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Former BYU star regaining control of his life

Mohammed (Moe) Elewonibi knows how it feels to run onto the field at BYU's Cougar Stadium on a sunny Saturday afternoon to the roar of a crowd.

Moe knows what it's like to go from never having played organized football to winning the Outland Trophy, emblematic of the nation's top collegiate interior lineman, in a matter of only a few years.

Moe knows the thrill of being a starter in the National Football League.

Moe also knows pain, suffering, confusion and depression. Moe knows what he calls "that dark, lonely place."

During his years playing football at BYU and in the NFL, he lived with a secret. Elewonibi, 34, isn't afraid to talk about it now.

"I'm an alcoholic," he said this week in a phone interview from Winnipeg, Manitoba, where he is the dreadlocks-wearing, starting left tackle for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League. "What I've learned is it's something I've been for a long time. I lived with this mask on. I was Moe the football player, Moe the brother, Moe the son. I didn't know who I was. I was faking my way through life. I had personal demons and I couldn't handle them. I took painkillers and alcohol to feel normal. Those were my crutches."

These days, the 6-foot-4, 300-pounder says he is feeling normal and feeling good, without the assistance of any substances. He says he has been clean and sober for seven months. Elewonibi is a member of Alcoholics Anonymous, has an AA sponsor and goes to three or more AA meetings a week.

Elewonibi is grateful for the continued support of his family and friends, including former BYU teammates like Neal Fort (also a CFL offensive lineman) and Matt Bellini. He says he keeps in touch with offensive line coach Roger French and coach LaVell Edwards as well. "The people at BYU have always been there for me," he said. "They've gone above and beyond the call of a football team."

Nearly 11 seasons have passed since Elewonibi was at BYU, making a name for himself while blocking for eventual Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Ty Detmer. But to understand Moe's story of triumphs and travails, go further back than that.

Elewonibi was born in Nigeria and grew up playing soccer. His dream was to compete in the World Cup. At age 11, he immigrated to British Columbia, Canada, with his mother. He says his addiction to alcohol began at age 12, when he had his first drink.

In high school, Elewonibi played soccer and eventually lettered in that sport as well as rugby, track and basketball. He never played high school football, however. One of his favorite pastimes on weekends was drinking and for a time he worked as a bouncer at a nightclub.

By age 17, Elewonibi landed at Snow Junior College in Ephraim. There, the football coaches noticed him playing pickup soccer games and invited him to take up a new sport. He accepted the invitation.

Two years later, Elewonibi was on scholarship at BYU. He is grateful for his time in Provo, not only for the chance to play football but for the kind of environment that allowed him to subdue his habit, at least for a while.

"BYU really saved me," he said. "You don't do things like drink at BYU. The people were honest and supportive. I got a lot out of BYU. It's a better life than I would have had (elsewhere). Going there put my problem on the back burner for four years."

Throughout his career, injuries have plagued Elewonibi. By his count, he's had 18 surgeries, and several of those took place while he was at BYU, including shoulder reconstruction surgery. Elewonibi was so banged up as a junior, he didn't play much. He took medication to mitigate the pain but, he adds, "I didn't abuse painkillers then. They don't hand those out indiscriminately at BYU."

While in Provo, Elewonibi joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. People in the community embraced him. "They showed me what it was like to have a family," he said.

As a senior in 1989, Elewonibi came out of nowhere to post an unbelievable season. Detmer was breaking NCAA passing records and the Cougars were lighting up the scoreboard (70 points against Utah, for example) en route to a 10-3 season. In four games, Elewonibi was graded out with perfect pass protection. Even being a part of the anonymous crew of offensive linemen, he became a star.

"In one game, I went out with an ankle injury," he recalled. "While I was going back in, I heard the crowd cheering and I thought, What, did we score a touchdown again?' Then I realized the crowd was cheering for me."

When he was told late in the season by BYU officials that he was a finalist for the Outland Trophy, Elewonibi had never heard of the award. "I had to ask the other linemen on the team what that was," he said.

Elewonibi won the Outland, becoming the second Cougar to take home the honor in four years (defensive lineman Jason Buck won it in 1986). He attended the award ceremony sporting Detmer's tie and another teammate's jacket because he didn't have his own accessories.

It was an improbable conclusion to his improbable college football career. "My goal before the season was to start," he said. "I was the only senior on the offensive line and it was Ty's breakout year. (The award) was a team thing. That season was a lot of fun."

Despite his size, talent and credentials, Elewonibi wasn't picked until the third round, 76th overall, by the Washington Redskins in the 1990 NFL Draft. He believed his stock dropped because teams were scared off by his history of injuries.

Elewonibi signed a contract with the Redskins and instantly became a wealthy man. "I went from BYU, where I'd get a scholarship check of $230, to a check with six zeroes," he said. "The NFL lifestyle opened doors for me." Doors that he wishes he hadn't entered.

After college, he got engaged to a BYU coed. But when that relationship crumbled, so did his life. "We broke up and I went off the deep end," Elewonibi said. "I delved into old habits."

As for his career, he struggled to establish himself. He played four years in Washington before being released in 1993, then hooked up with the Buffalo Bills in 1994 but was cut before the season started. In 1995, he played for a year in Europe before signing with the Philadelphia Eagles.

Meanwhile, his dependency on alcohol and painkillers was growing out of control. "Those pills were magical," he said. "I told myself that if I took them I wouldn't feel the pain and the hurt. They became my focus. That one thing becomes your savior." In Philly, Elewonibi received help. He was admitted to a treatment center for his addiction to painkillers.

Elewonibi was let go by the Eagles in 1996 and returned to his native province in Canada to play for the British Columbia Lions in 1997. One year later, he became a CFL all-star. But he relapsed into drinking and taking painkillers. Last season, his addiction not only nearly destroyed him, it also affected his team, which fell in the conference final to Calgary. His drinking increased. He made excuses to miss practices and stopped listening to his coaches, he said.

One morning, Elewonibi awoke in Mexico after a drinking binge with former teammate Todd Marinovich and realized he needed help, again. His mom told him about an alcohol treatment center he could check himself into. "It was a relief," he said. "I knew it would finally be over. My mom saved my life."

While at the treatment center this spring, Elewonibi was traded to Winnipeg (for future considerations) because he had become such distraction to the B.C. Lions in 1999. Moe apologized publicly for his mistakes. "No matter the success we had last year I was not really apart of it," he told a radio station in Vancouver. "My drinking and the choices I made, made me kind of hold the team back."

Elewonibi has left the treatment center and says his rehab is going well. The change of scenery has been beneficial, too. "Last year was bad. B.C. became a place of terror," Elewonibi said. "I was hanging out in the wrong places and with the wrong people. I became a detriment to the team. They had to get rid of me."

A few weeks into the 2000 season, the Blue Bombers are 0-3 (including a 51-48 setback Friday to Edmonton; the Blue Bombers' last two losses have been by a combined seven points), but other than that, Elewonibi seems to be happy in Winnipeg. "It's flat here and you can't see mountains. It's on the prairies. But it's like a college atmosphere. The people take you in. I've met a nice girl and I'm hoping to move things along. I'm in the best shape of my career. I'm building a life, on and off the field."

Moe Elewonibi is an alcoholic. His battle with the disease rages on as each day he tries to raise himself above that dark and lonely place. "When I go to my (AA) meetings," he said, "I realize I'm just an addict like everyone else there."

Moe knows.

E-mail: jeffc@desnews.com