Eleven years ago, Bronco Vance Johnson was ready to explode into the national consciousness. A cocky little wide receiver known for his pigtails, flashy lifestyle, motormouth and allegedly artistic drawings, he parlayed the Super Bowl hoopla into an appearance on the Joan Rivers Show, during which "The Vance," as he called himself, proclaimed, "I want to be famous so bad it hurts. I'll do anything legally possible to be famous."
"Infamous" is more like it. Football was his game, but woman-beating was his true calling.
When it comes to off-field Broncos tragedy, Vance Johnson leads the pack. He liked to tout himself and fellow receivers Mark Jackson and Ricky Nattiel as the "Three Amigos." But Johnson is more properly remembered as one of the team's Three Maniacs, along with Lyle Alzado and Clarence Kay.
Sure, there were others. Fans probably remember Gerald Perry, the 6-6, 305-pound, extremely offensive tackle drafted by the club in 1988 and known as its most ferocious blocker. In two short years he was convicted twice of soliciting prostitutes, acquitted of rape, busted for beating up various men, accused of assaulting a teammate's girlfriend and shipped off to alcohol detox. Finally, after this stallion was removed from an Aurora woman's apartment at 3 a.m. in December 1990 and charged with sexual assault, the Broncos cut him loose.
Several other Broncos from that era were accused of such thuggery as smashing up bars and smashing up other human beings. Tyrone Braxton, one of only three Broncos remaining from those days under Coach Dan Reeves, recalled last year how much things had settled down. "I guess you could say Dan didn't put as much emphasis on character because we had so many problems," Braxton told reporters. "We had fights in the bars at training camp, off-season problems, things happening during the season."
From 1988 through 1995, according to press accounts, at least seven Broncos were accused of assaulting women: In addition to Kay and Johnson, there were Alton Montgomery, Robert Perryman, Simon Fletcher, Ronnie Haliburton and Mark Jackson. As a result, the team launched a domestic-counseling program for players. (Perryman and Montgomery pleaded guilty to assault; charges against Jackson were dropped by Denver city attorneys; the case against Fletcher was dropped after the alleged victim failed to testify; and Haliburton pleaded guilty to sexual assault.)
Not that there weren't some innocent Broncos who were themselves stalked by tragedy. Reserve quarterback Norris Weese, who brought a brief, shining moment to one of the team's four Super Bowl losses, contracted fatal brain cancer and died at age forty. Jim White, a Broncos lineman in the Seventies, died of cancer in 1982. His was the first known death of an NFL player that could be linked to steroid use.
A few years ago, after the news broke that Alzado, an Orange Crush hero of the Seventies, had contracted a rare form of brain cancer, former assistant coach Stan Jones worried aloud to a Florida reporter about the team's old practice facility in north Denver, which it didn't abandon until the late Eighties. Jones noted that fellow assistants Whitey Dovell, Richie McCabe and Fran Polsfoot--all of them with the Broncos when the team drafted Alzado--had also died of cancer. So had former Broncos public-relations director Bob Peck and longtime play-by-play announcer Bob Martin.
Broncos players and coaches often griped about the stench near the cramped training facility, which was located in a heavily industrialized area, Jones told the Florida reporter. Veteran NFL assistant Joe Collier, a colleague of Jones's at the time, mentioned his own concerns to the same reporter. "Sure, I think about it," Collier said. "I don't like to talk about it. But a number of years ago, after Richie and Fran died, I started to think about it. I know the air wasn't pure, besides whatever we were running around on."
Of course, Alzado was running around on something else: steroids. Maybe that explained his abusive behavior. And The Vance was running around on his wives. There's no definitive explanation yet, however, for the bizarre stalking conducted for years by former tight end Clarence Kay. At present he's in a Denver jail, thinking about his next move.
While the city is still high on the Broncos, here are the lows of the Three Maniacs:
Called by the Denver Post the "meanest game-day combatant in Broncos history," Clarence Kay was even meaner off the field. He arrived in Denver in 1984 from the University of Georgia and, at 6-6 and 230 pounds, was a frightening presence, as at least a couple of women will attest.
Even the Broncos couldn't overlook some of his missteps. He was fined in 1985 for an unapproved absence, arrested in August 1986 for speeding, suspended for a game in November 1986 for "conduct detrimental to the team," sent to rehab in December 1986 for failing a drug test, arrested in September 1989 for speeding and ticketed for driving while impaired, and convicted in June 1990 for DWI.
By that time, unfortunately, Kay had turned to crimes against people. He pleaded guilty to a July 1990 charge of trespassing, destruction of private property and disturbing the peace.
Kay's career as a Bronco came to an end in February 1993, right after he was arrested for violating a restraining order brought by a former girlfriend named Patricia. He had run her off a road and then followed her to her apartment and refused to leave. Earlier, according to the allegations, he had punched her in the face as she slept and then stalked her. Too bad his career was over, because he still had his old elusiveness: When police went to arrest Kay, he jumped from a second-story window and avoided capture for an hour before turning himself in.
New girlfriend Jennifer proudly stood by her man until Kay beat her up in Las Vegas in September 1993. Upset because someone sent her flowers, Kay pushed Jennifer down, kicked her in the back, dragged her to the edge of a twentieth-story balcony and punched her in the face with his right fist. "I was trying to defend myself," she told reporters at the time. "But there is not much you can do. I'm 110 pounds, he is 230-some pounds."
One of her co-workers at a Denver auto dealership told reporters: "I've seen her come in beaten and bruised. I've seen him pick her up outside the dealership and try to carry her off. I confronted him when he was doing that. I said, 'Put her down and get out.' And he did. This has been going on for a year and a half."
And it continued. Kay took $700 worth of Jennifer's clothing from a dry cleaner and threw it in a dumpster. In 1995, after violating Jennifer's restraining order numerous times, he pleaded guilty to reduced charges. In 1996 he was arrested for stabbing a paramedic.
That one he didn't do.
Plaguing Jennifer? That he continued to do.
By March 1997, he was still banging on her door and sideswiping her boyfriend's cars. Threats of jail did no good until July 1997, when police picked up Kay while he was stalking Jennifer at her home yet again. He had already been arrested a dozen times for violating her restraining orders; he was put away for 540 days.
"I am ashamed for my family and friends and for myself to have to go through this, because I know in my heart that what I did was wrong," Kay told the Post in a jailhouse interview. "I feel like I have disobeyed the court order."
Kay last surfaced--in print only--last September, when he told a Rocky Mountain News reporter in another jailhouse interview, "I know it'll be hard for people to believe, but I'm serious about turning my life around. A lot of good is coming out of this."
Yeah. He's off the streets.
A street-tough kid from Brooklyn, Lyle Alzado entered college in South Dakota weighing 190 pounds. He joined the Broncos as a 260-pound beast and over eight seasons became a local hero. From 1971 to 1978, he anchored the Orange Crush defense and helped lead the Broncos to their first Super Bowl. A shameless self-promoter, he garnered national attention. In 1977 he danced in the ring at Mile High Stadium with Muhammad Ali. He was sweet enough to visit kids in the hospital--so sweet that he won the league's community-service award in 1977. He was so mean that even his teammates didn't mess around with him when he was in one of those "moods."
A 1978 autobiography, written with Sports Illustrated's Paul Zimmerman, recounted Alzado's colorful story. Then his career really took off. First he went to the Cleveland Browns, and then he landed with the Oakland Raiders, where he fit in well with the other mad dogs and swashbucklers. Before the 1984 Super Bowl, he said of Washington quarterback Joe Theismann, "I'm going to tear his head off." No one doubted it. He started an acting career. Toys were named after him. He was a regular on late-night talk shows.
Lyle Alzado was everything: kind, generous, mean, arrogant, always on the edge. "We were camping on the edge of reality," he once said. And he was a liar. In 1991 Alzado came down with a rare form of brain cancer. He went public with the story that a life of steroid use was responsible--a secret he had kept hidden during decades of self-promotion. His image flooded the airwaves and talk shows. No longer a burly beast with curly hair, he was gaunt and wore a bandanna on his head to cover the hair loss caused by chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Sports Illustrated put him on the cover under the headline "I Lied," in a story in which he exposed his years of injecting steroids and human growth hormones. He revealed that he had spent up to $30,000 on steroids some years. He hit the talk-show circuit, begging for money for treatment and for programs to help others stay off steroids.
But amid the hoopla--the kind of attention Alzado always craved--there were some dissenting voices. Doctors said his type of cancer couldn't be definitely linked to steroid abuse. And Alzado's first wife, Cynthia, cut into the pity party to reveal what an abusive jerk Alzado had been.
"He could walk into the house after a game," she told reporters, "stop on a dime and, all of a sudden, he's grabbing my hair and throwing me across the room."
Once, she said, she left him and he lured her back with a white Rolls-Royce.
Whether or not his cancer was caused by the steroids, many people were certain that Alzado's manic, often nasty and violent behavior was. His old Broncos teammates recalled his inchoate rages. "He was always mad at someone or something," former guard Tom Glassic told the News. "I don't think he ever knew himself." Glassic, a Bronco from 1976 to 1983, divulged that the team's coaches didn't discourage steroid use. "Actually, it was kind of encouraged on the sly," he said. "Anything you could do to get bigger and stronger. The consequences weren't really considered. I can't say anybody on the staff specifically encouraged it, but in general the management put so much pressure on you to perform that if they found steroids in your system, they weren't going to say anything about it."
As his condition worsened toward the end of 1991, Alzado's celebrity friends planned to come to his rescue with a January 11, 1992, benefit for something called the Lyle Alzado National Steroid Education Program. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Steven Seagal, George Foreman, Pat Boone, Larry King, Mickey Rourke, Jerry Lee Lewis, Maria Shriver--all planned to attend the Beverly Hills gala. But two more tragedies struck: Alzado's business manager had a heart attack, and the gala was canceled at the very last second.
Alzado was crushed.
That May, the cancer finally killed him. He was only 43.
Perhaps no Bronco has slapped, slugged and screwed more women than The Vance. But he never kissed them.
Raging Bull may have been the last word in movies about domestic violence, but The Vance's self-published autobiography, published in 1994 just after his Bronco career ended, really hits home. On the field he was a speedy, graceful receiver who helped the Broncos land in three Super Bowls. Off the field, he beat women with his fists, his feet, golf clubs, cars and whatever else was handy.
Johnson's book was supposed to be an apology for his years of abusive behavior. But 90 percent of it is a proud and almost fond retelling of his thousands of sexual conquests. The Vance always knew how to turn around a bad situation and try to get sympathy. When he appeared naked on an HBO special on the NFL, Johnson threatened to sue. "Although I had shown my dick to a lot of women individually over the years," he wrote, "I was very embarrassed to have people all over the city and possibly the country talking about my dick."
In an appendix, Johnson lovingly listed the scores of flashy cars he'd owned. But as the late Greg Lopez noted in a News column about a Johnson book-signing party, The Vance couldn't remember the names of all the children he had fathered. (There are at least seven.) Johnson ended his book with the words, "I'm sorry." But in the rest of his book, Johnson never threw the first punch: He hit people after they hit him, and they would "trip" or "fall" or "run into" his foot.
He turned out to be the ultimate raging bullshitter.
"Being The Vance meant being a guy running around the city doing whatever he wanted to do," ex-Bronco Reggie Rivers, a Johnson confidante and ghostwriter, told a San Diego reporter. "Basically, it meant living the life of a 2-year-old rather than a 22-year-old."
With the fists of a 22-year-old.
Scenes from a life, courtesy of The Vance himself:
* While married to Chri, he threw a cassette case at her and cut her leg. She ran into the bedroom and cried. "I kept yelling at her to shut up. But every time I screamed at her, it made her cry even louder. Finally, I couldn't take it anymore. I ran into the bedroom with some paper, and shoved it into her mouth to muffle her crying."
* While he was with Angela, who was pregnant at the time: "I grabbed her and shook her violently while I yelled at her that I knew she was lying and that I knew she had fucked my teammates. I shoved her against the wall and against a closet door, and I kept screaming at her...I started slapping her, but slapping her just wasn't enough. So I pushed her and she fell into the closet." To revive her, Johnson splashed water on her from the toilet.
* While he was with Bettina: "At the height of the argument, she charged at me like she was going to knock the shit out of me or scratch me or something, and I stuck my foot out to stop her. She ran right into my foot, and the blow caught her in the stomach and knocked the wind out of her. She went down to the ground and was gagging like she was going to throw up."
* He impregnated Ana and then deserted her, but he kept returning to see her to have sex. Once he showed up at her workplace. As he tells it: "She screamed that I was never going to see my daughter again, and that just made me absolutely crazy. I lost control. I grabbed her by the shoulders and started shaking her and yelling at her. I shook her like a fucking rag doll. Then I threw her on the ground and told her that I would 'fucking kill her' if she didn't let me see my daughter."
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* In 1990 the News tore the cover off his life by speaking with the women The Vance abused. "He knew where to hit you--where it wouldn't show," said Ana. "His favorite place was on the shoulder and arms--never the face." The Vance heatedly denied ever hitting anyone. He told the News: "I never beat anyone. Everybody has been slapped around a bit in their life...but I haven't beat up anyone--ever." He cried. He was humiliated by the bad publicity. Chri stood up for him, but they had a fight. "We were yelling and screaming and at one point she pushed me, so I pushed her back. She tripped over something, fell and hit her head on the corner of the dresser." Holly, who was later to become his third wife, recalled, "I knew that Vance was a really sensitive person and that an article like that would just destroy him inside."
Holly, an integral part of Johnson's "confessional," wrote that he never hit her. But she described screaming arguments in which she threatened to call the police on him numerous times.
Eternally self-aggrandizing, The Vance took advantage of the O.J. Simpson case to present himself as a reformed woman-beater who would have wound up like O.J. if he hadn't gotten help.
Of course, as he told interviewers, O.J. once advised him on how to handle his domestic life.