Even if you saw it, you might have missed it, which is to say that if you saw it, the significance might not have registered. Unless you're from St. Louis-or maybe Asheville, N.C.-the play would have seemed routine, certainly if compared with the ending we know. The first quarter moment in last January's Super Bowl was fleeting in its violent release. The Rams' special-teams terror races the kickoff downfield, a projectile bent on collision. His whiplike strides carry him past Titans blockers who have set themselves to hit based on the player's size, not his speed. Arriving as suddenly as he does, his actual leveling of the Titans return man is almost preliminary, mere impetus to crowd eruption and hydraulic teammate celebration. Not much about it in the next day's paper, to be sure; after all, St. Louis fans had more seminal memories to rehash. Anyway, you had to have been there from the beginning-not of the game, but of the story-to learn that loss can inhabit victory, to feel the tackle transcend even that ending we know.
You see, to start the tale's telling right here would be like starting Super Bowl XXXIV at the two-minute warning. You have to go back to when it seemed there wouldn't be another cheer, not for these awful Rams and definitely not for the special-teams terror. Make it night, the Monday after a game, the season before the Rams' season of feel-good football.
October 1998, just down some blocks and around the corner from the team's TAA-sponsored home. The projectile rolls down the street. we hear rubber screech, a metallic crash. A mangled woman lies dying amid gnarled machinery, a young man's future lies in disrepair. And as the hulking linebacker is read his Miranda rights, the local football team's popularity reaches its nadir.
"This was an accident," says 25-year-old Leonard Little, whose post-Super Bowl celebration has included more than a few nights in the City workhouse. "An accident that happened to a lot of people."
But it was only this person who took a life and lived to wonder why.
Sue Gutweiler made her 15-year-old son beg, swear and promise before she let him attend the Rob Zombie concert in downtown St. Louis. Her husband, Bill, and her father, John wenzelburger, always chided her about giving the boy his freedom, but it was hard: 18 years earlier she'd lost Jill, her only daughter, when a teen in a car struck the 7-year-old. Mike, the infant she adopted three years later, was the closest she'd come to salving her pain.
That Monday in the fall of '98 had started as a lark, a day off from her personnel assistant job at a federal mapping agency. Sue, 47, was bucking for a promotion; the college degree she'd finally completed after 13 1/2 years made her think she had a shot at a raise. She and a friend had breakfast and went on a drive to Grafton, Ill., 39 miles away. At 1 p.m., she called her dad, who'd suffered a stroke almost two decades before. Sue was always in touch, trekking out to his country home more than an hour south of the city to take him walking. They made plans to talk later. By the time she got home for dinner with Bill, she'd had one of those days that makes life a little lighter.
The Gutweilers watched a Seinfeld rerun at their home in the St. Louis suburb of Oakville. Then, she drove her decade-old Thunderbird downtown to pick up Mike. it was just past 10:30 p.m. when she neared the American Theater, driving west on Market. Not too late to make that call to her dad.
"That phone call," says wenzelburger, "never came."
Leonard Little running down the field. Leonard Little rolling down the street. We're funny about our projectiles. when they go where they're meant to, everyone wants a piece of the credit; when they go astray, no one wants to share the blame. And sometimes only god knows why they go where they do.
Leonard Little's life would be a cliche if not for the details. A rise from rough roots to stardom, a house for Mom after draft day 1998. He was born prematurely on Oct. 19, 1974, but he was still almost seven pounds, with long, skinny arms and an enormous domepiece. "When you looked over in his bassinet," remembers wanda Little, his mother, "all you could see was head." So from the get-go, everyone called him Head.
Head was 26 pounds at 6 months; at 6 years, he was dominating the Sunday "Super Bowls"around the Asheville Morningside Park housing projects. Built tall and thin like an incubatory Jevon Kearse, he slammed the roughest players and outsprinted the fastest. Everyone said Head was born to play football. If only he'd been allowed to play it 24/7. His parents' marriage broke apart when he was 10, and while his mother was spending more time at a dental chair factory-and more time in church-Head was rushed into the role of second-string parent to his younger siblings, ieshia and Jermaine. By the time he was in high school, the introverted mama's boy was a major family earner, working at numerous odd jobs in between his own praiseful worship and Bible study. "He looks like a big giant," says wanda, "but he's just as soft as a pillow."
Soft or not, boys in western North Carolina want to play football up I-40 in Knoxville. Some even get to. But few are welcomed as fully as Head was. After a year at Coffeyville Community College in Kansas, he arrived on the Tennessee campus in 1995-with his 6'3'', 247-pound frame and sub-4.5 40 time-and they let the defensive end wear No. 1. He was the coaches' favorite because he was quiet and polite off the field and made teammates better on it. "He'd give it up every play," remembers Lions cornerback Terry fair, a UT teammate. "No matter who we were playing, no matter what quarter, he'd have the same attitude." By Little's junior year, head coach Phillip fulmer was saying that Head-not Peyton Manning-could be the best college football player in the nation. And that was after the '96 knee injury that ended his junior season and jeopardized his career. wanda had traveled to Knoxville to pray with her son, comforting the injured star in his dorm room and reiterating the philosophy that had carried her brood through the toughest times: "face your problem. if you run, you're always going to have that problem."
So Head rehabbed his way back by spring football, lowering his 40 to 4.4. for his trouble, he was asked by linebackers coach John Chavis to switch positions to middle linebacker. Little had minimal experience in pass coverage, but he agreed-and finished with 8 1/2 sacks in '97. "Leonard Little," says Chavis, "wouldn't run out on any situation."
"When I want to think," Head says, "I go out and drive."
Midway through the second round of the '98 draft, Head drove from his mother's Asheville home, thinking he might not get drafted at all. The phone wasn't ringing, NFL teams having decided that, despite success at his new position, he was a 'tweener-not big enough for end, not stout enough for the middle. But by the time Little got home, the Rams had selected him in the third round. To coach dick Vermeil, he was a steal. To Little, even though he figured he'd lost about $700,000 a year, it was a blessing in disguise. At Tennessee, his spiritual life had taken a backseat to football, and even to his studies. He had earned a B.A. in psychology, but he had stopped reading the Bible as much and strayed toward The Strip, a run of bars that functions as UT's social center. He'd fathered a child outside wedlock.
In the pros, he could rededicate himself to the things that had carried him so far from the Asheville projects: god and football. He found a condo in Creve Coeur, a sleepy suburb in St. Louis County, roughly halfway between the Trans world dome and the Rams' Earth City practice facility. Little found in these antiseptic confines a place where he could focus. A good thing, too: Training camp was harder on his body than the college game, and learning the playbook was a struggle. But whenever other players tried to cajole him into blowing off steam over a few beers, he resisted. The joke was that he needed to sign up for a dating service. "from the moment I got there," he says, "I didn't go out."
On Oct. 19, 1998, Little was playing only on special teams for a team that was a year from being special. it was his birthday, and this time, when teammates asked him to join them for drinks, he went. Monday Night football at a palatial downtown hotel-where some Rams were tending bar at a fundraiser-didn't sound like trouble in any way Head had come to understand it.
As any tailgate veteran can tell you, it takes practice to maintain under the influence. for a novice drinker, taking the wheel is a supremely self-destructive act. Put another way: it doesn't take much to make a birthday go bad.
When Leonard Little decided to get into his '98 Lincoln Navigator that october night, he passed up the most obvious alternative to driving after drinking. He and some teammates were at AJ's, a bar in the Adam's Mark, a hotel just west of the majestic Arch. There are 910 rooms for rent inside. But Head didn't book one. He made small talk with the valet parking attendant before starting his trip home alone. At about a quarter to 11, he headed south on Memorial drive, parallel to the Mississippi. This was about the same time Susan Gutweiler was driving west on Market Street.
Little says he had only two or three drinks, and a man who observed him told police he saw the 237-pound linebacker consume two shots of liquor and half a beer. whatever the amount, Little, not much of a drinker, had too much. He ran a red light at Memorial and Market and plowed into the passenger side of an old blue T-Bird. Little's SUV rammed through the car, knocking Susan Gutweiler around like a rag doll, forever robbing her of consciousness.
Police noted that Little smelled only faintly of alcohol. His speech was coherent. His motor skills were those of neither a drunk nor an athlete. But at some point, according to the police, Little became belligerent. An officer quoted him saying: "The bitch ran a yellow light and hit me, wrecking my $45,000 car. Just take me to the hospital." Little denies it. "I don't even curse," he says. Such a self-portrait is supported by his former coach. "He was the least-likely guy on the squad, with the possible exception of Kurt warner, to have this happen to him," says Vermeil. And when the police asked him to provide a blood sample, he gave them one. A sample drawn at Saint Louis University Hospital measured .194, nearly twice the legal limit.
Bill Gutweiler got a call from son Mike when Susan failed to pick him up. Bill then tracked the path his wife was likely to have taken. He stiffened when he saw the flashing lights and dented cars. Then he saw that the car most damaged was an old blue Thunderbird. Police directed him to SLU Hospital, where he learned that his wife had suffered severe head injuries.
Susan Gutweiler died the next day.
Why are you here?
"I questioned that," the linebacker says. "I'm a believer in God, and He has it all planned out. if the good Lord hadn't wanted it to happen, it wouldn't have. I'm just trying to figure out why."
No, why are you still here in St. Louis?
This is a town that likes its heroes smooth, like Big Jim dolls. if Mark Mcgwire hadn't been traded to the Cardinals, the locals would have commissioned a lab to contrive him. Talented but complicated stars-from Marvin Barnes to garry Templeton to Brett Hull-have found the River City rough going. its company-town judgmentalism is fraught with conflict, born of deep-felt Christianity and deep-pocketed Anheuser-Busch. And maybe, just maybe, vapors of border-state racism. "Stan Musial is still a hero in this town," says Brother Jacob israel, a controversial street preacher in the 'hood called walnut Park. "But Bob gibson and Lou Brock never got that kind of respect."
Fact is, Little was embraced by talent-hungry football fans when he first came to town, but the death of a quintessential St. Louis mom changed all that. And when a judge let him travel with the Rams after the accident (a privilege revoked when he was put on the non-football injury list for the rest of the '98 season), local anger intensified. "on talk radio," says israel, "the folks were threatening to burn up their PSLs if he came back."
Little's guilty plea to involuntary manslaughter in June last year earned him a sentence of 90 nights in jail and 1,000 hours of community service, and did nothing to ease the resentment. The sentence was called a joke, but it only reflected the Balkanized sentencing standards of the area: for the City of St. Louis, Little's sentence was average. in St. Louis County-where Little and most of the Rams' fan base lives-the penalties are significantly stiffer. Not surprisingly, Little was perceived to be the beneficiary of celebrity favoritism, and his became a hated name. "That's the price you pay as a player," says Vermeil.
Little's case was all but forgotten last fall, overshadowed by the Rams' first steps on their improbable march to January, steps taken while he sat out an eight-game league suspension and a one-game roster exemption. But when he returned in November to the 7-2 team, Mothers Against drunk driving organized a memorial walk on behalf of Susan Gutweiler. Some 200 people turned out for as big an anti-alcohol statement as you'll ever see in the town Budweiser built. They marched from a park adjacent to the Adam's Mark and laid flowers at an entrance to the Trans World Dome. Mike Gutweiler, now 17, made a statement against drunk driving. despite the symbolic locations, MADD says Little was not the focal point of its rally. "it's not Leonard Little," says Mike Boland, president of MADD's Gateway chapter. "It's 277 people [killed in Missouri by drunk drivers in 1998]. Susan Gutweiler was one of them."
Yet it was Little who remained the focus of ridicule, his ability to rehab his image limited by his quiet nature and the specter of civil litigation (still pending) brought by Susan's family. No one knew he cried for days after he killed Gutweiler. No one knew he stayed at home, didn't eat and lost 30 pounds. No one knew he prayed with his pastor and Wanda for the strength just to walk out the front door. After he returned to the team, almost a year later, "you could tell he was still bothered by it," says Rams tight end Roland Williams.
By that time, Little had already begun serving installments of "shock incarceration," incremental doses of jail time in the City Workhouse. This spring, he's serving the last chunk of his sentence. Each day of his confinement, he reports to one of the pods-private cells with a desktop and bed-at 6:30 p.m., staying until 6:30 the next morning. on weekends, he stays all day, reading his Bible, calling family and friends and passing the time. "I dread it, but it's just a little piece of my life," says Little, knowing full well that having a life at all is a matter of fortune.
Ask his mom why he's still in St. Louis, and sheW says, "if it was left up to me, he'd have been out of that town a long time ago." So, one more time, Leonard, why are you here? "i feel like i owe this city and a whole lot of people some things," he says. "i think people can learn from this."Then he gets as close to an answer as he knows: "You have to face all of your problems head-on."
But can facing them head-on explain the riddle that has a Bible-reading citizen turned into a pariah even as his long-suffering team becomes a champion? Surely Leonard Little has earned the right to doubt. And to abdicate. But that's not Head. "I get down on my knees every day," Little says, "and I thank God that He gave me a chance to play this game I love." So the Super Bowl champs watch as their teammate-still considered a budding star-waits and works.