Brian Fryer only rarely comes into view. He is the phantom Redskin. Now we see him, now we don't. In his third season, he is a wide receiver who has not caught a pass in the NFL. He was in four games as a rookie before hurting a knee that, reinjured in training camp last summer, required surgery, laying him up another season.
Such enforced idleness is an athlete's enemy for it robs him of time needed to learn his trade. More than that, he has no chance to do anything heroic. And that is important. Without a reminder of his ability, an athlete wonders if he can still do it. A football player with a bad knee wonders. Can he run? Can he cut? Will the surgery keep the knee together when it's hit?
Only success on the field will put those questions out of a man's mind, and Brian Fryer has had no success since he first felt the knee go bad.
In college at the University of Alberta, Fryer won Canada's version of the Heisman Trophy. He is the first Canadian ever drafted by an NFL team, an eight-round pick. It thrilled him to make the Redskins' roster in the summer if 1976, "considering George Allen's philosophy of not liking rookies," Fryer said.
Nothing good has happened since. In the fourth game of the '76 season, at work with the punt-coverage team. Fryer was struck from the side at knee level. His foot stuck to the artificial turf of Chicago's Soldier Field. The knee gave way.
"The body," Fryer said the other day, "was not made for 300-pounders diving at your knees.
That's a line you hear a lot around football players. Fryer tried to smile when he said it. He couldn't.
Maybe a sportswriter can be cavalier about injures. Just anothe "knee story" to get through another day. Get the details, write it up, drive home. Be sure to use the 300-pounder quote. Write about Fryer trying to smile. Yes, Write it down that Fryer's words rang with the painful truth of a man with a six-inch scar along side his knee.
For Brian Fryer, this is not just another "knee story." This is his life.
He's 25 years old, a handsome bachelor with a mustache and curly blond hair (I'm a wiiiild and cuh-raaaaazy guy," he offers). He's 6-foot-1 and 185, a lean pass-catcher with good hands and an easy, long-striding gait. He could do something else with his youth, perhaps sell insurance, go to graduate school. But he wants football, and he wants to be an important part of the Redskin team. Mostly, he wants to be wanted by this football team. Men with scars on their knees wonder.
When Fryer hurt the knee in 1976, the Redskins hired Danny Buggs, a receiver who had been dropped by the New York Giants. As it happens, Buggs in now a starter and Fryer is running behind him. In New York, Buggs was considered expendable because, as he demonstrated with the Redskins, he dropped passes any pro should catch easily. And now the Redskins' bosses are talking about needing help at the wide-receiver spots. Trades? Maybe.
So if Brian Fryer is behind Buggs now, and the Redskins want to get new hands, that gives him another worry. No one said pro football is an easy game, and sometimes the least of the pain is on the field.
Surely, the days since last Saturday have been no frolic in the sun for Fryer. The phantom had a chance to escape the shadows in a game Saturday night at Minnesota. We hadn't seen Fryer run under a pass for almost two seasons, and now we saw him flying downfield, turning his head back to watch Joe Theismann's long pass.
There were 2 minutes 19 seconds to play. The Redskins were behind the Vikings, 20-13. With the ball on Minnesota's 38-yard-line, fryer, who had been alternatingwith Buggs in carrying in plays to Theismann told the quarterback he would run an "in-and-go" pattern. A few steps towards the middle of the field, then he'd go for the end zone.
"Light bulbs went off in my mind," Fryer said later. Here, at last, after two years, he might do the heroic thing - a touchdown to tie the game.
THe pass was well thrown. Fryer had beaten the defensive back, the veteran Nate Wright. To tie the game, Fryer needed only to catch the pass.
It went off his fingertips. At full speed, arms stretched out, he couldn't catch the ball. It bounched off his grasping fingers.
It has been a long time between receptions for Brian Fryer. He hasn't caught a pass in a real game since his last year in college. He was a star then, a guy who would catch 11 passes for 180 yards, score five touchdowns in a game, gain 2,000 yards receiving in two seasons.
This, however, is the NFL. This is after a knee operation. It was a night game at Minnesota, the lights glaring, and it had been a long time since Fryer played under lights. It has been a long time since anyone asked him to be a hero And he dropped the pass.
"I'm not getting down because I dropped some passes (he might have caught two others, too)," Fryer said. He was giving himself a pep talk. "I was confident in that game, I ran good patterns, made good cuts. I just have to catch the ball. And I will. I know I can play."
The knee is giving him no problems, Fryer said. He is running freely and strongly. He says he isn't worried about anything. The Minnesota game, he says, was a learning experience that he would have gone through two years ago, save for the cursed knee.
"I gained experience dropping that pass," he said. "Next time, instead of getting stretched out like that, I'll dive for it. I'll catch it next time.