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
bare-knuckle town like Mount Holly. "Sometimes I think my mother
named me that 'cause she was mad at me for not being a girl,"
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
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 wideout, was a cog in maybe
the best Cornhusker 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."
He has admitted that he used cocaine in college; Florence says
Fryar got high the night before that '84 Orange Bowl. And
according to the book Big Red Confidential: Inside Nebraska
Football, by Armen Keteyian, Fryar deliberately dropped a pass
in the Orange Bowl to throw the game. (No charges were ever
filed in the matter.)
The spotlight just got hotter, and life just got worse for Fryar
in New England, after the Patriots made him the first pick in
the entire draft. Footballwise, Fryar with the Patriots was like
Meryl Streep at the Lubbock Summer Playhouse. New England had
got itself the perfect receiver but neglected to find anybody
who could actually get him the ball. In his nine seasons with
the Patriots, Fryar went through nine quarterbacks. Ten bonus
points for every one you've heard of: Tom Hodson, Tom Ramsey,
Scott Zolak, Jeff Carlson, Hugh Millen, Marc Wilson, Steve
Grogan, Tony Eason and Doug Flutie, whom Fryar's agent called
the Midget. "It wasn't any use," Fryar sighs. "The ball just
wasn't going to get there." He made the Pro Bowl only once--as a
kick returner. He had five winning seasons. The Patriots didn't
make the playoffs his last six years.
The rest was just a dumpster full of losing and lies. The lies
started with a beaut. Four nights before the Patriots became the
most unlikely team ever to earn a spot in the Super Bowl, in
January 1986, Fryar told trainers that he had severed a tendon
in his right little finger while working in his kitchen. The
trainers looked at the cut and said Fryar would be lucky to play
in the AFC championship game. But the Boston Globe reported
another explanation for the injury: Irving had been fighting
with Jacqui, a former cheerleader for the Boston Breakers of the
U.S. Football League, whom he had married about a year earlier.
He had taken Jacqui to a posh Boston restaurant and told her
that if the Patriots made it to the Super Bowl, he didn't want
her to go with him. She became enraged, and as their argument
escalated in the restaurant's parking lot, she took a knife out
of her purse and stabbed at him. He blocked the knife with his
hand. (Fryar vehemently denies this version of events, conceding
that he was fighting with Jacqui that night but insisting that
they were at home and that he cut himself.) Fryar ultimately
played in the Patriots' 46-10 Super Bowl loss to the Chicago
Bears--New England's finest moment--and he scored the Pats' only
Two days after the Super Bowl it was revealed that Fryar, along
with five teammates, had used illegal drugs during the season.
The Globe reported that the players had been at an all-night
drug party in Miami after a loss to the Dolphins. "I know I was
dirty," Fryar preaches now. "I know I was filled with drugs,
filled with lies, filled with alcohol."
His guns he filled with hollow-point bullets. Police found a
rifle loaded with hollow points when they stopped Fryar, who was
driving with a suspended license, outside Pemberton, N.J., in
1988, and it hit the papers. "It wasn't so much New Jersey where
I needed it," Fryar says of the weapon. "It was Boston." It was
in Boston the year before that Fryar told police he had been
robbed outside a jewelry store and had given chase to his
assailants, who allegedly fired at him. Police combed the
vicinity and never found a spent bullet, and nobody in the area
had seen or heard anything.
Then there was the time in 1986 that Fryar left the field with
an injury during a home game against the Buffalo Bills, but
instead of returning to the sidelines after treatment, he got
into his car and drove away. Not long afterward the car hit a
tree, and Fryar told police it was because he had been talking
on his cellular phone and not watching where he was going.
There was more: An old acquaintance of Jacqui's, Glenn Hill,
said Irving punched him in the lobby of a Boston hotel in 1986.
("She was pregnant," says Fryar, "and he came up and said she
looked as big as a house!") A judge cleared Fryar of charges in
After a while nobody trusted Fryar, and Fryar trusted nobody. He
began to hate going out, hate the sunlight and the spotlight.
He would disappear for a couple of days at a time, snorting coke
and playing poker with his friends. Jacqui couldn't get him to
stop using, but she could at least make sure he did it outside
the house. He was just like his father, who drank on the couch
in front of the TV until his wife made him leave. Irving would
feel remorse and finally come home. There were days when he
would say to himself, "Man, I'm going to wind up just like my
old man. Going to die by myself. My kids not liking me."
There were times when he wished he were dead already. He would
wake up some days and pray, "God, why did you wake me up this
"I have a name for those years," he says. "The Mess."
Which is why it's hard to believe a newborn baby finally pulled
him out of it.
Adrianne Fryar was born on April 22, 1990, with two holes in her
heart, a valve missing and two arteries unconnected. Not only
that, but just before Adrianne's first operation, at age two
weeks, Jacqui found blood in the baby's diaper, which meant
Adrianne had to have part of her bowel removed before she could
have open-heart surgery. It's funny. Irving could float in and
out of 11 men, jump three feet to catch a ball going 50 miles
per hour and land one inch inbounds on his tippytoes, and this
little girl couldn't even make her heart beat without trouble.
Kind of changes your idea of mess.
At one point in Adrianne's two months in the hospital, doctors
used tubes that bypassed her vocal cords, which had the peculiar
effect of creating a baby who cried bloody murder without making
a sound. Yeah, her dad could relate to that. Silent screaming.
For once Irving had somewhere to look other than at himself. His
life started changing. He kept clean. He did not do drugs. He
did not drink. It looked like Adrianne might make it. Finally,
one evening in October 1990, Irving decided to give himself a
one-night leave and go to Club Shalimar in Providence with
teammate Hart Lee Dykes. A little after 1 a.m., Dykes started
arguing with some bar patrons about the Patriots, or maybe they
started arguing with him, and he ended up in a fight with five
of them outside the club. When they started beating Dykes with a
pair of crutches, Fryar went to his car, got his Smith & Wesson
pistol, put it in his boot and returned to rescue his teammate.
He found Dykes lying on the pavement, and when he knelt down to
check on him, somebody hit Fryar on the head with a baseball
When the police arrived they arrested Fryar for carrying a
pistol without a Rhode Island permit. He spent the night in
jail. The charge was later dropped because Fryar's
Massachusetts license covered Rhode Island. "Basically I was
arrested for saving Hart Lee's life," he says now.
Fryar's life officially hit bottom that night, when nobody came
to get him out of jail, and he kept bleeding from the blow to
his head, much to nobody's interest. The cops came in and got
his autograph, but they took their own good time finding
somebody to sew him up. Finally, the next morning, they got
around to it. It was around eight. Stitches, that is.
Fryar was as miserable and alone as a millionaire could be. He
considered retiring. More than once. He considered suicide.
"Here I was, a guy who was supposed to have everything in the
world, and I had nothing," he says. "No peace. No joy. I had
absolutely no place to go." You talk about your hollow points.
But one Sunday four months later he wandered into a little
church he'd heard about, the Greater Love Tabernacle in the
Roxbury section of Boston. It was a place where the choir could
get a statue to dance, and the preacher could make you shiver,
and the voltage in the air practically blew out the windows.
Yeah, Fryar grew up next to a church--but a million miles from
being a part of it. He remembered when he was seven and his dad
dragged him down to sing Call on God in front of the gospel
band. That had scared him to death. He remembered staying in his
room Sunday mornings when he was a teenager, and his mom would
come back from the church and tell him to turn that doggone
music down; they can hear you at the service! "Church didn't
mean anything to me," he says. "Not when you'd see people act
one way in church and another at home."
But this little church in Roxbury was different. For some reason
this was a place Fryar wanted to step into. He wandered by the
next week, too, and he wound up buying the church an organ that
day. He wandered by the next Sunday, too, and gave the church
It was just after a rocking sermon by the Reverend William E.
Dickerson, himself a former angel-dust user, and just before the
gospel choir broke into a floorboard shaker. In the ruckus of a
spiritual 7.0 on the Richter scale, Dickerson called on sinners
to come to the altar and "give themselves to Jesus," and Fryar
strode up from the back of the church, tears in the corners of
his eyes. "I knew," he says. "After the Hart Lee thing, I knew
anything else I did was going to turn to mush. I had nowhere
else to go."
Dickerson yelled, "Father, in the name of Jesus, bless this man
and totally deliver him from all ..." and just then he put his
hand on Fryar's forehead, and it was as though Dickerson had
blindsided Fryar on a down-and-in thrown too high. Fryar's feet
swung out from under him, and his head hit the linoleum, and he
began speaking in tongues, spouting a kind of gibberish that
nobody, especially Fryar, had heard before. It lasted a full 30
minutes, according to Dickerson, and finally Fryar got up off
the floor, shook the preacher's hand and changed his life.
"I wouldn't believe it if I weren't sitting here telling you
about it," Fryar says. "I had the Holy Ghost inside of me."
Just like that, Fryar had somewhere to go, and he went there
constantly. Passion is like a river. It has to go somewhere. He
studied two years to get his Pentecostal minister's license, and
he was granted approval to preach to Baptists. Suddenly he was a
preacher, and anything he'd ever put into a gang fight or a post
pattern or a coke party, he doubled and put into his sermons. He
got so worked up about them that his sweat ruined a suit a week.
The dry cleaner said it was no use trying to save them. "I don't
know if the altar is his end zone or what," says Hopewell's
pastor, the Reverend Robert Stanley, "but he definitely is
trying to get open."
"When I first heard he was going to be a minister," says former
Patriot Michael Timpson, now with the Bears, "I thought it was
just another stage he was going through, one he'd forget about
and leave behind. What was that, four years ago?"
The fans were out again, and the devout had crowbarred
themselves into the seats, each of them praying silently for
redemption and glory, each of them a true believer.
When they saw Reverend Fryar, alone and in his colors, their
hearts rose and their voices sang. For the next 60 minutes Fryar
burst and darted and jumped and spun, and the sweat poured from
his brow, and he mopped it with the towel at his side. And when
the delivery had come, as if from God Himself, as if out of the
heavens, and he had scored, he stamped his feet and raised his
hands to the Lord and craned his neck so far back that it seemed
sure to snap.
That was only one of the seven touchdowns Irving Fryar scored
last year as the keystone receiver of the Miami Dolphins.
Maybe heaven does come to those who wait. Just before Fryar made
it a decade in the NFHell, the Patriots traded him, in the
off-season of 1993, to the Dolphins for a second- and a
third-round draft choice. Goodbye, Quarterback for a Day Club.
Goodbye, Midget. Hello, Dan Marino. Hello, spirals.
It took exactly one practice for Fryar to figure out he'd been
traded to Eden. In New England, policy was that even if it
became clear the moment the huddle broke that a pattern wasn't
going to work, you stuck with it. "Whatever you do, don't
improvise," the Patriots would say. "It'll just get us in
trouble." But in Miami that first day, receivers coach Larry
Seiple said, "Just get open." And as Marino hit Fryar with a
pass when Fryar was somewhere he wasn't supposed to be, angels
sang and bugles blared. "That's when I knew," says Fryar.
He has had the best seasons of his career the last two years,
both of them Pro Bowl seasons, which is saying something,
considering they were his 10th and 11th years in the NFL. Most
receivers, upon reaching their 11th year in the league, are not
running routes at the Pro Bowl. They are running bingo games in
As for the Dolphins, they finally have someone to throw in with
all those Dupers and Claytons in their record book. The preacher
is not only the best-blocking receiver in the NFL, he is also
Marino's favorite deep Fryar, and last year he caught more
passes (73) for more yards (1,270) than in any other season in
his life. "Not many 34-year-olds can run as fast as he can,"
says Marino. "Plus, he's brought a good work ethic to the team.
He's good for motivation, good for the young players to look up
to." There's a sentence nobody in New England ever expected to
And get this: The Dolphins voted Fryar their most inspirational
player last season, and almost none of them have heard him
preach a word.
He is becoming one of the most popular sports gods in Miami, and
maybe that's why 300 kids showed up for one of his sermons. No
problem. "They come for the autograph," Fryar says with a grin,
"but they get Jesus." Then again, maybe they come to hear him
preach. Nobody beats him at Fryar and brimstone.
"Oh, yes!" Fryar will yell to his congregation, pounding on the
pulpit. "I know that one day I was lost!" (Amen, Reverend! the
congregation will yell back.) "I was driving the bus straight to
hell!" (Yes!) "And takin' a bunch of fools with me!" (Preach,
Reverend!) "Football did not save me!" (No, sir!) "Football did
not give me peace!" (No, sir!) "Football did not give me joy!"
(Nuh-uh!) "Football did not put love in my heart!" (That's
right!) "Football did not get me off of drugs!" (No, it didn't!)
"Football did not stop me from drinking!" (Tell it!) "But you
know who did it?" (You know who!) "Jeeeeeeeeesus!''
Or, when the temperature at Hopewell gets just above rotisserie,
he'll roar: "Yeah, it's hot in here!" (Tell it!) "But it's going
to be a lot hotter for some people!" (Oh, yes!) "But not for
me!" (Fryar holds up his Bible.) "I got my fire insurance!"
And he will, almost anywhere he's asked. He'll also play the
piano and sing. So far he has thumped Bibles and ivories and the
Devil in Philadelphia, Trenton (N.J.), Boston, Miami, Plano
(Texas) and Lincoln and Scottsbluff (Neb.).
But his finest moment came the hot August day in 1994 that he
gave a sermon for Set Free Drug Ministries. The crowd was filled
with guys who used to disappear for a couple of days at a time,
with maybe a gun in a boot or a Betsy in the glove box. Fryar
bellowed at them, and they rose and cheered, and when he was
done and had them standing on the pews, the pastor invited the
sinners and the eternally damned up to the altar to be saved.
Two drug addicts rushed forward, and a third struggled up:
Michael Robinson, frail and gaunt and, as Fryar remembers, "with
a shadow of oldness upon him." Robinson had sat slumped over in
a back pew at Hopewell, hope and well being the two words he was
nearly out of, until Fryar made his summons. Then something
inside Robinson stirred.
That day Robinson made it to the altar, dedicated his life to
Jesus and joined the church. Two months later, blind and lying
in a hospital bed, he died of AIDS.
And yet his mother, Loretta, wept for joy. "I know my son is at
peace now," she says. "And I know I will see him soon, sitting
in Heaven with the Lord. I praise God for Reverend Fryar. This
all took place out of the message Reverend Fryar gave that day.
He is anointed of God."
And that's how it came to be that a woman who had never seen a
football game in her life now watches the Dolphins every Sunday
that she can, in hopes of seeing number 80 on the field and
thanking the Lord Almighty for second- and third-round draft
picks who could be sent somewhere vaguely north in exchange for
a man who would save her only son.
Oh, and Adrianne is five now and growing every day, and that
heart must be pumping blood pretty well, because she has her
father's stubborn streak--he says she's "a regular Fryarcracker."
Irving and Jacqui have another daughter, Taylor, 2, and two
boys--Londen, 9, and Irving Jr., 7--whom Irving won't let play
football. "I don't want them to go through the crap I went
through," Irving says, bristling. Instead, he's always there
waiting for them when they're done with school and taking them
to play baseball or go fishing.
It has been four years now without knives to block or forks in
the road or little spoons full of coke. Plus Irving and Jacqui
re-exchanged vows this past March (they had eloped 10 years
earlier, and Irving had promised her a church wedding), and
Jacqui invited Irving's father down from Browns Mills, N.J., and
not only that, but he showed up. David Fryar will not die alone
after all. At 65, still running that dry-cleaning business, he
is the father of a three-year-old son, Irving's half-brother.
The boy's name is David, and, his father says, "he and I will
have more time together than me and Irving did, I'm going to
make sure of that.''
There is a pause. "I still love my son," David says of Irving.
"If he wants to love me back, that's up to him."
Irving just might think about it. The Boss up there is big on
COLOR PHOTO:BILL FRAKES [Irving Fryar preaching to congregation]
COLOR PHOTO:WALTER IOOSS JR. AFTER A SCORING CATCH AGAINST THE PATRIOTS LASTSEASON, FRYAR'S HALLELUJAH SHOWED HE HAD FOUNDFOOTBALL PARADISE IN MIAMI. [Irving Fryar catching pass for the Miami Dolphins]
COLOR PHOTO:ROBERT ROGERS [see caption above--Irving Fryar on his knees in the endzone with outstretched arms]
COLOR PHOTO:GLENN OSMUNDSON/PROVIDENCE JOURNAL-BULLETIN FRYAR'S YEARS OF TROUBLE INCLUDED AN ARREST ONGUN CHARGES, AN ALLEGED STABBING BY JACQUI AND A SUBSEQUENT RECONCILIATION. [Irving Fryar in court with policemen]
B/W PHOTO:AP [see caption above--Irving Fryar showing injured finger]
B/W PHOTO:WILLIAM POLO/BOSTON HERALD [see caption above--Irving Fryar kissing Jacqui Fryar]
COLOR PHOTO:JOHN BIEVER PLAYING IN NEW ENGLAND WAS a BRUISING EXPERIENCEFOR FRYAR, WHO SAW STARS AS OFTEN AS HE SAW THE BALL. [Irving Fryar being hit by Buffalo defender]
COLOR PHOTO:DAMIAN STROHMEYER [see caption above--Irving Fryar sitting on New England bench]
COLOR PHOTO:BILL FRAKES IRVING'S CHILDREN (FROM LEFT)--ADRIANNE, IRVING JR., TAYLOR AND LONDEN--KNOW THEY CAN LEAN ON HIM NOW. [Irving, Adrianne, Irving Jr., Taylor and Londen Fryar]
TWO COLOR PHOTOS:BILL FRAKES IRVING IS CLOSE TO HIS MOM (BELOW, WITH PORTRAIT OF HER GRANDFATHER), BUT NOT TO HIS FATHER (WITH ELIZA LITTLEAND THEIR SON DAVID). [Irving Fryar's mom, Allene, holding Bible; Irving Fryar's dad, David, with Eliza Little and their son David]
COLOR PHOTO:BILL FRAKES THE BOY WHO EMULATED GANG LEADERS NOW LOOKS UP TOTHURGOOD MARSHALL AND MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.[Irving Fryar standing in front of portraits of Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King Jr.]