Placekicker Steve Little, fired Thursday by the St. Louis Cardinals, was listed today in critical condition at a hospital with a fractured neck which left him paralyzed.

A neurosurgeon at St. John's Mercy Medical Center in Creve Coeur said Little, 24, suffered total paralysis in an automobile accident early this morning.

Dr. Frank Palazzo said the athlete's neck was broken in the anterior area.

The fracture, he said, was affecting Little's breathing.

"We hope that he's stabilizing," said Palazzo. "He appears to be doing just fine."

"If he stabilizes, there's always a chance for some rehabilitation," the doctor said. "He seems to be in good spirits. He took a philosphical attitude when I talked to him and told him of the very serious nature of his injury."

But the doctor said it was unlikely Little would be able to regain movement.

A spokesman for the St. Louis Cardinals said the club, shocked by the accident, held a prayer session this morning.

Police said Little was the driver of a sports car that "hydroplaned" off Interstate 270 in west St. Louis County, skidding 125 feet into an exit sign. The athlete was slammed into the vehicle's dashboard on the passenger side.

A Missouri Highway Patrol trooper, Michael cooper, said Little apparently was on his way to his home in Maryland Heights, heading north on the highway in a heavy rainstorm.

Cooper said Little was semiconscious when he arrived. "I told him it would be all right. He just shook his head and moaned," the officer said.

A paramedic, Bob Zaitz, said Little was "out of it" when a rescue team reached the scene. "It was pouring down rain," Zaitz said. "Little was all twisted in his small, compact car. He was unresponsive, and he stayed that way."

The top St. Louis draft choice in 1978, Little was released by the Cardinals following a head-to-head place-kicking contest held Wednesday.

Former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Neil O'Donoghue, 27, was awarded Little's job.

Little, a former record-setting kicker at Arkansas, had made good on only three of eight field-goal tries this season and 17 of 19 extra points.

Coach Jim Hanifan said Little was ordered to defend his job against O'Donoghue.

"I told him he had to outkick the other guy," Hanifan said.

Each player got 16 kicks from the 32-yard line, a 42-yard field goal attempt. O'Donoghue successfully kicked 14 of the 16 attempts. Little converted only nine of 16.

After he learned of his dismissal, Little told reporters he was "happy."

"I know the fans will be happy, too. With all the harassment I got here, I never felt at ease. I gave it 100 percent all the time. When you do your best and the fans react like that, it demoralizes you."

He added, "I just hope I get the chance to come back here and haunt St. Louis -- not only the fans, but the people who cut me," he said.

"I feel great, because now I can go out and start all over. I'm going to go sit down and drink a few cold ones right now," Little said.