PRO FOOTBALL '86 : COACHES, PLAYERS, TEAMS AND TRENDS TO WATCH THIS SEASON : From Touchdowns To Turmoil : Only Thing That Patriots Want, Meanwhile, Is to Be Left Alone

Times Staff Writer

This will be remembered as the year when things went to hell in New England.

You think you've got troubles? Consider the New England Patriots.

The last thing they enjoyed was their pregame meal at the Super Bowl. That was seven months ago.

The Chicago Bears crushed them that day. A day later, it was reported that several Patriots had been identified as drug users.

Soon there was a gambling investigation of one of the best of the Patriot players--with hints that others might be involved. And, shortly, there were more problems.

As the new season begins in the National Football League, the Patriots, after their best season and worst off-season ever, are a team in big trouble.

That, at least, is the national perception. The reality may well be something else. The Patriots say it is, and the evidence they submit is persuasive.

But they also confess that since they were last seen in Super Bowl XX, they have had more problems than most folks. They've had them in many minor areas and four major ones:

--Drugs. The club has confirmed that six Patriots used illegal substances, mainly marijuana, in 1984 or '85. The six, cornerback Raymond Clayborn, defensive end Kenneth Sims, wide receiver Irving Fryar, kick returner Stephen Starring, halfback Tony Collins and safety Roland James, all declined to be interviewed for this story.

--Gambling. The league hasn't yet cleared Fryar on charges of betting on NFL games. The allegations were made several weeks after the Super Bowl. No hard evidence has turned up against him--or any other Patriot--but the cloud is still there.

Fryar wouldn't comment on either drugs or gambling. The club said he once tested positive for a trace of marijuana. It said the gambling charge is even more preposterous.

--Money. The Patriots are for sale. In fact, a buy-and-sell agreement has been completed with a Philadelphia syndicate that intends to make Patriot founder William H. (Billy) Sullivan a minority owner no later than next year.

Although it's unusual for a Super Bowl team to be on the block, the Sullivan family was spurred by financial reverses in non-football ventures.

--Boycott. Most veteran Patriot players are rejecting interviews this year with Ron Borges, Boston Globe sportswriter. They don't even speak to him after games. The boycott began when Borges identified the six Patriots in the drug scandal.

"I'm finding that you don't need quotes in a football story," he said here the other day.

It was Raymond Berry, the Patriots' coach, who confirmed the names in Borges' drug report, the writer said.

Not so, Berry said later, but he won't talk about it now. He said he wants to get everyone facing forward instead of backward.

Most Foxboro visitors have remarked lately that in his year of turmoil, Berry seems somehow stronger now than ever. He reportedly holds the solid support of both the Patriot players and management. He recently got a new five-year contract.

Borges is also still on the beat.

And the beat goes on.

"He (Borges) has a vindictive personality." --Brian Holloway, Patriot player representative.

A broad sidewalk extends from the door of the Patriot locker room to the street outside, and in a recent incident Borges was involved there in a real life drama.

He said he was standing near the curb questioning one or two of the players who still talk to him when a speeding car bore down on him.

The car veered off at the last instant, he said, but not before he'd got a good look at the driver, Raymond Clayborn.

"That's harassment," said Vince Doria, the Globe's sports editor "There's no reason why we have to put up with that."

The Globe has entered a protest with the NFL.

Clayborn, a Pro Bowl cornerback, was "grievously embarrassed and wounded" by last January's drug story in the Globe, a friend said.

He declined comment, but friends said he was still angry about Borges' intimation that Clayborn had been a user in 1985, when, in fact, he'd given up marijuana in 1984, and because he had used only marijuana, as had thousands of Americans in 1984 without getting their names in the paper.

Clayborn's lingering hostility and the respect the other Patriots have for him as a football player have made him one of the most influential leaders of the Borges boycott.

To many, the boycott has seemed the most frivolous of the actions in the Patriots' four main problem areas, but it is probably the most serious, since it is keeping the drug controversy alive, keeping everyone's nerves taut as the Patriots begin defense of their American Conference championship.

The big-trouble theory of what's going on in New England today might quietly die if the players would resume talking to Borges.

They refuse, citing three reasons, the least important of which was being identified in the paper as drug users.

"That's just the tip of the iceberg," said a non-user, wide receiver Cedric Jones.

More serious, he and others said, is that Borges wrote the story in the present tense although it was a past-tense story.

"He (Borges) exploited a journalistic opportunity in an unethical way," said the club's player representative, offensive lineman Brian Holloway, a three-time Pro Bowl performer from Stanford.

Offensive tackle Ron Wooten, a graduate chemist from North Carolina, said: "(Borges') story made it sound as if the players were caught red-handed. He wrote that there is a serious drug problem on the club instead of there was a drug problem. "

Wooten, who recently earned an MBA at Boston University, ranks as one of the club's leaders.

"Actually, two of the six named had no (drug) trouble at all last year," he said. "And the four others were also either over it or in the process of getting over it. To write it as if it's just now happening, that isn't ethical journalism, is it?"

Finally, the players, outlining their third count against Borges, said that the worst thing about him is his behavior since he wrote the drug stories.

Last spring when the club's veterans wouldn't talk to him, Borges telephoned some of them at home after midnight and sometimes as late as 2 or 3 a.m., according to Wooten, Jones and others.

In these conversations, the writer made extensive profane and threatening remarks, they said.

Club executives said that Wooten called the police after one such post-midnight conversation in which Borges allegedly was abusive to Wooten's wife, Ann.

Wooten said: "This is all part of our ongoing problem with (Borges). He abused his position on a very influential newspaper."

Even so, the player response isn't really a boycott, Wooten said.

"Despite what you read and hear, this hasn't been orchestrated by any of us," he said. "This is just 50 players who have all reached an identical conclusion about the man."

Borges denied that he had called Ann Wooten after midnight or anytime.

"She joined (the conversation) on another (extension) phone," he said.

Asked if he had any regrets about his role in the ongoing story, Borges said: "I have no regrets about naming the names. I might do some of the other things differently."

His editor, Doria, also said that Borges probably wishes he had been more temperate on the telephone. "I'm sure harsh words were exchanged." The Globe editor does take serious issue, however, with Wooten, Holloway and other Patriots on their interpretation of Borges' original report as a present-tense rendering of a past-tense episode.

"Ron based the story on Berry's (present-tense) remarks at his press conference after the Super Bowl," Doria said, reading from a transcript. "Berry said there are five players (with a problem). He said we have a problem. He said we suspect there are five to seven others. And so on."

In Doria's view, the Patriots today are simply trying to rewrite history.

"They have become great revisionists," he said, adding that the players are only upset with Globe employees for one reason. "We published the names," he said.

To Patriot General Manager Patrick J. Sullivan, Doria's version is dead wrong.

"He (Borges) terrified the players and their wives with his 2 o'clock calls," Sullivan said. "They're afraid of him. They think he's unstable. He threatened Cedric Jones and others that if they wouldn't talk to him, he'd ruin them--he'd print that they're users."

Jones, a Patriot wide receiver with a political science degree from Duke, is active in Massachusetts politics. "(Borges) threatened me in a very unethical way," Jones said. "And if he'd do it to me, he'd do it to other guys, too."

In Jones' view, a newspaperman has the power to do a great deal of harm to those he deals with when he makes a threat.

"The worst thing about it is having it hang over your head all the time," he said.

Doria's rejoinder is that it's ridiculous to think that football players could be afraid of Borges or any other sportswriter.

"I don't buy it," he said. "The players have worked with Borges for four years. At least 90% of his stories have been positive. Even if they think he could ruin them, it's certainly clear to them that he hasn't."

In the Boston area, those who have been reading about the Patriot controversy in the Globe reflect a wide range of opinions on Borges' work.

Jim Donaldson, who covers the Patriots for the Journal Bulletin of Providence, R.I., said: "I've heard (Borges) described as professionally irresponsible and personally reprehensible. I wouldn't disagree with that."

Others call Borges a respected writer and an aggressive reporter. He has been covering the Patriots for four years and has held previous newspaper jobs in Oakland and Baltimore.

"I think it's only fair to point out one thing," Borges said. "No one has challenged our accuracy. The Globe hasn't had one phone call denying the story from any player or agent, or anybody's lawyer."

Borges noted, somewhat plaintively, that he has taken nothing but abuse since the Super Bowl--first from media peers for sitting on a drug story until after the game.

"And now this," he said. "You can't win."

Vigorously defending his reasons for waiting until after the game to break one of the big football stories of the year, Borges said:

"A respectable paper doesn't go with a drug story until a reliable source will confirm some names. We couldn't get that source before the game.

"So, first, I was a terrible guy for protecting the team. And now I'm a terrible guy to the team. To some of the players, that is, not all. A lot of veterans have told me: 'This is nothing personal. It's a team thing.' "

"One (cocaine) user is one too many." --Dick Steinberg, Patriot director of player development.

The drug issue has dwindled to a non-story in New England.

"There wasn't enough to it," said Carlo Imelio of the Springfield Daily News, a veteran on the Patriot beat.

Of the six players Borges named, none has ever missed a game, or even a practice, because of using illegal substances.

"It was basically a marijuana story," Pat Sullivan said. "Only one of the six players was even suspected of using cocaine. Marijuana was the only (illegal) substance found in five instances. And in two instances there was only a trace. You could have picked up that much sitting in a room where pot was smoked."

The club's top two football specialists, Berry and Dick Steinberg, director of player development, were asked about all this.

Berry would not comment.

Steinberg said: "One (cocaine case) obviously gives you a major problem. But it's ludicrous to call this a drug scandal."

Tom Ramsey, the Patriots' backup quarterback from UCLA, said the drug scene is worse at UCLA than New England.

"I mean, I saw more in college," he said. "A pro has a 9-to-5 job and goes home. At UCLA, where I lived with the guys, the frat parties and sorority parties are pretty lively. That's a choose-your-own-poison world."

At the Globe, sports editor Doria agreed that so far as the evidence shows, the Patriots never had a drug scandal. He said it wasn't a big drug problem, or even a big drug story.

"What made this a story was that it was the first instance of an NFL coach even admitting that he had a (drug) problem (on his team)," Doria said. "It was the first time an NFL coach said he was trying to do something about it."

It is typical of Berry that he should be first. He has met most of the Patriots' many troubles head-on this year, and in so doing, has emerged as the organization's strong man--the man who steadied the ship and changed the players' vision of themselves from a team in turmoil to a team that seems to be tracking imperturbably once more.

"Without Raymond, the season would already be a shambles," said offensive tackle Wooten. "He's made us believe in ourselves again."

Kevin Mannix, who covers the team for the Boston Herald, said: "Berry is the first coach to take charge here. In the past, this club would have gone over the cliff for anything this serious."

Wide receiver Cedric Jones said that the Patriots could have tacked in either of two directions after the drug revelation.

"That could have pulled us apart, or pulled us together," he said. "Strictly because of Raymond Berry, we're together again and fighting back. It's as if this stuff never happened."

Maybe so, but around the country there's a different perception. To many Westerners, particularly, the Patriots remain a tumultuous team.

"I think I know why that is," said Ramsey, who in his last college game led UCLA over Michigan in the Rose Bowl. "Living in the East half the year, I don't get much California news, and when I'm in the West I don't get much Eastern news--and what I do get is bad news. All bad. You can look it up. It's only human nature."

"There are a few people out there trying to get me--out for blood." --Irving Fryar last spring.

At a Patriot press conference last month, a visiting writer had a question for Berry.

"At quarterback . . . " the reporter began.

Berry, rising, said: "Stop the music. I'm gone."

And he left.

These days, the New England coach won't answer questions about his quarterbacks, or the club's drug cases, or the Fryar gambling rumors, or any other controversy.

Anything else, he'll discus for hours.

This makes it difficult for a vigilant press to get the real stories.

It would be nice to know, for example, why Berry has entrusted play-calling to Steve Grogan, his veteran backup quarterback. During the week, Grogan helps the coaches develop the game plan. Then during the game he sends in the signals to Tony Eason on the field.

This is a most unusual role for a mere player. Is Grogan smarter than any Patriot coach? Including the head coach? If so, why doesn't Berry use 275-pound tackle Wooten as his signal-caller? Grogan's IQ is reportedly 141, Wooten's 142.

Ira Miller of the San Francisco Chronicle, unable to get Berry to verify anything important the other day, said: "This team is in for a lot of trouble if the coach is that up-tight in August."

A second opinion was ventured by Pat Sullivan, who said that Berry isn't up-tight, he just beats around the bush because he hates white lies.

"For a football coach, Raymond has a unique regard for the truth," Sullivan said.

Before practice one day, when Berry was pressed for his reaction to the gambling charge against Fryar, he said: "If there was anything to that, it's already been resolved."

Asked to translate that, Berry said: "Like a lot of sprinters, Irving moves, thinks, runs, and lives fast."

By that, Berry said, he meant: "Irving is one of the greatest competitors I've known."

As a news source, Irving proved to be just the opposite. In the off-season, enraged by the gambling rumor, he had said that an unspecified enemy wanted his blood. But when he reported to training camp this summer, weary of the same old questions, Fryar wore a tight smile and a T shirt decorated with two big words: "No Comment."

Pat Sullivan, doing the talking for him and Berry, said: "The Boston police department and the NFL have been investigating (the Fryar gambling story) for three months. Often around the clock, presumably. And they've found nothing yet, nothing at all. I don't know how rumors like this get started."

Neither does the Boston Globe, which broke the story.

Said Sullivan: "To begin with, the rumor had come in to the Boston Herald. They investigated for several days and found nothing. So the Herald passed. They didn't want to libel an innocent man.

"But the NFL was informed about the Herald's tip. You're obligated, you know, to tell the commissioner every time you hear a gambling rumor. And overnight, the NFL leaked the story to the other Boston paper (the Globe).

"You have to say that the skipper runs a leaky ship. If the story had to come out--which it didn't--I feel badly for the Boston Herald. It was their story."

Sullivan also feels sorry for Fryar--and for the club.

"Season ticket sales came to a complete halt for several days after the Globe printed the gambling rumor," he said. "Economically, the leak cost us money that we'll never get back. And it could have been worse."

It obviously could have been worse, too, for Fryar, who has had more troubles lately than anyone else in the Patriot organization:

--He was in the middle of the Patriots' two biggest off-season stories, drugs and gambling.

--This summer, Fryar was sued for assault after a party at the Back Bay Hilton. His lawyer said that the plaintiff provoked his client by insulting Fryar's wife, Jacqueline.

--Fryar missed the AFC title game against the Dolphins in Miami last January because he had cut his hand during what the police later reported was an argument with his wife.

It was a butcher-knife accident that happened, Fryar said, in the kitchen. The Globe, in a story by Will McDonough, said it happened in a restaurant parking lot--thus implying, as Jacqueline Fryar reportedly complained, that she drives around with a knife concealed in her purse.

Although the police verified Fryar's account, the Globe never has.

"Fryar has given at least two different versions of this," Doria said. "The essence of our story was true."

As a scandal, however, it was small potatoes when drugs and gambling started rolling in.

And, this year, the Fryars have appeared to be the most devoted couple in all Massachusetts. After practice each day, Jacqueline and their son Londen are usually there to pick up Irving.

It would make a sane, tranquil ending for a highlight film on the troubled life of the Patriots--the Fryar family riding away, together, into the Foxboro sunset.

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