Originally created 11/10/99

NFL reinstates Rams linebacker



ST. LOUIS -- St. Louis Rams linebacker Leonard Little, eyes red and welling, stepped outside of a conference room so no one would see his tears.

But Little, more than a year after a drunken driving accident that killed a 47-year-old woman, didn't mind talking about an emotional exile.

"When this first happened, I cried for nearly two months," Little said Tuesday at his lawyer's office. "I wasn't eating. I was staying up all night -- thinking about what I did and the grief I put on another family. It's hard for me to swallow.

"This story will hit the papers tomorrow and maybe the next day. But this is something I've got deal with the rest of my life."

On Oct 19, 1998 -- his 24th birthday -- Little spent the night celebrating with teammates. On the way home, he ran a red light and collided with a car driven by Susan Gutweiler of Oakville. Gutweiler died the next day.

Authorities said Little's blood alcohol level was nearly twice the legal limit.

The NFL suspended him for eight games, and he was charged with involuntary manslaughter. He plead guilty in June, and began serving a 90-day sentence in the city workhouse, and performing an assigned 1,000 hours of community service.

On Tuesday, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said Little had been "fully cooperative" with the league's substance abuse policy and welcomed him back to the game. Little could play Sunday against Carolina, but is in no hurry to return.

"Football doesn't take precedence over a life that has been taken, to me," Little said. "This is my job, and I have a family to support, but I caused another family grief, and that really bothers me."

Rams coach Dick Vermeil said Monday that Little has paid his debt to society.

"He's an outstanding young man; he made a mistake," Vermeil said. "It's a shame. We cannot right a wrong. There's nothing you can do."

Little, a third-round pick in the 1998 draft, practiced with the Rams in training camp and played in the team's two preseason home games. Soon after the accident, he left St. Louis for his mother's home in Knoxville, Tenn.

"After this happened, I got on my knees and prayed to God that they'd forgive me," Little said. "I think that was the best thing -- it had me going forward because I got on my knees and God forgave me for it."

Little mentioned his faith repeatedly Tuesday, saying it has become the No. 1 priority in his life. He said he had strayed in recent years.

No. 2 is his family and No. 3 is football, and he wants the victim's family to know he isn't using his return as a tool to erase his memory.

"I tried to put myself in that position, to where I could think about what the other family was thinking about," Little said. "For me to make a mistake and to cause someone's life to be gone, that's something I've got to live the rest of my life with. I wake up every morning thinking about that."

His legal troubles aren't over. The Gutweiler family has filed a wrongful death civil-suit against Little, with the Rams named as a codefendant. That case is pending.

He's not upset the local chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving is planning a protest at Sunday's game, saying he supports that effort "100 percent."

"I made a mistake, and I have got to deal with it," Little said. "No one has to deal with it but me. Not my family, not my daughter, not anyone else but me.

"People shouldn't feel sorry for me. I was the cause of it all. I admitted to that."