No Small Comeback : A Phase of Steve Little's Life Ended in Auto Crash; Another Has Begun

Times Staff Writer

Earlier this week, as Wednesday became Thursday, Cindy Sagely sat in the darkness of her Little Rock home and waited for 2 a.m. Every year, for the last five years, Sagely has performed this ritual, this wait for Oct. 17 to grow two hours old.

"I remember the exact hour," she said. "I'm always awake at 2 a.m.--remembering."

Across town, in a tastefully appointed house where the light and air-conditioner switches have been lowered to waist level, where the hallways and doorways are extra wide, where the wooden floors remain carpetless and the shower is large enough to store an extra wheelchair, Steve Little tries to forget.

"It was the 16th or 18th," says Little. "Something like that. I remember it was in October. It doesn't seem like five years gone by. But it has, sitting here everyday."

Little and Sagely were once married. He was an All-American placekicker and punter at the University of Arkansas, a setter of records and later a first-round draft choice of the NFL's St. Louis Cardinals.

She was an Arkansas pompon girl, blonde and statuesque, the daughter of a former star Razorback football player. Together, they would skip through life, finding happiness around every corner.

But in the wee hours of Oct. 17, 1980, Little's sports car, traveling at speeds it shouldn't have been, skidded across Interstate 270 near St. Louis.

Sagely's bedside phone rang later. Her husband had been found mangled and nearly crushed in the wreckage. His arms and legs no longer worked. His neck had been broken.

On occasion, if asked, Little will wheel over to his video recorder, insert a tape sent to him by Home Box Office, and turn it on. Len Dawson and Nick Buoniconti, co-hosts of HBO's weekly NFL show, are on the screen, talking about Little and his accident.

There are replays of Little kicking field goals, including his NCAA record-tying 67-yard kick, and then of him sitting in his wheelchair, alone on a football field. You can hear crowds cheering and then you can watch a Missouri patrolman describe, in a law enforcement-issued monotone, what happened to Little.

"Steve was going north on a rain-slicked road and lost control of his car and apparently ran off the road to the right and hit a sign post," he says.

Next you see the remains of Little's car. There is nothing but twisted metal and shattered glass.

"If I was dead, I'd be bitter" he says.

Instead, Little is very much alive and discovering happiness again. He no longer has Sagely, but now he loves another woman, who loves him back. His outlook, once thick with sorrow and self-pity, grows more optimistic each day. Drinking beer is no longer his favorite pastime.

"When I first got hurt I was ready to give in," he said. "I said, 'I'll never be able to do anything.' But once I got past that, I said, 'God, things are starting to get fun again.' I'm living. I mean, I don't know what I'm still here for. I'm not real sure yet, but I'm here for something."

There was a time when Little clearly was meant to be an athlete. He could skate and play hockey. He sought out the expert runs on ski hills. He excelled as a baseball pitcher. He played quarterback and defensive back in high school football. And he kicked and punted. Oh, how Little could kick a football!

Back before the NCAA regulated visits to recruits' homes, Frank Broyles, the former coach and now athletic director at Arkansas, stopped by Little's house seven times. Little's family didn't know if Broyles was a coach or the new coffee table.

But Broyles' persistence paid off, and on a mild October day in 1977, Little jogged onto the field to try a field goal for Arkansas. Sixty-seven yards away stood the goal post. Hated Texas was the opponent. Little kicked, then raised his arms in celebration.

"When I kicked it, I said, 'That baby's going to make it.' Now, I wish I would have put it back four, five yards."

Russell Erxleben stood on the Texas sideline and watched the ball drop over the crossbar. Little had just tied his record.

Erxleben later became a first-round pick for the New Orleans Saints and now owns an investment company in Houston. At the time, Little, Erxleben and Texas A&M;'s Tony Franklin--now with the New England Patriots--were considered the best kickers in collegiate history.

"Steve was the best placekicker of the three," said Erxleben, who sponsors an annual golf tournament for Little in Houston.

The Cardinals thought so, too. Little was the 15th player chosen in the first round of the draft. Bud Wilkinson, the new coach of the Cardinals, said he couldn't have been happier.

By the 1980 season, Wilkinson was gone, and Little was going. Jim Hanifan, the new coach, was growing tired of Little and his inconsistencies. On Oct. 12, against the Rams, Little missed an extra point. The Cardinals lost, 21-13, and Hanifan told reporters: "We're going to have to take a long, hard look at our kicking game."

Three days later, as his teammates stood silently on the Busch Stadium field, Hanifan told Little that he would have to defeat Neil O'Donoghue, formerly of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, in a kicking contest to retain his job. Little lost.

"I kicked two from one side and two from another side," he said. "We kicked some from the middle of the field, anywhere from 25 to 50 yards. I think they just wanted an excuse to get rid of me. They're a bunch of bums."

Little was released the next day. He cleaned out his locker and left. His professional field-goal statistics: 13 for 27.

Less than 12 hours later, Little's car was wrapped around a road sign.

"A lot of plastic, wires, flathead screws--they're all in my neck," Little said. "They pretty much rebuilt my neck. It looks like an inner-city L.A. freeway."

His present girlfriend, Dana Johnson, said: "A few inches higher and you wouldn't be sitting here."

Little nodded. He has yet to view the X-rays of his various injuries. "I really don't want to see it," he said.

"The day after it happened, I was thinking it was pretty wild to walk one day, feel everything, and the next day you can't move a damn thing. It kind of had me flipped out there for a while. I couldn't feel anything. I was real ugly then. I had my hair cut off, shaved in places. I had screws in my head, it was pretty terrible. That was a long time ago."

Little got 40,000 letters during his hospital stay. One letter from a grade school student read: "You can think. You can see. You can hear. You can kiss. You've got a lot going."

Cindy Sagely said: "There was such an outpouring of love from people."

Sagely was Little's link with the world. Once, during a press conference to update his condition, she said: "It's like Steve's my child, but also my husband. I feel like a wife, a mother and a husband because I'm a breadwinner. I think the tables are turned now. He was my protector and my provider. He was me and I was him."

But behind the hospital walls and the forced smiles was a failing marriage. Shortly before his release from the Arkansas Rehabilitation Institute, Little was served divorce papers.

"All the nurses knew it," he said. "The whole hospital knew it. There was no privacy to it. If I would have been John Black, nobody would have gave a damn. But I'm not John Black.

"Hell no, I didn't know what the grounds were. I didn't really read it. I just said, '(Bleep) her.' I made it this far and I decided I'd have to do it all on my own. That's why I'm pretty proud of myself. Coming as far as I have. Got my house. Now I've got a woman who loves me."

Sagely, who owns an advertising agency in Little Rock, said the relationship had gone bad before the accident. "It didn't change after the accident. The divorce would have happened anyway."

Sagely also said: "Regardless of what Steve says, there's a part of me that loves him. He has his side of the story. I have no argument with him.

"If nothing else, our divorce prompted him to go on with his life. Obviously, he has someone who loves him. I'm very happy for him. For me, it woke me up from the dream. Five years later, we've both come a very, very long way. I know the medical people will read this and say, 'She's crazy,' but if he wants to, he can come back from it. I'm not going to give up on that, regardless."

A story in Inside Sports once portrayed Little as a confused, bitter and semi-intoxicated man.

"That's when I wasn't really talking to people," he said. "I was drinking some beers and I really didn't like the way I was. I wasn't really comfortable talking about the way I was."

Now, he says, nothing bothers him.

"I'm going to be me. If they don't like me, that's their problem. I fought this thing myself. Basically I'm the same person I was when I was standing. Now I'm just sitting down."

He has learned to live with himself.

"I used to get tired of people coming up to me and saying, 'How do you feel?' Oh yeah, it's wonderful sitting here in this chair. But now it is wonderful. I'm still here. I've got me a pretty little girl. It's life. I look at some of these people and they just sit around and feel sorry for themselves. They don't want to be anything. They should say, 'I defeated being handicapped,' rather than, 'Handicapped defeated me.' "

Obstacles remain. Little's therapy money was discontinued by his insurance company recently.

And because of the present collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and the players' union, Little can't receive compensation for employment without losing his $4,000 monthly disability payment. "I'd like to have a radio talk sports show," he said. "I think I could help other people, too. Be a counselor."

When a fund-raising roast was held for Little several years ago, a priest compared Little's condition to that of John Milton, a poet who was struck blind. Said the priest: "Sometimes, some people are called to serve God by doing nothing. They do nothing but serve greatly because they are chosen to bear a burden. They serve by the example of bearing that burden."

Little bears the burden easier these days. No longer does he sit silently in his awards room and weep at the past. Instead, he smiles at the future.

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