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Sacco Sez: Lyle Alzado's unlikely path to the NFL


For the next two months of the NFL calendar, all 32 teams will focus on improving their teams through the addition of new players.

As we read this, the process of evaluating the top prospects is well underway at the NFL Scouting Combine. General managers and head coaches are all in Indianapolis, complete with their staffs of assistants and scouting personnel, along with about 300 of the top prospects, many of whom will soon be drafted.

But once in a while, someone escapes the typical clutches of player evaluation, and no one exemplifies that better to me than the late former Bronco Lyle Alzado.

Alzado grew up in Brooklyn, Spanish Harlem and Long Island in New York, a tough kid whose childhood had more troublesome moments than heroic ones. Through his challenges, he wound up at South Dakota's tiny Yankton College. Football, he later told Sports Illustrated, was his saving grace.

"Without football I'd probably be dealing dope on a street corner or sitting in a jail somewhere," Alzado said in 1977.

It is safe to say that how he got onto the Broncos' radar was most uncommon.

In 1970, Broncos defensive line coach Stan Jones was on a scouting trip in Montana when his car began to have trouble. While a mechanic worked on it in Butte, Jones went over to nearby Montana Tech to take notes on the football team's promising prospects. While watching film of a running back, he instead noticed the play of one of the opponent's defensive linemen.

"I was particularly watching a Montana Tech halfback, but one guy on the other side popped up all the time," Jones told Sports Illustrated. "I asked, and they told me it was Lyle Alzado. We went into the draft convinced the kid could play defensive line for us. He had that kind of strength and quickness and he was a good, tough kid. I liked everything I had heard about him, and I was relieved when we got him."

In the 1971 NFL Draft, Alzado was not a complete unknown. He was picked to the College All-Star Team, alongside fellow future NFL stars Jack Youngblood, Jack Ham, and Jack Tatum. According to a Denver Post story a couple of years later, other teams told Alzado that they had him high on their boards.

But when the draft began, Alzado did not go in the first three rounds. Denver and head coach/general manager Lou Saban instead snapped him up with the first pick of the fourth round.

Saban liked defensive players whose mouth frothed when they were in pursuit of the quarterbacks, and Jones had helped convince him that Alzado would be a great pro.

Alzado became one of just five players to be drafted from Yankton, and one of just two to play in an NFL game. The school closed in 1984 and was converted to a federal prison camp.

There are probably some very tough residents there now, but I doubt that any of the current occupants could match the strength and rage of Lyle Alzado.  

He became one of the unquestioned leaders of the Orange Crush defense and made the Pro Bowl in 1977 and 1978.

Bronco players selected him as the team's most valuable defensive player in 1975, and he was named the Kansas City 101 Club Defensive Player of the Year in 1977.

But, as often happens in pro sports, Lyle wanted a new contract, it got acrimonious, and in 1979 he was traded. He played first for the Cleveland Browns and then for the Los Angeles Raiders, with whom he won Super Bowl XVIII over Washington.

Lyle Alzado amassed 64.5 career sacks for the Broncos, which ranks sixth in the Denver record book, and many fans have suggested to me that he should be in the team's Ring of Fame.

I am on that voting board, and I can say Lyle is certainly a reasonable candidate, but there are many players, of which few are selected. I have no idea where this will go in the future.

Lyle and I were good friends, starting in 1976 when he was injured. While he was out for the season, we did a radio show together.

I can say there were two Lyle Alzados, one as nice and generous a guy as you could hope to meet. That Lyle was off the field. For his work with various charities, Alzado won what is now known as the NFLPA Alan Page Community Award and several other honors.

The other Lyle came as if you turned a switch in his head — a raging monster of a player who helped lead the Broncos to their first Super Bowl in 1977 and who was a veteran starter for the Raiders en route to a Super Bowl XVIII victory.

There are many more Lyle Alzado stories that one could tell, but for this purpose, let us just say that a team never knows where it finds talent.

Sometimes a player stands out in the Combine, and sometimes he only stands out for the smallest school at the smallest level.

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