The man in the dark sweat suit stood on Third Avenue in downtown
Seattle waiting to cross the street at 10:30 last Thursday
night, bundled up against the 41[degree] chill that was rolling
off Puget Sound. To the man's left, two policemen kept an eye on
a bus shelter, where a few drunks were making a scene. Across
the street sat the 10-story King County Courthouse. The
work-release detention center is located on the top floor of the
building, and it was there that the man in the sweat suit, Lamar
Smith, was serving time for vehicular assault. For 13 1/2 hours
a day, this jail is Smith's home. "I'm a night person," Smith
said, slinging a gym bag over his shoulder, "but you can't be a
night person here. It's lights out at 11. That's a little
different for me."
This is an article from the March 16, 1998 issue
Since Dec. 1, 1994, everything has been a little different for
Smith. That night, after drinking at two bars near the Seattle
Seahawks' training complex, Smith, then a Seahawks running back,
drove his sport-utility vehicle with two passengers--running
back Chris Warren and defensive tackle Mike Frier, a newcomer to
Seattle--into a pole. Smith and Warren escaped with minor
injuries, but Frier suffered a broken neck that left him
paralyzed from the waist down.
Last week the purgatory that is Smith's life was interrupted
with the first piece of good fortune he has had since the night
of the accident: He signed a four-year, $7.1 million free-agent
contract with the New Orleans Saints that, depending on his
performance, could grow in value to $11 million. The
contract--$2 million of which is guaranteed--will improve the
lives of both Smith and Frier: Smith's because he was never
going to be the primary ballcarrier in Seattle and because he
can leave behind the unending reminders of the accident; Frier's
because the sentence handed Smith last month called for him to
receive a portion of Smith's income, which could amount to $4
million over the next seven years. "What solace Lamar Smith can
find," Saints coach Mike Ditka said last week, "will be found
here, with a new team. I think that's good for both of them."
There's not much sweetness in either life right now. A single
father of four-year-old Mik'Kell, who splits time with her dad
and her mother, Kelly Butler, who lives in nearby Federal Way,
Frier rarely leaves his suburban Bellevue home, preferring to
surf the Internet and watch basketball on TV. He requires
full-time care from his father, Ulysses, who three years ago
moved from Jacksonville, N.C., to Seattle to care for Mike.
Smith leaves the detention center only to report to his
work-release job at a Bellevue gym that is 1.1 miles from
Frier's home. Because his driver's license was suspended after
the conviction, Smith gets a lift between the jail and the gym
five days a week from Seahawks running back Steve Broussard.
From 11 at night until 12:30 the following afternoon, Smith is
confined to the detention center, where he lives in a two-bed
cell without locks, on a floor equipped with a TV and a phone.
Smith doesn't complain. He knows that things could be worse.
For nine hours each weekday the two men are about 20 football
fields apart, Smith at the gym and Frier in his tidy ranch
house. But Smith says he and Frier haven't talked in about a
year. They aren't close. They never were. "The first day I ever
talked to Lamar was when we were out at T.G.I. Friday's the
night of the accident," Frier said last week in his first
in-depth interview since February 1996. He said he holds no
grudge against the man who put him in a wheelchair. Frier wishes
Smith good luck with his new team. Well he should. In keeping
with the King County superior court's sentence, 35% of Smith's
salary and 50% of any bonus money he earns goes to Frier. So,
for example, Frier will receive half of the $800,000 bonus that
Smith will get if he rushes for 1,000 yards in any of the next
four seasons. "I guess my name and his will always be tied
together," Frier said in a soft voice. "This accident will
shadow him for the rest of his life. But it wasn't his intent to
put me here. I don't hate him. I hope he goes to New Orleans and
makes a name for himself."
After he completes his sentence, in late April, Smith will move
2,000 miles away and get a fresh start. Frier will be left
behind, racked by back spasms, dreaming the only dream he
dares--that someday a cure for paralysis will be found. Smith
has a multimillion-dollar contract. Frier, who hitched a ride
with a relative stranger 39 months ago, prays to take another
step. "Life ain't fair," Frier says, "but life goes on."
During the season, players on some NFL teams gather for card
games, to eat dinner together or to barhop. In 1994 a handful of
Seahawks liked to meet at midweek and shoot pool. On Dec. 1,
Smith and Warren joined friends at the Shark Klub, a bar in the
eastside suburb of Kirkland. Smith admits to being served two or
three beers, and from there some in the group moved to T.G.I.
Friday's. There, according to court testimony, Smith was served
two double shots and a single of Crown Royal, though he
testified that he didn't drink all the liquor.
Having been claimed off waivers from the Cincinnati Bengals a
month earlier, Frier was just getting to know many of his new
teammates. Soon after arriving at T.G.I. Friday's, he left with
Smith and Warren for Warren's condominium. Smith drove. Warren
sat in the front passenger seat. Frier sat behind Warren. Smith
popped in a Notorious B.I.G. CD and cranked up the sound. With
the rap music blaring out of a 200-pound speaker behind the
backseat, the noise was as deafening as the din inside the
Kingdome when the Seahawks crowd gets frenzied. There are curbed
medians on some roads in Kirkland. Smith remembers looking down
to change the song that was playing, and he vaguely recalls
Warren trying to get his attention. By the time he looked up,
Smith testified that his 1992 Oldsmobile Bravada was closing in
on another car, so he switched lanes. After checking his
mirrors, he saw the median in front of him. The vehicle jumped
the curb and slammed into a utility pole. "God, please help me!"
Smith recalls Frier screaming from the backseat after the crash.
"I can't move!"
It's in recalling this part of the story--the hours and days
after the crash--that Smith gets the most emotional. About a
week after the accident, he knew he had to face Frier and tell
him he was sorry. "Toughest thing I ever did in my life," he
said last week, voice wavering, during a break at his job. "I
walked into his hospital room, over to his bed, and I said, 'I'm
so sorry for what I've done to you.' Mike told me to lean over
and give him a kiss. I kissed him on the cheek. He said to me,
'I don't hate you.'" Both men wept.
Smith was tried for vehicular assault in February 1996, but the
prosecution was without a key piece of evidence. Because police
initially thought Warren was the driver, Smith's blood-alcohol
level was not tested at the accident scene. A mistrial was
declared when one of 12 jurors held out for acquittal. Two
months before the retrial, Smith decided to plead guilty so he
could serve his time and get on with his career. He also didn't
want to put Frier through another trial. In addition to serving
the two months in work-release, Smith must perform 240 hours of
Smith's mea culpa last week sounded almost rehearsed.
Nonetheless, in these days of handy athletic alibis, it was
refreshing to hear him say the rarest five words in sports: "It
was all my fault." Then Smith added, "It was an accident, but I
take sole responsibility. I should never have been driving. I
should never have been drinking and driving. For that accident,
there's no one to blame but me."
The sentence? "Fair," Smith said. "Very fair. I made my bed. Now
I have to lie in it. God knows I wish I could go back and change
things, but I can't. Now I have to do whatever it takes to help
Financially, Frier, who turns 29 on March 20, will probably be
fine. A handicap-accessible van, donated by the Seahawks, sits
in his driveway. He's about to put a weight room in his home so
he can get stronger in his soft, fleshy upper body. In his
computer room--"I'm a computer geek," he says--the screen saver
MIKE FRIER floats endlessly across the monitor. He's in touch
with the Miami Project, the Nick Buoniconti-led organization
that's trying to find a cure for paralysis. Last Friday the
blinds were drawn in his home on an idyllic 61[degrees]
cloudless day. That's typical of Mike's reclusiveness. "I'd like
to see him get out more," Ulysses said.
Said Mike, "I haven't let this thing eat me up, because if I
did, it would destroy my dream of walking again. I'm happy I'm
alive. I'm just mad my career's over, because I loved football."
A visitor to Frier's secluded world wondered if there was a
moral to the story. Maybe something about the evils of driving
while intoxicated. Something about living a full life, because
you never know when your time will be up. Anything.
Frier shrugged. He searched for words for 10 seconds or so. He
found none. Finally he said, "S--- happens."
Smith, at 5'11" and 218 pounds, is a shifty battering ram of a
back with a burst of speed. Though he has remained a virtual
football unknown since his third-round selection by Seattle in
1994 out of the University of Houston, the Seahawks thought
enough of Smith in '97 to move him into a platoon role with
Warren, one of the NFL's top rushers of this decade. In parts of
four nicked-up seasons, Smith averaged 4.6 yards per
carry--though on only 282 rushes--and caught the attention of
personnel types with the Saints, the Kansas City Chiefs, the St.
Louis Rams and the San Diego Chargers. In fact, had they not
signed free agent Natrone Means last week, the Chargers would
have gone after Smith. "We loved him," says San Diego director
of player personnel Billy Devaney. "We were going to recruit him
in prison if that's what it took."
But the first weekend of free agency (Feb. 13-15) passed without
any takers. "Teams were skeptical of me because of the
accident," Smith says. "You can't blame them." Interest picked
up after the initial flurry of free-agent signings. In late
February, a week into his jail term, Smith was granted a
furlough so he could hit the free-agent trail. He intended to
visit the Saints and then the Rams and Chiefs, but a
conversation with Ditka and a good contract offer changed that
plan. Because of the accident, Ditka told Smith, he would have
fingers pointed at him wherever he went, and Ditka asked Smith
if he was up to the challenge of performing under that pressure.
"Coach," Smith replied, "I think I'm your man." He was visiting
the Saints on the day before Mardi Gras, and club salary-cap
consultant Terry O'Neil took him to Acme Oyster House in the
French Quarter for dinner. When restaurant patrons found out
this was a man who might help the moribund New Orleans offense,
the free oysters went flying Smith's way. Fans hung Mardi Gras
beads around his neck.
"They rolled out the red carpet for me," Smith says. "What was
important for me was that Mike Ditka's a running coach, and I
know they want a 300-, 320-carry-a-year back. I know I can be
that guy. I had an offer from Seattle, but I was never going to
be the guy in that offense." Sure enough, one day after Smith
came to terms with the Saints, the Seahawks signed free agent
"It's a fresh start for me," Smith says. "I really need it.
These last four years seem like 10. But I think it's a pretty
good ending for everyone involved. I get a new job with a
chance. I get to help Mike Frier."
"What would be nice," Ditka says, "is if we could win a Super
Bowl with Lamar playing a big role and Mike Frier on the
sideline, cheering us on. You dream about happy endings. That'd
be the happy ending to this story."
Happy? Not for Frier. But in this tragic story, that's as good
as life can get right now.
himself in New Orleans."