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Mike Fish Straight Shooting

Reliving the pain

For one St. Louis man, recent DUI arrest of Rams' Little hits home

Posted: Friday April 30, 2004 3:10PM; Updated: Friday April 30, 2004 3:22PM
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Sometimes he'll see them, kids and adults, alike, with Leonard Little's No. 91 jersey on their back. He'll hear the fans roar after their hero flings a quarterback to the turf. Maybe he'll catch a talking head singing Little's praises or read where the Rams' defensive end is Pro Bowl-bound -- and instinctively, as he's come to do these last five years, Bill Gutweiler will bow his head and stare at the ground.

"It almost kills me,'' says Gutweiler, his voice rising. "God, man, don't you people know?''

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Gutweiler isn't afraid to say he hates the Rams' leading sacker. Some nightmarish memories just get etched deep into our DNA, so it's naive to expect the widower to forgive and forget.

If you follow the NFL, you too ought not forget what Little did on that October 1998 night. Drunk and speeding in his luxury Navigator SUV, Little ran a stoplight on a downtown St. Louis street and plodded broadside into Susan Gutweiler's car. Twelve hours later Gutweiler's wife died. We'll spare you the gore, but suffice to say the 47-year-old suffered traumatic head and neck injuries.

Gutweiler prayed that Little be sent away for a long time. Instead, after copping a plea to involuntary manslaughter, he drew a 90-day sentence in the city workhouse, four years probation and 1,000 hours of community service. The NFL suspended him for eight games in 1999, but life went on and in 2002 the St. Louis Rams re-worked Little's contract, signing him to a five-year, $17.5 million deal.

So when I read the brief item about Little being pulled over for suspicion of driving while intoxicated, which was nearly lost in the hysteria over last weekend's NFL Draft, I felt a jolt of rage in flashing back. Then I thought of Gutweiler and his son, Michael, now 21. What must they be thinking?

"Man, I'll tell you, when I heard it I just dropped on the couch,'' Gutweiler told me. "The first thing I thought was, 'No, he can't be this stupid. He just can't be this stupid.'''

Believe it. Police say they clocked Little's 2003 Mercedes Benz S500 at 78 mph in a 55 zone at 3:44 a.m. last Saturday. OK, so he was heavy on the pedal. But then, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the arresting officer wrote: Little "attempted and failed three sobriety tests,'' and "admitted to drinking alcoholic beverages.''

This is bittersweet news for Gutweiler. Another life wasn't taken, fortunately. And the judicial system may finally bring the hammer down, with the Pro Bowler facing up to four years in prison for his latest DUI arrest. But this week has brought back all the dark memories, followed by bouts of anger at a system that in his mind failed miserably and the realization that a gifted young athlete who apparently still doesn't get it.

As you might imagine, Gutweiler has been, in his words, a nervous wreck. He fumes while Little's high-priced lawyer portrays his 29-year-old client as a shy, kind soul in the local media and his latest transgression little more than rolling through a stop sign.

Gutweiler acknowledges receiving a "small settlement'' from Little, though never an apology or sympathetic word from the player or the city's NFL franchise. That bugs him.

"You figure after five years this man couldn't have wrote my son a letter -- tell him how sorry he was in his own little words,'' Gutweiler pleads. "God, I know I would have. It wouldn't take no five years.''

The father finds what solace he can these days in breaking away on long bike rides -- 30 miles Sunday, 15 Wednesday night. And then, as he speaks with emotion and yet coolly under control, you realize this is a man who has had far too much experience coping with grief. In 1980, the Gutweiler's seven-year-old daughter, Jill -- remembered by dad as "absolutely gorgeous'' -- was struck by a car and killed. Three years later, he lost his brother, Tim, in a car accident.

It is what he learned from the painful bout dealing with his daughter's death that strengthens him today. For the longest time, he describes himself as being extremely bitter, believing if it was anyone but an inexperienced, 16-year-old girl behind the wheel that his child might still be alive. He credits his wife with shocking him out of it, telling him to buy into the belief that it happened for a reason or she was leaving.

"So that is kind of the way I felt about this whole thing,'' he said. "I tried to act like [Little] never existed. It was the only way I survived. If I had stayed with the anger, I just don't know what I would have done. And I know that isn't easy, cause every time I see him I could just kill him.''

The problem is you can't escape the reaches of a celebrity. It isn't like Little makes St. Louis his offseason home and then goes off and plays in Seattle or another distant outpost. You can't avoid the newspapers. You can't turn off the TV or silence the radio. You have to live.

And Gutweiler, a magazine distributor by day, freelances as a sports photographer, working a handful of Rams games a season for the likes of Sports Illustrated and The Associated Press. A full schedule, yes. But if, and when Little comes to trial, Gutweiler will make time to be in the courtroom.

"If the system works, maybe this time he'll come out with more than a slap on his hand,'' he says.

You would hope so.

Mike Fish is a senior writer for SI.com.

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