Story by David Mark | Photos by David Stuck
Many Montgomery County residents of a certain age — and those around Maryland and the broader National Capital Region — share enduring memories from former NFL star Dexter Manley’s Washington career.
One is his on-the-field prowess as a defensive end for two Super Bowl championship teams. The other is Manley’s cautionary tale, told in stirring Senate testimony, of getting through college and well into his pro career while being functionally illiterate. It’s the latter issue that he spends the bulk of his time on, as co-founder of the Dexter & Lydia Manley Foundation, supporting literacy programs in the Washington area.
“Our vision is that every child has the vision, and opportunity, to read,” Manley said during an interview together with Lydia, his wife of 25 years, in a spacious conference room at their Bethesda apartment complex.
Three decades removed from the playing field, the 6-foot-3 former star defensive end’s handshake has a grip strong enough to put a politician to shame. At 64, it’s quickly apparent why his NFL nickname was “secretary of defense,” an allusion to the towering, one-time star defensive end’s imposing physical presence.
Sitting and talking in a relaxed manner, Manley says he’s still a big NFL fan, watching the action on television during the season — something he had extra time for during a nasty bout with COVID-19 that left him hospitalized during the pandemic’s peak. He also returns regularly to player alumni events with the team now known as the Washington Commanders.
Manley’s focus, though, is literacy, in helping Washington-area young people face reading and writing challenges head-on. The Dexter & Lydia Manley Foundation raises funds for local literacy nonprofits. The foundation carefully vets its nonprofit partners, so funds are directed to programs with proven outcomes.
All with the goal of, in football parlance, sacking illiteracy. The way Manley once took down gridiron opponents during his 1981-89 Washington career, followed by single seasons with the Phoenix Cardinals and Tampa Bay Buccaneers and, finally, two years in the Canadian Football League.
The literacy programs the foundation raises money for include a healthy mentoring component. It’s service often undertaken by former students who developed their reading and writing skills in programs funded through the foundation’s literacy partner organization, Reach Incorporated, based in Southeast Washington, D.C.
“They help other kids come back and say, ‘It’s OK,’” Manley said.
It’s easy to see the urgent need for such literacy foundation programs. Per statistics noted on Reach’s website, “By third grade, more than half of public school students in Washington, D.C., have fallen behind in reading. When those students enter ninth grade, a full 80 percent don’t read at grade level.”
They’re just the kind of literacy programs that weren’t available to Manley, while growing up in Texas, to help him work through learning struggles later diagnosed as dyslexia. In second grade, teachers identified him as being “behind,” and placed him in a mixed-disabilities, special education classroom. A gifted athlete from an early age, Manley went on to star on the field at Oklahoma State University, with academics largely an afterthought.
Washington took Manley in the 1981 NFL Draft’s fifth round (119th overall). Manley was an integral part of the team’s Super Bowl wins in the 1982 and 1987 seasons, under head coach Joe Gibbs. Dubbed “Secretary of Defense,” Manley was a Pro Bowler in 1986 when he recorded a Redskins single season record of 18.5 sacks.
Manley as a player maintained good relations with the sports media, and that easy charm remains on display today. In a nonchalant and patient manner, he answered a reporter’s questions touching on his football high points and tougher times during and after his NFL career.
Manley became a household name of sorts beyond football fans when he revealed in 1989 Senate testimony that he could barely read. He says he decided it was time to act after witnessing, from the sidelines, Washington quarterback Joe Theismann’s career-ending in-game catastrophic fracture to his right leg. Theismann never played again after the Nov. 18, 1985, episode at RFK Stadium in Washington.
“It hit me to my core that I needed to do something,” Manley said. “I knew Joe Theismann had something to fall back on.”
The star Washington quarterback had a decade earlier opened an eponymous Alexandria, Va., restaurant. And had already begun a successful football broadcasting career.
“I was standing on the sidelines, 26 years old, and I did not know how to read. It allowed me to face my difficulties,” Manley said.
Manley soon began attending classes at the Lab School in Washington, D.C., founded to serve students with language-based learning differences like dyslexia. In 1989, Manley teared up before a Senate subcommittee when admitting that he had been functionally illiterate in college.
The Lab School classes helped Manley focus not only on reading and writing fundamentals, but with his dyslexia. It’s a learning challenge about which the public now knows much more, due to other public figures being willing to discuss their own experiences, including Tom Cruise and Cher, Manley said. In the political realm, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) also has been open about his experiences with dyslexia.
Today, Dexter Manley’s literacy work is very much a team effort. One he pursues from the heart of Montgomery County, which became home after moving from Texas with Lydia. The pair met while both living in Houston. She’s an alum of Howard University in Washington who worked for a time as an engineer in Silicon Valley.
Manley credits Lydia with helping pull together a post-football career that often didn’t go smoothly. Now, Bethesda makes for a good home base for the foundation, Dexter Manley said.
“It’s a clean, wholesome place to live,” he said, noting he gets recognized in the community with some regularity.
And while local literacy programs are flourishing, thanks in no small part to the Dexter & Lydia Manley Foundation’s efforts, the state of Washington football isn’t. The pair of Super Bowl championships won by Manley’s teams stand in stark contrast with the Commanders’ poor performance on the field and dwindling attendance at home games (the team ranked last in the NFL during the just-completed season.)
As for locals’ memories of his pro football days, Manley added, “I embrace it.” Even with younger fans who have only seen him play on digital highlight reels. “Their grandparents, and their parents are still avid Washington fans.”