Underwood's weight battle no comparison to last year's struggle

Thursday, July 20th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WICHITA FALLS, Texas (AP) -- Dimitrius Underwood has controlled the demons that last year derailed his football career and nearly ended his life. A few days into training camp with the Dallas Cowboys, Underwood is fighting a new urge: a sweet tooth.

Underwood's sugar cravings are a side effect of the medication he's taking to control acute bipolar disorder, the mental illness that haunted his brief, bizarre tenures in Minnesota and Miami. Giving in to his hunger has left the defensive end with a bundle of unwanted pounds, but it's a small price to pay considering he wouldn't be playing football -- and maybe not even alive – without his daily pill. "If I put them sweets down at the training table at night, I'd probably be all right," Underwood said, smiling.

Standing on a practice field after his fourth workout in two days, Underwood was full of smiles and giggles Wednesday evening as he discussed his yearlong ordeal for the first time. "You know, everybody has problems in life," he said. "I'm just glad that stuff is behind me. I just want to deal with this right now and get past this stage in life and keep on going."

Part of Underwood's progress is facing up to his previous stage, when he walked out on the Vikings one day into a $5.3 million, five-year contract with a $1.75 million bonus, then tried committing suicide while on the Dolphins' roster. "I think about it every day, I really do," he said. "That was a big point in my life -- it's impossible not to think about it. ButI try not to let it affect me."

Underwood didn't say what he specifically thinks about, but he made it clear that he doesn't agonize over every incident. "That's too much to think about," he said, again smiling and laughing. "I just think about it so it don't happen again. I just count my blessings and say my prayers."

Earlier this summer, Underwood said he would only talk football. His willingness to speak openly about his past is another sign o fhis progress. "I'm not the only person who fell down in life," he said. "I'm just thankful I got helped up. If I didn't get up then, yeah, I wouldn't want to talk about it."

After Underwood slashed his throat with steak knives, he spent two months in protective care and then voluntarily entered a mental health center. He fled hours later and the Dolphins released him the next week. "Down in Miami, it was still being diagnosed," Underwood said. "So nobody really knew."

By March, Underwood convinced the Cowboys he was ready to try playing in the NFL again. For Dallas, it was a low-risk gamble. The Cowboys gave Underwood a bargain contract in hopes of tapping the potential that made him the 29th pick of last year's draft. Dallas traded its first-round pick this year to Seattle as part of the deal to get Joey Galloway.

Also, the team had reason to believe it could help Underwood because of last year's success in helping ease Alonzo Spellman back to the NFL after his own bout with bipolar disorder. "It's like I'm just fitting in the mold because it was already implemented before I got here with 'Zo," Underwood said. "I'm just walking in his steps, really."

Spellman has become a confidant and friend. He's been amazed by Underwood's progress. "He's light years ahead of where I was," Spellman said. "He was smart enough and brave enough to come back and face the drama in the offseason and I commend him for that. He's soaring like an eagle, baby, and I think he'll continue to do that."

The extra weight is keeping Underwood grounded for now. He was shocked this summer to learn he'd ballooned to 330 pounds, but it's closer to 300 now and dropping in the Texas heat. "I'm exactly where I want to be right now, but for the season, I 'm not near it," he said. "I'd say with my potential, I'm about 4. I've got a long ways to go."

Underwood hasn't played in a game that counted since 1997because of an injury that kept him out of his senior year at Michigan State. Spellman, though, has been impressed by Underwood's play. "I've seen those cat-like feet, and he's strong as a bull," Spellman said. "He's got the package, there's no doubt about that. He just has to focus that now and go in the right direction."