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

October 18, 1985|GENE WOJCIECHOWSKI | Times Staff Writer

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — 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."

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