BOSTON — The big chill in football comes with the first shivers of draft day. Goodby college. Welcome to the NFL. Sign here, kid.
Big men on campus turn to little boys in rookie camp. The rules are changed. The paycheck shrinks all that college rah- rah down to a business. A cold business.
Irving Fryar will tell you. It’s been a frosty couple of years.
We first met back in 1983, on the Nebraska campus. Football in those parts is a religion. A Nebraska player can drive 100 miles in any direction and never have to pay for his own beer.
And Fryar was more than a player, he was a star. Fryar the Flyer. An explosive receiver and punt returner, a linchpin of an offense that even cool-headed experts were calling “the best in college football history.” His face was on posters across the country alongside fellow seniors Mike Rozier
(running back) and Turner Gill (quarterback). They called them “The Scoring Explosion.”
Little wonder then, that when we met that first time, Fryar oozed cockiness and toyed through questions like a man sitting on a treasure chest. Time of his life. Could do no wrong. When Fryar laughed, everyone laughed. Stardom does that.
Then came the Orange Bowl on New Year’s night. All Nebraska needed was a win over Miami to go undefeated and win the national championship everyone expected.
The game was surprisingly close. In the late going, a pass was thrown to Fryar in the end zone. Easy catch. That would be it. The deciding touchdown. The national championship. Easy catch.
But he dropped it.
His team lost. Fryar spent the night looking at his hands. Football had taken its first ax to his personal glory tree. It was suddenly chilly. Friends come and go
Several months later, the New England Patriots made Fryar the No. 1 selection of the entire 1984 NFL draft. Top dog. Rozier was already the No. 1 pick of the USFL. Forget the Orange Bowl. The two friends, who had both grown up on the meaner streets of North Jersey, would be the new stars of pro football. Yeah. Be like old times. Just like Nebraska, but with money, right?
Wrong. Rozier found himself in a dime-store league. And Fryar came out of the blocks and went splat. A pre-season rib injury. A mid-season shoulder injury.
He tried to play the pro game with the reckless abandon of Saturday afternoons in college, and he wound up with bandages and a measly 11 catches all year. The talk-show callers, so plentiful in New England, wondered loudly if the Patriots hadn’t done it again. Blown their draft choice.
It hurt. But even before all that, Fryar knew the honeymoon was over. In college, he ate, slept, laughed and bled with his teammates. They were always there. But in the Patriots’ training camp, he made friends with other rookies, only to find their lockers empty the next day.
“Nobody even tells you where they went,” he said. “You don’t get a chance to say goodby.
“Nobody cares. You’re playing for money now. It’s a ruthless business. Real cut-throat. . . . The pros will make a man out of you. Real quick.”
We were talking in the Patriots’ locker room. Fryar’s voice was confident, but no longer cocky. He is bigger now, thicker, with a mustache above his lip and a wedding ring on his finger. In his second year, at 23, he has approached the heights people originally expected. He is the Patriots’ top receiver, and is second in the AFC in punt returns going into today’s game with the Lions.
He has swallowed the lesson of change. Doors open, doors close. It hasn’t all been pleasant. When Fryar went home to New Jersey in the off-season, some old street buddies hit him up for money. After all, he had it. A $2.4 million contract over four years. Later, when he asked for it back, they made faces, as if he had a lot of nerve asking. A wedge formed in their friendship. Doors open. Doors close. The Pats are pleased
“The hardest part for me was last year,” Fryar said, “when Louis Lipps won the Rookie of the Year award. People were saying ‘That could have been you — if you weren’t hurt.’ I started to doubt myself. Can I really survive here? Can I really play in the NFL?”
He’s answered this season. The coaches are pleased. His teammates are pleased. Quarterback Steve Grogan recently said “he can go to the Hall of Fame if he wants.”
But Fryar is taking it a little slower. Part of the education. Would he like to be given a second-year Rookie of the Year award?
He laughed. “Yeah. I’d wish there was one. But there isn’t. I got to accept what is, and go on from there. You know what that’s about, right?”
Uh-huh. In most places they call it growing up.