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.
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.' "