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How one haunting night led Dexter Manley to address a lifelong secret

Manley

As trainers rushed onto the field to tend to Joe Theismann, Dexter Manley stood on the sidelines and looked down at his shoes. Everything happened so quickly in that second quarter drive -- the attempted "flea flicker" play, the snap of the quarterback's leg bone, the crashing down of a man's entire world. All of it transpired in a matter of seconds. As the magnitude of the moment unspooled, a scared Manley turned inward and felt the stirring of a reckoning. 

"That night, Nov. 18, 1985, changed my life," Manley said. "I had so much trepidation standing on that sideline, because I knew if something like that happened to me, what's gonna happen to me?" 

Joe Theismann's career ended that Monday night. The shock, brutality and devastation of that play made it one of the most talked-about moments in NFL history. After over 35 years, though, what hasn't been completely unwrapped is the impact that hit had on Washington's No. 72, who could do nothing but stare at his cleats that night.  

For as long as he could remember, Manley had held a secret: He didn't really know how to read. It would later be discovered that, at 26 years old, he had the literacy skills of a second grader. Throughout Manley's struggle with dyslexia, football played two, seemingly conflicting roles. For years, it was a great protector. The privileges he enjoyed as a star shielded him from having to actually confront the issue. However, the same game that allowed him to ignore his condition also became a catalyst that forced Manley to seek out ways to improve his reading proficiency and see his disability as a part of himself that needed to be addressed.

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Manley's literacy difficulties emerged early. When Sunday school teachers called on him to read scripture, he often lied about leaving his glasses at home, even though he didn't wear any. In second grade, identified by teachers as being "behind," Manley was placed in a mixed-disabilities, special education classroom. Recalling that many days were spent "playing with blocks" as other children dove into their books, he felt "resentful" throughout elementary school and his reading ability suffered.

Placed back on the general education course in junior high, Manley soon learned that the values of politeness and discipline, instilled in him by his parents, could help cloak his literacy challenges and get him through school.

"The teacher saw that I was respectful, but I had difficulties with schoolwork. Back then you could get graded for just attendance," Manley said. "I never missed school, my whole life... There were guys skipping school, going to do whatever. I always stayed in school, because my mother and father weren't gonna allow me to skip school. And so, I got a lot of grades just for attendance."

At that same stage in his young life, it became abundantly clear that Manley was an incredibly gifted football player. There was little doubt that his athletic prowess would take him places. His teammates and coaches knew that, and because of the football-obsessed ways of many Texas high schools, Manley suggests, teachers knew that too.

"Those teachers recognized that I was on the football team. It's the same old system," Manley said. "You show up in class. You're doing the best you can. And, sometimes they gave me a passing grade."

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That "system" continued to work at Oklahoma State. Though Manley was thriving on the football field as a principal presence for the Cowboys, there were moments when the hard reality of his disability and the secret it had become overcame him.

"You live in belligerent denial," Manley said. "That feeling comes over, the emotions come over, but you don't show it to nobody else…I would cry in my room."

Steering through that private discomfort and frustration, Manley finished at Oklahoma State strong and was selected in the fifth round of the 1981 NFL Draft by Washington. Playing at the pro level, where he was expected to study inches-thick playbooks, was a difficult adjustment. Though he made mistakes, Manley continued to see the field, a point he credits to his head coach.

"I think the only reason I lasted was because of Joe Gibbs. His faith was unshakeable," Manley said. "He believed in a young man like me. He gave me the opportunity."

Each season in Washington, Manley's skills as a defensive end improved. Meanwhile, his literacy stayed stagnant. Throughout this time, he continued to craft ways to hide his dyslexia, ordering the same item off the menu as teammates at restaurants and "reading" editions of the Wall Street Journal in the locker room.

The posturing and pretending was just a part of his existence, as second nature to him as suiting up for practice. Being a pro football player, a member of a chosen elite, allowed him to become complacent with his situation. There was no urgency to address his literacy issues. An air of invincibility came with this profession.

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But then came Nov. 18, 1985 and one of football's great talents saw the possibility of his job, his source of comfort and his means of expressing himself, ripped away in an instant. Although the details of how Joe Theismann and Dexter Manley's lives were forever changed that night vary, the former quarterback believes that, for both of them, moving forward meant wrangling football's power away for themselves to control.

"Football becomes your entire world. The game defines you, and you should define yourself," Theismann said. "What happened to me in that game gave Dexter and I a better opportunity to define ourselves."

Shortly after Theismann's injury, Manley started taking classes at The Lab School of Washington, a school designed for students with language-based learning disabilities. The excitement and autograph requests triggered by his presence in class led the teacher to ask him to move to the night session.

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Now in his 60s, Manley can proudly read a Wall Street Journal edition front to back, though he prefers reading the sports section of the Washington Post. Motivated to pay his experience forward, Manley, along with his wife Lydia, started the Lydia & Dexter Manley Foundation with the goal of raising money to ensure that all children in Washington, D.C. have access to literacy resources and the opportunity to read.

Looking back, Manley sees that, though his dyslexia may not have been one of the qualities that got him to the NFL, it's still an integral part of his story.

"This journey has taught me, while it was of the utmost importance by any means necessary to grab my blessing of being a gifted athlete by the horns and not let go, it was equally important for me to do exactly the same with the cross I had to bear; my learning disability, dyslexia," Manley said. "The truth always sets you free to soar as high as you were born to soar."

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