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° 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 13½ 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."
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 born 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.