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 community service.
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 Mike."
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° 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 Ricky Watters.