Since Friday, Irving Fryar had not eaten. He had abstained from sex. He had barely slept. He had gone over and over the plan, visualizing his opponent, focusing. He had wanted this so badly, ever since that afternoon when he went up the middle and was knocked off his feet and his head hit the ground and he started babbling incoherently. Now it would be him standing there, waiting for someone else to come up the middle. On Sunday he rose and dressed without a word. By 3:45 the fans were out, the seats were full. And then, for 60 minutes, he burst, darted, jumped, spun, went left, leaned right, screamed above the noise, waved his arms, clenched his fists and doubled over in pain. His 200 pounds had a film of sweat over them, soaking the towel he kept by his side. When he scored his points, he raised his hands above his head and stamped his feet and bent his neck all the way back until it seemed sure to snap.
Finally, on that baked afternoon at the Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church in Pompano Beach, Fla., someone came up the middle aisle. Michael Robinson, 37, full of doubts and crack, staggered up with tears in his eyes, trying to make it on his own but having to lean on the burly shoulder of the usher. The people waving the fans in front of their faces turned to get a better look. And there was Fryar, standing in a robe, his sermon against the Devil still rattling the church's rafters, his body pulsing, his huge hands out and open, waiting to see if Robinson would go all the way.
Maybe God knows a good comeback story when He hears one. Irving Fryar, the All-Pro screwup, the Original Sinner, the Human Incident, saving somebody else's soul? The same guy who, when he played for the New England Patriots, would disappear for days on cocaine binges? The prodigal No. 1 son of the 1984 draft, who once got sideswiped by a reckless tree during the third quarter of a game? The man who was pulled over for carrying a rifle loaded with hollow points and was caught with a pistol jammed down his boot during a bar brawl? That Irving Fryar? A redeemer?
"He's the most amazing man in my life," his wife, Jacqui, has said, "because I know how far he's come."
Depends on how you look at it. Fryar grew up less than two first downs from a Baptist church in Mount Holly, N.J. His father, David, sang with a traveling gospel group; his two sisters, Faith and Hope, sang in the church choir; and his mother, Allene, was devoted to Jesus. That's how it was in their little house: Faith, Hope and Irving. He was supposed to have been Hope, and Hope was supposed to have been Charity, but he crossed up his mother right from the start, and she ended up calling him Irving, which is not a name you want if you're a gangbanger in a bareknuckle town like Mount Holly. "Sometimes I think my mother named me that 'cause she was mad at me for not being a girl," Fryar says.
Oiving kids would call him, as if he were a black eight-year-old rabbi. Or they would string it out: Errrrrrrrrrving! Time to come home and practice the cello! Name a kid Irving in a place like Mount Holly, and you'd better throw in boxing lessons. And if the name didn't teach Irving to swing away, his father would. David, son of a North Carolina sharecropper, lived with his family, but not often. When he did come home from working both day (at a pipe foundry) and night (delivering for the family-owned dry-cleaning business), he was usually drunk or mad or both. Irving would wade into the middle as his dad hit his mom, and he would get only a split lip for his troubles. "I thought that's how all families were," he says now. "I never thought anything was wrong with mine."
But rage is like a river. It has to go somewhere. So Irving would take it to the gang they called G-town (for Ghetto Town), a pack of steel-jawed jocks with too much time on their fists: Bones and Ace and Jinx and Moose and Wimpy. Irving was called Swift, and Swift could whip almost anybody using only his cartoon-sized hands and quick feet and maybe a Louisville Slugger. No guns in those days. No drive-bys. Closest thing to a drive-by was a fly-by the night Irving got a guy airborne, throwing him through the window at Sal's Pizzeria.
Swift could also take that rage to the football field and whip almost anybody there, too. "There wasn't anything that kid couldn't do," says Bill Gordon, who was Fryar's football coach at Rancocas Valley Regional High. "He could play any position beautifully. I should've let him play quarterback. Stupid me, I didn't."
Instead Fryar played tight end and wide receiver. And what he played maybe even better was centerfield. He did that so well that the Philadelphia Phillies scouted him, only he didn't find out about it until he was a year into his full-ride football scholarship at Nebraska, and the Phillies had lost interest. "I'd have played baseball if I'd known," Fryar says forlornly. "I never knew till it was too late."
At Nebraska, Fryar, now strictly a wide-out, was a cog in maybe the best Corn-husker offense ever: tailback Mike Rozier, quarterback Turner Gill and a national championship if not for a one-point loss to Miami in the 1984 Orange Bowl. At Nebraska, Fryar also got a head start on one of the longest police records in football. He broke down the door to the apartment of his girlfriend, Martha Florence, and, according to Florence, beat her. "He had such a temper," remembers Florence. "He had these two Dobermans, and he'd get angry at them and just fling them against the wall. I think he underestimated how much pressure would be on him playing college football."