Nothing remains after life of excess

Former Buc Keith McCants lived fast and furious. But it has all slipped away.

By Gary Shelton, Times Columnist
Published March 2, 2008

The advice would come at the strangest of times. It would come at the oddest of places.

Looking back, perhaps that is why the words had so little effect.

It would be late into the evening, and the two men would sit at a strip bar in Tampa. The music would pulse and the money would flow and the dancers would spin, and somewhere along the way, the men would get around to talking about life.

"Don't you go back to drugs," Keith McCants would say, his voice as stern as a preacher's. "Don't you ever do that again."

And Dexter Manley would laugh and nod and assure McCants that the beast was gone from him forever.

Indications are, the beast was not finished with either of them.

When the news arrived last week that McCants had been arrested on drug charges in his hometown of Mobile, Ala., an old sadness returned to Manley. It has been almost 17 seasons since the two were teammates, linemates and running mates for the Tampa Bay Bucs, but when a name is this familiar, and a story, the pain is familiar, too.

Another athlete, it seems, has lost his way. The Fall of Keith McCants means there is one more cautionary tale for the young players to hear, one more set of wayward footsteps for them to avoid.

Given the way cocaine chased Manley out of the NFL, he can empathize. He listens closely to the details, about how a tip led police to an abandoned house where they found McCants, 39, with steel wool and a glass tube, the tools of a drug user.

"It surprises me, and it doesn't surprise me," Manley, 49, said from his office in Washington, D.C. "Keith was always so against drugs. He was like an old soul.

"But when you leave football, you don't leave on your own terms. Where do you go? Who do you turn to? When you go back to your community, you can start interacting with people you used to know, and pretty soon, you're using."

More than anything, McCants' story is one of waste, a tale of squandered paychecks and lost promise. His cars were never new enough. He could not spend his money fast enough. The party never lasted long enough.

In college, McCants was one of the finest defensive players anyone has seen. He was big and he was fast, and there were games when he seemed to make every tackle for Alabama.

Despite a bad medical report on McCants' right knee, despite scouts warning that McCants was a hit-or-miss prospect, the Bucs drafted him with the No. 4 overall pick in 1990. They were coached by former Alabama coach Ray Perkins, who loved McCants. As for 12-time Pro Bowl player Junior Seau, who went with the next pick, Perkins wouldn't let his scouts evaluate him because he played "west of the Mississippi."

The Bucs gave McCants a $7.4-million contract. He took his $2.5-million signing bonus in cash.

"He was spending that money," Manley remembers. "He would leave three or four thousand dollars lying around like it was nothing. He had a Mercedes and a BMW. He had a huge boat and a house on the water. He had all these women coming and going. You just knew, 'One day, all of this is going to crash.'"

On the field, McCants seemed lost. He had spent most of his time at Alabama freelancing. In the NFL, linebacker is a thinking man's position. McCants was unable to grasp the concept of reading and reacting. As pro scouts say, it was like trying to start a car with a dead battery.

The Bucs tried to move McCants to defensive end, but he lacked a lineman's power.

"He didn't have any upper-body strength," Manley said. "He was a terrible pass rusher. I remember wondering, 'How did this guy get to be the fourth guy taken in the draft?'"

The Bucs brought in Manley in 1991 with the idea of playing him at left defensive end and McCants at right. By then, Manley had a history of drug problems, but he also had a knack for rushing the passer. In hindsight, the Bucs gave in to their own temptation.

When he arrived, Manley was a stranger to his teammates and his city. He would practice, then he would return to his hotel room.

"I was leading a boring life," Manley said. "Then one day, Keith picked me up and took me to the Mons Venus, and I wasn't bored anymore."

Perhaps Manley should have recognized the recklessness. One night, before a game in Atlanta, McCants brought two women into their room ... both for him.

The two would hang out together, McCants drinking Tanqueray or expensive champagne. At first, Manley said, he didn't drink anything. Then one night, he sipped some champagne. Not many nights later, he did cocaine.

The Bucs released Manley after that. After one more season, they released McCants, too.

McCants kicked around the NFL for three more years with two more teams, but then he was done, and the league barely noticed he had been there.

His money is long gone. In 2000, he said it had been lost to divorce, tax bills and bad investments. Perhaps luxury cars and lap dances played a part, too. McCants said then that a $55,000-a-year pension would begin for him at age 45.

Manley knows the drill. He once said he has spent $15-million on drugs. Time after time, Manley tried to ruin his life, too.

"I would tell Keith to hit his knees and pray," said Manley, who says he has been clean for three years. "I would ask him if he wanted to live. I would tell him to come face to face with who he is and what he is."

Perhaps McCants should pay attention. Yes, Manley is a strange place to go for advice.

Sometimes, however, that's the best place to listen.