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WHEN FRED AND DEIDRA LANE SAID "TILL DEATH DO US PART," NO ONE KNEW HOW TRUE THAT WOULD BE

Weeks before Fred Lane was shot twice by his wife, he awoke in the dead of night to find her standing over him, pointing a .380 handgun at his head.

"Have you ever thought about what it's like to die?" Deidra asked. Lane, the Carolina Panthers' all-time leading rusher at the time, didn't scare easily. With the same decisiveness he used to squirt past linebackers, he snatched the weapon from her. "If you're gonna shoot me," he said, "be woman enough to shoot me where I can see you."

When Deidra Lane finally did shoot her husband to death, it was in broad daylight in the foyer of their home, their baby at her side, a shotgun in her arms. Now, three-and-a-half years later, the killing is almost forgotten, the charges quietly plea-bargained from death-penalty murder to manslaughter. Yet as his former team heads to the Super Bowl, those close to Lane hope his death will be a grim warning about the hangers-on that follow even the NFL's B-listers. They say Deidra Lane, a convicted bank robber with a taste for fine things, is an extreme example of the hard women that lurk at every NFL hangout, the kind who cause one agent to advise his clients "stick with their high school girl or wait until they're out of the NFL before even thinking about marrying."

Deidra's lawyers argued that Fred Lane was victimizer before he was victim, beating his wife and bringing his death on himself. "It's a complicated tragedy," attorney Luke Largess told the court at his client's sentencing in November. "Deidra killed someone she loved. She did so out of necessity, or out of a perceived necessity."

Whatever the truth, the Lanes never found a peaceful way to disentangle themselves. She beat him, threatened him, spent his money-and he stayed. He chased her, grabbed her, cheated on her-and she stayed.

Only death could part Fred and Deidra Lane.

FOOTBALL WAS in the Lane blood. Fred Sr. was the youngest of 12 kids, and if you were a boy you suited up for football. He was a star running back at Franklin High in Franklin, Tenn., near Nashville, where the Lanes would raise Freddie, and later at Tennessee State, where he played with future Cowboys legend Ed "Too Tall" Jones. For the past 27 years-including three in which Junior carried the offensive load-Fred Sr. has coached Freedom Middle School, also in Franklin. Freddie Jr. broke every record there was at Franklin High, most of them held by his dad. The school retired their numbers on the same night.

Lane Jr. moved on to D2 Lane College, an all black school in Jackson, Tenn., where he rushed for 4,433 yards and scored 41 TDs. But just as NFL scouts were noticing him, Lane injured his left knee in the second game of his senior season. He played out the year with damaged cartilage and chronic swelling, though he still gained 821 yards. But his NFL aspirations seemed dashed.

As expected, the phone didn't ring during the 1997 draft, but Panthers GM Bill Polian was impressed enough with the 5'10", 205- pound back's toughness to offer a training camp slot. Lane anchored the team's ground game over the next three seasons. "He conquered a lot of odds to make it to the NFL," says Polian.

Scouts used to say that Lane played much bigger than he was. Like a lot of undrafted players, Lane ran as if his fairy tale depended on every carry. Charlotte fans fell in love with the way he set aside his own well-being for that extra yard. Teammates loved him too. "Fred was a simple guy," says Carolina wideout Muhsin Muhammad. "He wore white T-shirts every day. He could've shopped at Wal-Mart and been happy." Freddie had a joke for any occasion. "He didn't wanna do nothing but grin and play football," says friend Derrick Caldwell. "That's all he wanted to do, smile and run the route."

The route wasn't always on the field. In 1998, as the 0-4 Panthers boarded their charter flight for Dallas, Lane was AWOL. He'd misread the itinerary and strolled up just as the plane was rolling onto the tarmac. Wearing a suit and dress shoes, he bolted onto the runway, chasing after the plane to chants of Fred-dee! Freddee! from teammates. He missed the flight and just made it to the game, but Dom Capers benched him. As he made his way to the bus after the 27- 20 loss, he shrugged off the snafu as an honest mistake. But the guys noticed he'd traded in his shoes for sneakers, just in case.

SHE'S JUST 5'7", with long hair that frames a gaunt face. Deidra Gary was driven and smart, graduating cum laude from North Carolina A&T. On Dec. 14, 1997, she went out with friends to a bar in the Adam's Mark hotel in downtown Charlotte. In the dim light, she first laid eyes on Fred Lane. Deidra yelled out to him. "Next thing I know," says family friend Kenny Murry, who was with Fred that night, "we're in the truck with Deidra and her friends going to Waffle House to eat."

Lane didn't tell anyone-not friends, not teammates, not family, not even Kim Hudson, his longtime girlfriend back in Tennessee-before he married Deidra 10 months later. "He came home one day saying, 'His wife, his wife,' " Lane's younger brother Keith says. Fred Sr. adds: "It knocked me to my knees. I told him, 'We like to dress up too.' He was hurt. He worked so hard to please us."

His secrecy about the wedding was out of character for a man normally so open. "He'd tell me what he was going to do every day," says his friend Bryant Peoples, whose first inkling of Fred's new status was his wedding ring. "I don't know how she convinced him to get married, but it was definitely her planning."

If Deidra saw in Fred all the wonderful qualities his friends saw, they only wished they could see the same in her. "Deidra had a personality like, 'If you do me wrong, I'll do you,' " says Muhammad. At Deidra's sentencing, Muhammad's wife, Christa, recalled a conversation with Deidra about the Rae Carruth murder case, in which the ex-Panthers wideout and three others were found guilty of various crimes related to a drive-by shooting of his pregnant girlfriend, Cherica Adams, who died a month later. Christa testified that Deidra told her, "They should have shot her where they knew they would kill her, right away, like in the head."

Lane's friends and family quickly noticed that Deidra's fuse was short and her leash even shorter. She didn't like Fred signing autographs. She constantly changed their home phone number. "I remember we were in a comedy club after he had knee surgery," says former teammate William Floyd, "and Deidra said something like, 'I oughta kick you in the knee.' My wife and I thought, whoa, what's going on with these guys?"

Their sniping often escalated to violence. "Fred came to work with knots and scratches and bruises on him," Floyd says. "It was to a point where I thought, do I call the police? No. For one thing, he'd have had to deal with teammates saying, 'Hey, you're letting your wife kick your butt?' "

But the butt-kicking was reciprocated, at least on one occasion. On a Sunday in June 1999, Deidra and her friend Margaret McIllwaine Turner returned to the Lane residence after buying beer. Fred was in the kitchen, on the phone. According to Turner, when he hung up, Deidra made a snide comment about the person on the other end of the phone. He whipped a dishrag at her, she threw it back. Then, Turner says, Lane charged at Deidra, grabbing her by the neck and pushing her into the sink. "Her feet were in the air," Turner testified, "and she was gasping. I was shocked."

On March 20, 2000, Deidra called the cops after she claimed Fred yanked a necklace from her neck in an argument. She ran across the street to a neighbor's house with Fred chasing after her. Another neighbor told police that Fred was "clearly drunk" at the time. No charges were filed.

Even Lane's friends, including Muhammad and Peoples, admit he often drank too much. At sentencing, the defense argued that his drinking made him a wrecking ball, with Deidra his prime target. Several people close to the Lanes, however, including Floyd and Muhammad, told police they never saw Fred hit Deidra, though Muhammad said he saw Fred push her once. "I saw Deidra be the aggressor all the time," says Muhammad, who lived less than a mile from the Lanes and saw the couple several times a week. Dr. Devon Delaney, Deidra's gynecologist, testified that she never found on Deidra the type of physical injuries consistent with being strangled, thrown into a wall or pushed from a moving car-all abuses that, after the killing, Deidra accused Fred of committing during her pregnancy.

Deidra's expensive tastes left as much of an impression on Lane's friends as her temper. "She was so money-hungry, I've never seen anything like it," says Muhammad. Deidra once gloated to Rodney Harris, the Lanes' financial advisor, that she'd get Fred to buy her a $60,000 ring even though he was facing a contempt charge for not paying child support for a daughter, Regine, by a former girlfriend. The next time Harris saw her, she was wearing it.

After Fred's death, it became clear where some of her money came from: Deidra Lane robbed banks. In July 1995, Deidra walked up to a teller at the State Credit Union in Richland County, S.C., and whispered, "I have a gun, give me all your money." She was caught and put in a diversion program for firsttime offenders. Three years later-just three months before she married Fred-Deidra walked into the Wachovia Bank in Charlotte, and handed Natosha Watson, a teller and co-conspirator, a note that read: "Give me all your money in the drawer, don't say anything, hurry." Deidra exited with $41,200 in a bag. She was charged in September 2000 and convicted in October 2002.

Assistant district attorney Marsha Goodenow says that on April 7, 2000, Deidra tried to cook up one more score. On that day, two $5 million life insurance policies were filed on behalf of Fred and Deidra, each naming the other as primary beneficiary. Harris said he told Deidra she wouldn't see a cent if Fred committed suicide or, he joked, if she killed him. But as Goodenow noted in closing arguments at the sentencing, "Who got the money next? Grant, her child from another father. That money was coming to her one way or the other."

Meanwhile, Lane's game was falling apart. He was suspended a couple of times in 1998-once for goofing off during the national anthem, once for grabbing his crotch after a touchdown. For the '99 season he had just 475 yards on 115 carries and 1 TD, all career lows. In February 2000, he was busted for possession of a handgun and marijuana when cops pulled him over for a traffic violation.

Even as Fred's career sagged, Deidra was spending money hand over fist. Despite a salary of $600,000, Fred was broke. At one point, Deidra told him she'd given Harris $10,000 to invest, but Harris told Fred he never received the money. In the hole, Fred asked his new team, the Colts, to front him $20,000 prior to training camp in 2000.

Still, the stubbornness that got Lane into the NFL was now keeping him with Deidra. It surprised even her. After the shooting, she told officers he'd "called to ask, 'When in the hell you gonna leave my house?' But yet he's saying, 'I'm not gonna leave you.' I didn't understand Fred." Floyd had been telling him to move on for a long time. But, says Floyd, "he said he loved her."

GETTING TRADED to Indianapolis before the 2000 season felt like a fresh start. "The first day he got here, he walked into my office and gave me a big hug," says Polian, who'd since become the Colts president. "With his usual big Fred smile, he said, 'I'm glad to be back with you. You believe in me.' "

Fred told friends he'd finally decided to divorce Deidra and buy a place in Indianapolis. By then they were mostly sleeping under separate roofs. During one of their previous splits in early 1999, Fred had impregnated Kim Hudson. Now Lane was saying he wanted to move in with Hudson and their 1-year-old daughter, Sable. "He acknowledged his mistakes and asked me to forgive him," Hudson says. "He said, 'I'm ready for my family now.' "

Whatever the case, he hadn't fully moved out by late June. Before the start of Colts training camp, and just weeks before Deidra was due, Fred was watching TV in the living room of his Charlotte home when an angry blast rang out. He later told Hudson that he ran upstairs to find his pregnant wife sitting in their bedroom. In front of her was a six-inch hole in a wall where she'd fired a 12-gauge shotgun he didn't know she had. The blast's exit point was in her son's bedroom. (Grant was staying elsewhere that night.) Deidra later covered the hole in Grant's wall with a Mickey Mouse drawing but never bothered to discard the nine pellets scattered on his floor or the 17 others embedded in his bookshelf. She never explained why she fired the shot.

Fred took the shotgun, later giving it to Bryant Peoples. He threw some clothes in the back of his Expedition and peeled off. "She can have it all," he told college teammate Rodney Simmons. "I'm through, man." But he wasn't through. For a while, he stayed with his folks in his boyhood home in Nashville. Deidra called him there to tell him she was planning to induce labor. On the afternoon of June 20, 2000-the same day Deidra asked about shotguns at a local Kmart (it's unclear what time)-Fred left a message for his wife. "I'm coming back. Even if you don't want me in the [hospital] room, I'm gonna be there anyway." When he returned to Charlotte to see his daughter, Pilarr, born June 29, he brought protection: his brother Keith and a friend, Howard Burns.

Fred went back to Nashville but then decided to make one last trip to Charlotte. His friends told him not to go, but Deidra bought him a plane ticket. "We vowed never to let him go back by himself, but he said he had to sell his motorcycle, and not to worry," Fred Sr. recalls. "I said, 'Son, you gotta do what you gotta do.' "

FRED MAY have wondered who set the alarm that greeted him as he walked through the front door of his house on July 6. According to the Lanes' maid, they almost never used it. Holding a cup in one hand and two bags in the other, Fred made his way toward the bedroom, probably to shut the thing off. Deidra was waiting for him there with a 12-gauge Mossberg shotgun.

With only a couple of yards between the muzzle and Fred, she fired. The first shot ripped through his yellow Tommy Hilfiger shirt, shredding his upper right chest. He slumped face down into a growing pool of blood and began to crawl back toward the front door. Deidra walked toward him, straddled his left leg and fired into the back of his head. The blast tore off half his skull. Blood and brain splattered everywhere.

Deidra was covered in her husband's blood. She set down the shotgun and dialed 911. By then, police say, Fred was dead in a heap in the entranceway. Hysterical, Deidra is captured on the 911 tape trying to sooth her screaming week-old baby. "I shot him," Deidra cries. "I've got to feed my baby. There's blood all over me. My husband is Fred Lane, he's a football player. Oh god, oh my god," she howls. "I loved him so much."

When the police arrived, Deidra told them Fred had been choking her when she fired the pump-action shotgun. Investigators found no marks on her. Six weeks later, she was charged with first degree murder, a capital crime in North Carolina. What trickled out in court filings looked bad for Deidra. Assistant DA Goodenow called her a coldblooded killer and said she was looking to cash in a life insurance policy.

For several days, the case made the front page of the local papers, but interest in the story faded during the long run-up to the trial. Three years later, as the court date finally approached, the trial was over before it started. Deidra was off the hook for murder, allowed instead to plead to why the state cut a deal, although she told the court at sentencing that Deidra "was given the benefit of any allegations of domestic abuse."

James Wyatt, a local criminal lawyer who followed the case, says he's not surprised by the plea. "There was evidence of premeditation and intent," he says, "but the prosecutors had to weigh that against potential evidence relating to domestic abuse or self-defense."

Deidra, who often excused herself from the courtroom during graphic testimony, was allowed to address the bench before Judge Timothy Patti handed down his sentence. "To the Lane family," she began, "I am sorry for the loss of Fred. I loved Fred dearly. He was a good man and a gentle man at times, but at times he scared me, and I didn't know who he was at that time. I'm sorry for the pain that I have caused. I pray that one day you can forgive me because I do consider you family."

Afterward, Judge Patti found that Deidra acted with "premeditation and deliberation" and found "malice" in the death of Fred Lane. He handed down the maximum: seven years, 11 months.

As for that insurance policy, a settlement of slightly less than $4 million was reached, to be distributed equally among Fred's three daughters. An undisclosed, though smaller, portion will be given to 8-year-old Grant, who now lives with his half-sister, Pilarr, and Deidra's parents.

ON SOME game days, Muhammad still wears the T-shirt teammates made to memorialize Fred. On the front is his friend's number, 32. The back reads, "In Memory of Fred Lane." The Lane family also clings keeps his old bedroom and foyer in their home as a shrine to his football legacy. "He wouldn't want us to be sad," says Fred Sr. "The only time I am is when I go to his grave. On it there's a picture of him. It looks like he has a halo."

Still, no one can explain why Fred and Deidra couldn't get away from each other. To the end, even Fred seemed confused by their sad marriage. "You hate me, you don't wanna be with me no more," he told Deidra on an angry voice message he left 16 days before his death. "So why don't you leave me alone? Give me my paper, let me ride on. It don't hurt. You don't want to be with me no more, well, damn. Enough is enough. You tired? Okay, cool. You know what I mean?" Then, he ended the message with two words: "One love."