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BILL PLASCHKE

A Crying Shame

Super Bowl a Wrenching Reminder That Little's Actions Had No Small Consequence

January 26, 2000|BILL PLASCHKE

ATLANTA — Fifteen months later, it is happening again:

An out-of-control vehicle speeding through a red light; an impending collision of an untouchable and an innocent.

The Super Bowl is barreling down on Bill Gutweiler, who falls asleep every night on his living room couch praying he can get out of the way.

"Why does it have to be like this?" he wondered this week from his home in south St. Louis. "You know, it doesn't have to be like this."

Fifteen months after a drunk driver plowed into a car driven by his wife Sue, killing her, robbing him, Bill Gutweiler is still struggling to find his balance.

And preparing to be flattened again.

Taking the field for the St. Louis Rams in Sunday's Super Bowl, cheered by Gutweiler's neighbors, will be that deadly driver.

He is linebacker Leonard Little.

His blood-alcohol level on the night of the accident was 0.19, nearly double the legal limit in Missouri.

Three witnesses saw his sport utility vehicle run a red light and smash into his wife's aging Thunderbird, crushing the car and her.

Last summer, Little pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter, but somehow was sentenced to only 90 nights in jail, 1,000 hours of community service, and four years' probation.

In November, though he still had not served most of his jail time, Little was somehow allowed return to practice.

Sunday, running downfield on special teams, Little can somehow become a star.

Forgive Bill Gutweiler if he can neither watch nor understand.

"I get a big kick out of their coach, Dick Vermeil, always crying about his team," Gutweiler said. "I could tell Dick Vermeil a little bit about crying."

*

The best thing about sports is that it forgives.

The worst thing about sports is that it forgets.

In no other business can failure be followed so closely by redemption; an inning, two minutes, 10 seconds.

Yet, no other business so blatantly ignores the cost.

The Rams have done a marvelous job of restoring the career of a young pass rusher who flies.

But in doing so, they have forgotten about a middle-aged truck driver who mourns.

"As everything in Little's life has gotten better, everything in my life has gotten worse," Gutweiler said.

It might have done him good to see Little during Tuesday's first Super Bowl interview session. One look at his nervously contorted face revealed that things haven't completely become better, that there were still ghosts in there, maybe always there.

"Nothing will ever overcome what happened," Little said, fidgeting with his baseball cap. "This will be with me the rest of my life. I made a terrible mistake, and I'll always have to live with it."

But then the questioners departed, and Little stood and stretched and mugged for the cameras, and maybe Bill Gutweiler shouldn't have been there after all.

He and Sue were married for 31 years. They could read each other's thoughts. They completed each other's sentences.

They weren't rich or famous. They weren't anything other than a man who delivered magazines and a woman who worked at a mapping agency.

But for most of their lifetimes, they were one.

"She was the chief cook and bottle washer around this joint," Gutweiler said. "She was the boss."

Together, they worked through the death of a 7-year-old daughter who, 20 years ago, was also killed by a car.

Together, they survived the death of Gutweiler's brother in, yes, another car accident.

Together, they helped raise a son, Mike, who was waiting for his mother to pick him up after a concert on the night she was crushed.

The date was Oct. 19, 1998. Together in their modest home, the Gutweilers had just finished watching a rerun of "Seinfeld."

Bill, 52, with an early-morning delivery to make, went to bed. Sue, 47, drove to a nearby concert hall to retrieve Mike.

About two hours later, just after midnight, Mike phoned home, saying his mother had not shown up.

Bill jumped into his car and drove until he saw the flashing lights.

Little had been at a downtown birthday party where he consumed what experts say were about 14 alcoholic drinks.

At precisely the time he was speeding through a red light, Sue Gutweiler was casually driving through a green.

Her car was hit so hard, she was nearly buried in it.

Since then, the Gutweilers feel, the Rams have been piling on.

Not once since the tragedy has Gutweiler received condolences from Little, or the team that continues, against all common sense, to employ him.

Said Little, "Now is just not the right time, but we're working on that. We're going to get together, I'm sure of it."

Said Gutweiler, "I've never heard anything from any of them. Even if I couldn't face Little, it would be nice if he at least tried."

Oh, but Gutweiler has heard other things.

He has heard Vermeil say of Little, "It's been a tough, tough time on that young man."

And he has heard him say, "The Ram organization will support him and help him get through a tough time in his life."

Gutweiler sighed.

"Sometimes when Dick Vermeil talks, it's like a slap in my face," he said.

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