whose sexual experimentation may have helped chase him from football. It is also the story of mental illness, diagnosed but untreated. Mostly, it's a story of "too": too much talent, too little direction, too much money -- and too few people to help make sense of it all.

It's March 9, 1998, and here is what you missed: Alonzo's been on the road all night through a blizzard and arrives at the suburban Chicago home of his publicist, Nancy Mitchell. He was drinking and dozing while his wife, Lizzie, drove. You missed the way he hollered in anguish when he found out that the purpose of his trip from Detroit -- to take a steroid test -- would be delayed because of the storm. You missed him tossing art objects, heaving bound reference books and spewing suicidal threats. You missed a panicky Mitchell dialing 911.

This is what you saw if you happened by Mitchell's house that afternoon. The same bad weather that pushed Alonzo past the brink also meant that, when Mitchell dialed 911, dispatch sent SWAT guys -- about 10 of them -- allegedly because the rest of the force was out dealing with the blizzard. Now those SWAT guys were facing him down as he swung a big leather belt in Mitchell's doorway. If a SWAT guy so much as moved, Alonzo cracked the belt like a whip. It was a nine-hour standoff in the bitter-cold Chicago winter. This simple accident of bad weather might have caused Alonzo to end up in a body bag. It was only when Mike Singletary, a former teammate who heard about the incident on his car radio, showed up and talked Spellman down that the standoff ended. But you still don't understand what really happened.

From the beginning, Alonzo Spellman has been up to his neck in trouble because, even when he was little, he was big. His mother, Dorothy Spellman, enrolled him in kindergarten when he was 4. At 10, a local gang recruited him, and he got a taste for finding family wherever he could. Before he finished grammar school, he was sleeping with grown women, neighbors in the rural Mount Holly, N.J., projects called The Gardens, some 20 miles from Philly.

By the time Spellman entered Rancocas Valley High School -- where Franco Harris once ran wild on the gridiron -- he was a primping, flighty boy who would stop in the middle of whatever he was doing if he noticed his already short hair had grown a tad longer than he liked. He loved watching Westerns while stretching his 6'3", 250-pound, 15-year-old frame the length of his mother's couch. Big as he was, he had no interest in football. Basketball was his game -- he'd set Rancocas Valley's single-game rebounding record -- and the only way he would play football was if he could be the fullback. The coaches who came to visit Dorothy at her neat spare apartment in the spring of 1987 wouldn't let him do that -- they were thinking defensive end -- but they made a convincing case nonetheless. The fact was that if Alonzo played two sports, he'd double his chances of becoming a pro and bringing home serious money.

That meant something to Dorothy. Alonzo's father was in and out of the house so often he was known mostly as a memory. Dorothy paid the bills and raised six kids working at a local fish hatchery. She didn't need scouting experience to see her son's potential. So it was that Alonzo became the key to reviving Rancocas Valley High's dormant football program.

He made the coaches' hopes real. Although Alonzo was late coming to the game, his innate athleticism made his rawness easy to overlook. The 15-year-old junior won his teammates' respect by making them laugh on the bus and by turning opponents to rag dolls on the field. He led the team to the state championship his first year. The next year, USA Today named him to its All-America team. That same year, his girlfriend, a college student named Roxanne James, gave birth to a little girl. Later that spring, he scored well enough on his ACTs -- on his third try -- to be eligible to play at Ohio State.

On the field in Columbus, he drew praise and grew dreadlocks. In the classroom he was indifferent, but he partied like a true Buckeye and slept with as many female students as his fame and personality could get him. "He reveled in his freedom," one coach recalls. One such rendezvous resulted in his second child, another girl. And in a pattern that recurred later in his pro career, Spellman played well but below expectations. He was All-Big Ten and team MVP his junior year but never earned first-team All-America honors. Still, he played well enough to convince many pro scouts he had the stuff to play big in the pros. He made himself eligible for the '92 NFL draft, and Mike Ditka made the 20-year-old with swollen muscles the Bears' first-round pick, 22nd overall.

At first, Ditka's bet looked smart. Alonzo changed. He cut his hair and the partying and hit the playbook hard. "He was in the mix, and he didn't have to be the Man," says New York Giants defensive back Jeremy Lincoln, who was also drafted by Chicago in '92. "He didn't have to play outside of who he was. Sometimes he was unstoppable." As high draft picks in what they called the Last Ditka Class, Lincoln and Spellman were part of the team's storied legacy. These were the Bears of Jim McMahon and Richard Dent, Refrigerator Perry and Steve McMichael -- diverse, larger-than-life figures. Alonzo bought into the mystique and started calling himself the Last Halas Bear. He told the press he was "the Sheriff" from the Westerns of his youth. His bravado endeared him to Ditka and fans. And with all those legendary teammates, he was never asked for more than his raw talent could contribute.

You are rolling down State Street with seven other passengers as Spellman steers his custom 4x4. Next to you, an undersized black kid from the Michigan countryside fishes out a leather, metal-studded dog collar from behind the seat. He holds it out in front of his face. "Kane," he says to Spellman, using the nickname this family favors, "Isn't this collar too big for your dog?" Beneath the din of three overlapping conversations and enough beat for five hip-hop shows, what sounds like a giggle snakes out from behind the wheel.

Spellman's honeymoon with the Bears lasted but one season. Ditka left, as did many of Spellman's on-field role models: Singletary after the '92 season, Dent a year later. As the veterans departed, the Bears needed more and more from Alonzo, but the more they asked of him, the worse he performed. Talk around the league was that you could assign a fullback to block him and get away with it. His best attribute was his imposing appearance: "Looks like Tarzan, hits like Jane" is how one former teammate describes him.

Cracks like this one hinted at other issues, the kind that can wreak havoc in the Neanderthal world of pro football. Spellman was particularly known for his great sexual appetite. "That was his thing. He's a freak," says a former female partner. "He loves sex." The NFL rumor mill had it that Alonzo's interests were not limited to women -- and that he was involved with a Bears teammate. Later on, he would flaunt his sexual friskiness in public. But before that, Spellman's erratic play plus the rumors -- true or not -- caused some teammates to balk at anointing him their defensive leader -- or having him in their locker room. This spring he turned up at the Chicago club Crobar as a model in a gay and lesbian fashion show, during which he lost the skirt he was wearing and began dancing around the club. And this summer, according to published reports, he was spotted being led into Dennis Rodman's Illusions, another Chicago club, by a male acquaintance, attached to a leash and wearing a certain metal-studded dog collar.

This is how it is when you go looking for Spellman this summer in the ghetto that is his refuge. The kids in The Gardens know him from word of mouth and keep track of his latest tattoos. You hear he's staying in Mount Holly, at a seedy motel, but to him it's still a safe place to stay now that football is a million miles away. There's a mom-and-pop shop on the same block as The Gardens where Alonzo goes to replenish his food and drink. The old women who watched out for him back in the day still come by to order bags of sugar and peanuts. The Asian woman who's been there forever still works the grill. They tell you that when Alonzo stops by and the neighborhood kids ask for candy, he never says no. And sometimes, he just picks up the tab for everyone in the place.

Whatever negative vibe was swirling about Spellman, the Jaguars saw enough potential there to offer him a $12 million, four-year deal when his contract with the Bears expired after the '96 season. But the Bears, worried that the 24-year-old Spellman would finally blossom in another team's field, exercised their right to match the offer. Or almost match it.

Spellman had become involved with a foundation called Americans All, which provides tutoring and scholarships to low-income students. In Chicago, he targeted those efforts at an elementary school on the city's West Side. For him, it wasn't just a matter of signing checks. Spellman was there every Tuesday night, guiding fifth-graders through their reading assignments. He took them on trips to France and the White House and the Museum of Tolerance in LA. He called upon William Julius Wilson, professor of social policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, to consult on programs. "I do know that it was something that he was excited about, from his body language and expression," Wilson says. "That's one thing that struck me, that he seemed serious."

Spellman was so committed to Americans All that, when the Jaguars made their offer in 1996, he asked that they set aside an additional $100,000 each year for it. They agreed, but the Bears balked at picking up the foundation expense. Spellman was compelled to re-sign with the Bears, but he took their refusal to pay foundation money as a nasty dis. "The next four years are going to be pure hell," he told Nancy Mitchell. For most of his short adult life, Spellman had been a virtual spigot of cash. It's a common role for pro athletes who come from backgrounds in which a dozen family members may not earn in a year what a ballplayer does for one Sunday afternoon's work. But while buying a house to get Mom out of the projects -- which he did -- is hardly news anymore, Alonzo had dozens of friends, cousins and neighbors come out of the woodwork seeking green. For Alonzo that could mean slipping his brother John a "loan" for $12,000 or bringing family members to Chicago for Thanksgiving and watching them run up $10,000 in hotel and restaurant bills -- or walking into a food shop and paying for everyone's groceries. This is rough justice to Spellman, a way to spread around some of his good fortune. Friends say he gives away his rapidly dwindling wealth easily, almost too easily. That the Bears would deny his request for a donation to a worthwhile cause was a rude awakening for the Last Halas Bear.

You're in the 4x4 again, talking with Nancy Mitchell. She and Spellman are an odd duo: a petite, middle-aged blonde from the suburbs and a hulking ghetto man-child. Mitchell directs Spellman toward Chicago's West Side, where children in an Americans All program have built a playground at their school, each getting $100 from the foundation for their time. "Look!" Mitchell enthuses. "Look at what we did!" Spellman nods in silence. It's been some time since this has been his scene.

The realization that being a Bear was nothing more than a job hit Spellman hard. "The Bears really hurt him," says Lincoln. "He'd never had a conflict with the organization before that." Friends say Spellman believed he had found in the Bears the rarest of clans -- one that wasn't always taking from him. Now he knew they weren't family at all.

His need for people who weren't always asking him for something helps to explain Spellman's friendship with Mitchell. When her son -- Spellman's neighbor -- committed suicide three years ago, she depended on Spellman for emotional support. But she also has offered Spellman the kind of loyalty he needs. Although she hasn't been paid for months, Mitchell continues to act as Spellman's primary adviser. "Alonzo helped me rediscover who I am," Mitchell says. "Now I'm just supposed to drop him because he's sick?"

The sickness she refers to, say many sources close to Spellman, is bipolar disorder, often called manic depression. "It is not uncommon for bipolar disorder to emerge in one's mid-20s," says Dr. Daniel Angres, director of Rush Behavioral Health at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center. Spellman was treated at Rush after the standoff at Mitchell's house in March. (That is, after he ran away from Good Shepherd Hospital, where he had first been taken by Singletary.) "Bipolar disorder is a biological, neurochemical disorder," says Angres. "Any kind of dramatic life change or change in circumstance could be a stress that triggers the underlying disorder."

Whatever the trigger -- his contract dispute, troubles on the field or off it -- sources close to Spellman say his demeanor started to change dramatically at the end of 1996. That's when he cozied in for a month of hardcore partying with Lizzie, a dancer from a club called The Doll House. The two disappeared for a while and came back married in early '97. Friends say that Spellman came back different -- withdrawn, thin, not as carefree. Soon Alonzo was completely "off the hook," in the words of a longtime associate.

In March '97, Spellman was stopped for speeding in Illinois and charged with carrying a loaded handgun. But he had a permit, and he was cleared. In training camp that summer, he exchanged heated words with Bears coach Dave Wannstedt and scrapped with offensive lineman Andy Heck. A shoulder injury suffered early in the '97 season failed to heal properly, and the tension between Spellman and the Bears increased. Eventually, the team suspended him for four games on the charge that he was dogging it, but in January an arbitrator ordered the Bears to pay Spellman $335,295 in back pay.

Then, in a meeting with Wannstedt, Spellman asked for assurances he wouldn't be traded. Wannstedt refused, and Alonzo stormed out of the Bears complex, ignoring defensive line coach Clarence Brooks' pleas to calm down. Days later in Detroit, where Spellman has family, Lizzie found him wandering the streets, shirtless and shoeless. When the couple drove to Mitchell's home soon after, the standoff with the SWAT team occurred. The short hospital stays followed.

After only a week's stay at Rush, Alonzo was off to Detroit again. When he and Lizzie divorced in April, he shocked those who knew him with a new head of blond hair. In May, Detroit cops doused him with pepper spray while he tried to break up a hotel fight between two female members of his crew. Ensuing gun possession charges in Michigan and New Jersey put him in the headlines again, but it was his missing court dates that earned him fugitive status for a brief time. On Aug. 4, police stopped him in New Jersey on a weapons warrant and he spent a night in jail. There were the strange club sightings. Finally, he was released by the Bears.

Today, Spellman moves between Chicago, Detroit and Mount Holly, his personality a study in extremes. One day finds him lecturing kids in the ghetto on how to improve their lives, the next night finds him club hopping with his new "family." Berneice Waldon, Spellman's 50-year-old cousin in Detroit, says she still recognizes "the sweet old gentle Alonzo," but her son, former Ohio State tackle Larry Waldon, won't go out with him at night.

His football future is unclear. The Bears have released him. Half a dozen teams have said they could use a player like Spellman, but there are no takers so far. In August he showed up -- in football shape -- for a workout with the Jaguars, but the team passed after giving him a psychological evaluation. For the moment, that doesn't matter because, though bipolar disorder is treatable, the least anonymous ex-Bear in Chicago has no interest in taking medication and no need for a paycheck. Last week, Judge Lott unfroze Spellman's assets. The money's rolling again, and so is Alonzo Spellman.

Once more in the 4x4. Though rain pours down, the rear window is fully open, and through the stereo speakers, Tupac wages a campaign from beyond the grave against "fake niggas." Alonzo changes the music, and rapper Keith Murray opines, "It just be's like that sometimes, 'cuz I can't control the rhyme." As you leave the West Side, the buildings get taller and sleeker, and Murray is now reworking an old LL Cool J line. "Sometimes I sit in my room and stare alone at the wall, and in the back of my mind, I hear my conscience call." Alonzo takes a slick turn, careening back toward State Street.

Donnell Alexander was a staff writer at ESPN The Magazine from its launch until 2000. He now produces digital content out of Portland and San Francisco.

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