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LUCKLESS IN SEATTLE A SUCCESSION OF OFF-FIELD CRISES HAS MADE THE SEAHAWKS THE NFL'S MOST TROUBLED TEAM

July 24, 1995
July 24, 1995

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July 24, 1995

LUCKLESS IN SEATTLE A SUCCESSION OF OFF-FIELD CRISES HAS MADE THE SEAHAWKS THE NFL'S MOST TROUBLED TEAM

Heartache? Bad luck and grave embarrassment? Last December the
Seattle Seahawks thought they had already had more than their
share: Injuries had begun to cripple the Seahawks, and falling
ceiling tiles at the Kingdome had forced them to move three of
their home games to the University of Washington's Husky
Stadium. Seattle had gotten off to a stirring 3-1 start but then
slipped into a six-game nosedive that rendered the season
unsalvageable. Fans had responded by staying away in droves. Two
late-season home games had each drawn crowds of fewer than
40,000, record lows for the 18-year-old franchise.

This is an article from the July 24, 1995 issue

On the night of Dec. 1, coach Tom Flores had just ended another
long workday when he walked through the door of his condominium
and realized that he had no electricity. Outside, the rest of
the homes on the hillside overlooking Lake Washington were dark
as well.

Flores didn't know that at that moment, less than two miles
away, firemen and paramedics were laboring to remove three of
his players from the wreckage of a light truck that had struck a
utility pole, disabling a transformer and plunging several
Seattle neighborhoods into darkness. Pinned in the backseat of
the mangled vehicle was 25-year-old Seahawk defensive tackle
Mike Frier, whose spine was irreparably damaged. Seattle's
All-Pro halfback Chris Warren, a passenger in the front seat,
escaped with two cracked ribs. Rookie running back Lamar Smith,
who prosecutors said was driving the truck despite having been
served at least 10 drinks earlier that night, was hospitalized,
though he was not severely injured. The wreck occurred after
Smith had swung into a left turn lane to pass a slower moving
vehicle and struck a concrete traffic island on a two-lane
residential road at an estimated 50 mph. The collision with the
island sent him skidding into the pole.

When his teammates were finally allowed to visit Frier after the
accident, he was on a respirator and still wearing the halo
brace that doctors had screwed into his skull after surgery to
stabilize his spine. "All he could do was blink," Flores
remembers. "You were almost afraid to ask what would happen to
us next."

It didn't take long to find out.

Flores was fired later that month, and 13 days later homegrown
hero Dennis Erickson was named to replace him. In April,
Erickson was arrested for driving while intoxicated, and then in
May he was pilloried in two Florida newspaper articles that
alleged widespread abuses in the University of Miami program he
had just left. Along the way the 48-year-old Erickson also
learned that his father had been diagnosed as having cancer.

And that still wasn't all. When Flores, who lives only minutes
from the Seahawks' training complex, awoke at about 6 a.m. on
July 5 and turned on his radio to hear the morning news, he
found himself saying, "Jesus ... Jesus God Almighty" out loud.

A newscaster was reporting that Seahawk All-Pro wide receiver
Brian Blades had been involved that night in the fatal shooting
in Plantation, Fla., of his cousin Charles Blades. When a tape
of Brian's frantic 911 call was released a few days later, he
could be heard screaming at the dispatcher, "I need you to come
to my house right now! ... I need you to come right now! ... I
went down there to stop my brother from fighting his girl, and
the gun went off and shot my cousin!"

During a second 911 call, placed minutes later, Brian can be
heard wailing, "Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?"

Late last week, with the Seahawks still reeling from the Blades
tragedy, Frier, who still has virtually no movement or sensation
below his waist, was readmitted to the hospital with a blood
clot that at first caused great concern but was successfully
treated. Seattle safety Eugene Robinson, who cuts Frier's hair,
says, "I just call all of what's happened to us 'the woes.'"

As the Seahawks embark on their new season, they are the most
troubled team in the NFL. The overarching question is: How much
misery, tragedy and bad judgment can one team absorb?

When police responded to Brian Blades's 911 call summoning them
to his condo, they found 34-year-old Charles Blades dead from a
bullet that had entered just beneath his chin. Brian has said
that Charles was shot accidentally, but questions about that
assertion arose almost immediately. An initial investigation
revealed that Brian's .380 Walther semi-automatic pistol had
fired not once but twice--the second bullet was found on the
floor. And neighbors living below the scene of the shooting
reported hearing "thumps" and "sounds of a struggle" that night.

As Flores says, "You don't want to let your imagination run off
on any of this. Because it will...."

As of Monday, Brian still had not given police or prosecutors a
detailed explanation of what happened in his apartment.
Plantation police did not take him in for questioning the night
of the shooting because, they said later, Brian was too
"hysterical" to talk. Brian canceled two subsequent interviews,
claiming that he remained too distraught to speak with
authorities. But he did hold a press conference.

Six days after the incident Brian stood on the lawn in front of
his mother's house in Plantation and read a brief statement that
was long on emotion but was short on answers. "I know Charles's
death was an accident, the police know Charles's death was an
accident, and most important, God knows it was an accident,"
Brian said before he was led off sobbing. Among the crowd
watching were three Plantation detectives, one of whom
videotaped the proceedings.

This week the police will present their findings to the Broward
County state attorney's office, which is expected to forward the
case to a grand jury. The grand jury's decision on any
indictment is expected to take two to four more weeks. Even if
police conclude that the shooting was an accident, Brian could
be prosecuted for gross negligence. "It was an accident," says
Bruce Zimet, Brian's lawyer. "But if they are determined to
charge Brian with anything, it would probably be manslaughter."

For now the sketchy reconstruction of what happened that night
goes like this: Brian and his brother Bennie, a safety for the
Detroit Lions, Charles and two unidentified men spent the
evening cruising town in a limousine and watching Fourth of July
fireworks at a nearby park.

Meanwhile, Bennie's former girlfriend Carol Jamerson arrived at
his town house to settle a dispute over who would have custody
of their three-year-old daughter the next day. Bennie's current
girlfriend, Toni Fort, was baby-sitting the child and, for
reasons that remain unclear, summoned police at about 11:40 p.m.
A patrolman arrived shortly after Fort's call, and Bennie,
reached on a cellular phone in the limo, agreed to return home
quickly. Jamerson promised to wait off the property until Bennie
arrived, and the officer left.

At 12:38 a.m. Brian placed his rambling 911 call. Police believe
that Bennie was not in Brian's condo at the time of the
shooting, which raises a significant question: Since Brian had
said that he was leaving his town house to join Bennie and the
two women at Bennie's apartment across the street, what was he
intending to do with the gun? The other men who shared the limo
with the Blades brothers were in Brian's condo when Charles was
shot, but both told police they were in another room and had no
idea how the shooting took place.

Brian says he is intent on reporting to training camp by the
July 21 deadline for veterans. And the Seahawks, who named
Blades their Man of the Year in 1994 for his work with the
homeless, the United Negro College Fund and other projects, are
vowing to stand behind him.

Blades is among Seattle's toughest, most respected players. The
first thing every teammate mentions in talking about Blades is
the pounding he took in 1994--and how he never gave in, running
routes across the middle even when it invited more punishment,
playing all 16 games despite a bad back, a sore thigh, some rib
cage trouble and a mild concussion. He ended the season with a
Seahawk-record 81 catches and had 1,000 yards receiving for the
third time in his career.

Says defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy, who also played at the
University of Miami, "Some weeks he couldn't practice at all.
But come Sunday he'd always be out there. I used to tell him, 'I
don't know how you play, let alone how you play well.'"

The other trait that impresses the Seahawks about Blades? "It's
how close he is to his family," Kennedy says.

Robinson, who watched Blades's tearful press conference on the
evening news in Seattle, says, "You could just see the man was
hurting. When he gets here, you know what? He doesn't owe us an
explanation. When I see him, I'll just give the brother a hug
and a handshake, and ask, How can I be of service? Sometimes
something as simple as cutting a guy's grass takes away a worry."

Perhaps the only similarity between Blades's and Erickson's
predicaments is that neither man's troubles may be resolved
anytime soon. In Erickson's case, the NCAA has just begun to
investigate the Miami football program he left behind, and he
has 22 months left in a court-ordered treatment program for
alcoholism.

When Erickson agreed to a five-year, $5 million contract to
coach the Seahawks he was seen as the prodigal son come home, a
local guy who had turned down far more money from the Denver
Broncos and the Philadelphia Eagles to make Seattle's NFL club a
winner, just as he had won at Miami and Washington State and
Wyoming and Idaho before that.

Erickson grew up in Everett, 30 minutes from Seattle. His dad,
Pink, was a well-known high school coach. By age five Dennis was
watching game film with his father in their living room. By age
10 he was running the projector and splicing cuts of game action
together. When the two of them wound up at rival high
schools--Dennis as a quarterback at Everett High, Pink as the
coach at Cascade--Dennis often counted on his three sisters to
blow the whistle if they caught Dad peeking into Dennis's
playbook, which occasionally happened, Pink once told a reporter
with a laugh.

Dennis remains close to Pink, whose fight against cancer has so
far been encouraging. His radiation treatments concluded last
week, and Dennis said Pink celebrated by playing in a golf
tournament in Montana.

Dennis's treatment is also going well. He was ordered to attend
three-hour counseling sessions five days a week for a month
after facing DWI charges on May 3. He continues to attend a
weekly two-hour session and two Alcoholics Anonymous meetings
each week. He must also submit to random urinalysis and report
occasionally to a probation officer. Erickson says he feels
better since he quit drinking, and friends say he indeed looks
better.

That's the bright side. The bad news is that Erickson remains
defensive--even on occasion belligerent--about both his arrest and
the charges that he ran a "lawless" program at Miami.

During the first day of a minicamp in April he spoke to the
Seahawks about his arrest. Given the alcohol-related charges
Smith still faces for his accident, the players appreciated it
when their new coach publicly apologized and then asked all of
them, "Will you guys forgive me?"

"He didn't have to do that," Robinson says. "Who am I to sit
here now and keep saying, 'Shame, shame, shame'?"

During an interview last week Erickson repeatedly called his
driving while drunk a "stupid mistake" and said, "The thing I'm
most grateful for is that I never hurt anybody." But in a
Seattle Post-Intelligencer story published three days later,
Erickson strongly objected to SI's depiction of him, in the June
12 issue, as "hard-drinking." Erickson told the paper, "That's
ridiculous. It's character assassination."

And yet, as one condition of his sentence, Erickson had to
undergo a chemical-dependency evaluation, and an Everett
prosecutor said in open court that Erickson was found to have a
"significant drinking problem." In Washington anyone with a
blood-alcohol level of .10 and above is considered legally
drunk. Erickson's Breathalyzer test read .23. A reading of .25
often induces unconsciousness, and anything .30 or higher can be
fatal.

To register a blood-alcohol level as high as Erickson's reading,
one expert says an average-sized man, like Erickson, would have
to consume 12 to 13 one-ounce shots of liquor in two to three
hours. That meets any reasonable definition of "hard-drinking."

Erickson is similarly upset with the reviews of his tenure at
Miami. He went 63-9 and won two national championships in his
six seasons. But by the time he left, the NCAA was investigating
his program for Pell Grant fraud and for a rumored pay-for-play
system funded by rap star Luther Campbell. And when word leaked
on the eve of this spring's NFL draft that star defensive tackle
Warren Sapp had tested positive for drugs at least once while
attending Miami, the NCAA promised to look into whether, in
letting Sapp play after he had failed a drug test, Erickson had
violated the school's drug policy.

Also, in articles that ran in The Miami Herald and the Fort
Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel just days apart in May, Erickson was
accused of presiding over a program in which violence and sexual
assault, drug abuse and possession of guns went largely
uncontrolled.

Erickson dismisses some of the accusations because "they come
from unnamed sources." He insists that others have "never been
proven" or result from a "vendetta" launched by people who were
angry about the way he left Miami.

To be sure, Erickson has always been clumsy about leaving the
places at which he has coached. His longtime pattern of emphatic
denials followed by quick exits dates at least as far back as
his 1985 departure from Idaho. There Erickson termed rumors that
he was headed to Wyoming "nothing but speculation--all of it" on
a Friday. On Saturday the Vandals lost a Division I-AA playoff
game. On Monday, Erickson announced that he was heading off to
coach the Cowboys after all. The pattern continued at Wyoming,
Washington State and Miami.

As with their support of Blades, the Seahawks are united behind
their new coach. Kennedy and quarterback Rick Mirer, two of
Seattle's linchpins, both used the same phrase--"I could care
less"--when asked last week about Erickson's troubles. "All I
care about is making the playoffs," says Kennedy. "Here. In
Seattle. Whatever happened at Miami is the past."

Mirer agrees: "It won't affect us or Dennis's preparations with
the 1995 Seattle Seahawks. I mean, I can guarantee you, Dennis
isn't the only guy around here who has climbed into a car after
having a few beers. And if there hadn't been a DWI arrest here,
there wouldn't have been any Miami story--I really believe that.
That was just people who are angry [at Erickson]."

What no one can take away from Erickson is that he is a
marvelous coach. With the underrated Warren, who finished 1994
with 1,545 yards rushing and 1,868 total yards, both AFC bests;
No. 1 draft pick Joey Galloway, a receiver who should take some
of the load off Blades; and Kennedy, a four-time Pro Bowl
veteran, Erickson has the nucleus of a contender.

Much depends, though, on whether Erickson can get the most out
of Mirer. As the second quarterback taken in the 1993 draft,
Mirer may have the misfortune to be forever compared to the
first one taken, Drew Bledsoe of the New England Patriots. While
Bledsoe blossomed under coach Bill Parcells, Mirer was stuck in
a system that failed to take advantage of his athleticism. A
scrambler with only modest arm strength, Mirer finished the '94
season tied for the best interception ratio in the league, but
with the second-fewest yards per completion, an embarrassing
5.65. No other full-time starter in the AFC threw for fewer
touchdowns than Mirer's 11. Erickson intends to design an
offense that will allow Mirer to improvise and that will place
less of a premium on the long pass.

If Erickson does succeed in taking the Seahawks to the playoffs
for the first time since 1988, Seattle fans may have little time
left to enjoy their team's rebirth. Owner Ken Behring is making
noise about moving the team, perhaps to a proposed new stadium
in Los Angeles, if his demands for $150 million in Kingdome
renovations and a kinder stadium lease aren't met.

In the meantime, the Seahawks are left to wonder whether trouble
will continue to find them--wherever they are.

COLOR PHOTO: DEAN RUTZ/SEATTLE TIMES Blades (left) took a pounding in '94, but coping with killing his cousin will be far more painful for him. [Washington Redskins player putting hit on Brian Blades]COLOR PHOTO: JOE RIMKUS JR./MIAMI HERALD Six days after the shooting, Blades needed his parents' support upon facing the press. [Brian Blades crying as he walks with his parents]COLOR PHOTO: CORKY TREWIN Erickson has proved he can win, but his judgment off the field has gotten him into hot water. [Dennis Erickson]COLOR PHOTO: CORKY TREWIN Mirer fell victim to a system that kept him too long in the pocket looking for too few able receivers. [Rick Mirer being tackled by opponent]COLOR PHOTO: RICHARD MACKSONWarren is better known for having been on Frier's tragic ride than for his 1,545 yards rushing in 1994. [Chris Warren running with football]