Wednesday, January 26, 2000

Another athlete takes driving fast for granted




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Derrick Thomas is said to have some feeling in his toes. This is the good news.

        He has sustained fractured vertebrae in his neck and back, and the doctors spent more than four hours Tuesday trying to repair his spine. He remains paralyzed from the chest down. The key question concerning the Kansas City Chiefs Pro Bowl linebacker is not about his future in football, but whether he will walk again.

        Thomas was driving too fast for the icy conditions Sunday afternoon when his Chevy Suburban swerved, flipped and rolled en route to the Kansas City airport. Because he was not wearing a seat belt, Thomas was ejected from the car and exacerbated his injuries. Michael Tellis, a passenger who also neglected to buckle up, was pronounced dead at the scene.

        Pro football is a violent business, but the most dangerous part of many athletes' lives involves placing a key in the ignition.

        Only 11 days after the Charlotte Hornets' Bobby Phills was killed in a high-speed drag race with teammate David Wesley, Thomas' accident underscores the unusual risks athletes take on the road.

        Though the Missouri police have neither announced Thomas' estimated speed nor made an issue of it, Thomas may have been counting too heavily on his coordination under hazardous conditions. His failure to wear a seat belt suggests Thomas assumed more risk than was necessary or prudent.

        Sports psychologist Julie Cocklin-Dupell says athletes are taught to exceed their limits and are apt “not to recognize” the limits of society in general or the highway in particular.

More money, more engine
        Perhaps the most predictable result of sudden wealth is better wheels. As athletes make more money, they tend to buy more engine, attain higher speeds and inflict more damage. Police calculated Phills was driving 107 mph (in a 45 mph zone) when he lost control of his Porsche. It's pretty hard to reach that speed in a hand-me-down Hyundai.

        “I don't know if it's ego or a feeling of invincibility, but I think an athlete gets into a car and doesn't think he can get hurt,” said Steve Glawitsch, general manager of Joseph Northland Porsche. “I have many doctors who drive these cars, and they'll go to driving school. They'll study it a little more seriously. I don't know if I've ever signed up a professional athlete for a Porsche driving school.”

        It is dangerous, of course, to generalize about any group of individuals, and it is presumptuous to psychoanalyze strangers. No definitive data exist to prove the hypothesis that athletes are more prone to recklessness behind the wheel.

        Yet the anecdotal evidence is extensive, and fresh examples fairly abound. Tuesday, PGA Tour pro Notah Begay was sentenced to seven days in jail for his second drunken driving offense. On Sunday, Leonard Little will play in the Super Bowl.

        On Oct.19, 1998 — Little's 24th birthday — the St.Louis linebacker celebrated to excess. He then climbed behind the wheel, ran a red light and crashed into the car of 47-year-old Susan Gutweiler. Little's blood-alcohol level was measured at twice the legal limit. Gutweiler died the following day.

Doubling the danger
        Lewis Billups, a starting cornerback on the Bengals' last Super Bowl team, once was pulled over for driving his Porsche at 105 mph along I-75 in Northern Kentucky. When Billups died, in a 1994 Florida wreck, police estimated he might have been driving as fast as 140 mph.

        Because they are born with better reflexes, and because they are often raised in an atmosphere of adulation, athletes may be more prone to tempt fate than other members of society. Those that gravitate to performance cars and/or alcohol can be doubly dangerous.

        For all the posthumous praise showered on Phills — he was, by all accounts, a model of decorum and dignity — the circumstances of his death would suggest a different spin and a reckless disregard for his fellow man.

        While Derrick Thomas' accident would seem to be the result of miscalculation rather than mischief, either can be lethal behind the wheel. Testosterone and tires are a marriage made for mortuaries.

        Tim Sullivan welcomes our email at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

        SULLIVAN ARCHIVE