Steve Streater, former all-conference University of North Carolina punter and defensive back who was signed Thursday by the Redskins, was left at least temporarily paralyzed from the waist down in an auto accident that night near the Raleigh-Durham Airport.
Streater, whose punting average of 43.4 yards led the Atlantic Coast Conference last fall, suffered a fracture dislocation of the sixth cervical vertebra, according to North Carolina team physician Dr. Joseph DeWalt. It will probably be about two weeks before doctors know whether the paralysis is permanent, but there is a likelihood of at least some permanent injury, DeWalt said.
"Some of the nerve damage will heal in time," DeWalt said. "Steve may be able to walk again some day."
Streater is in the intensive care unit of North Carolina Memorial Hospital in Chapel Hill. His condition is listed as fair.
Streater was expected to have challenged Mike Connell for the Redskin punting job, according to Mike Allman, the team's director of player personnel. The Redskins did not draft Streater, in part because their draft philosophy was aimed at improving the offense. They were surprised when he was not picked by another team, as were several North Carolina football fans.
A spokesman for the North Carolina athletic department said the accident occurred when Streater's auto skidded on wet pavement and ran into an embankment after his return from Washington.
Streater, who had five pass interceptions as a defensive back and was the first ACC player to be named to two all-conference positions in the same season, was said to have been overjoyed at the prospect of a career with the Redskins.
"He was just bubbling over," said Joe Kuczo, Redskin assistant trainer, who drove Streater to the airport for the return flight to North Carolina after he signed with the Redskins.
"He was really a nice kid, so happy to be here. When I dropped him off at the airport, he said 'Goodbye, I'll see you in a couple of weeks.'"
Streater, 22, was met at the airport in North Carolina by his roommate, defensive bace Tyress Bratton, who escaped serious injury in the accident.
"I took Steve's car to the airport to pick him up. We were driving back, between the airport and I-40, when Steve lost control of the car in the rain," Bratton said, according to United Press International.
"We hit an embankment and flipped onto the pavement. I think another car hit us from behind at that point, but it's hard for me to remember."
North Carolina officials said Streater's car was hit by another auto.
Streater, from Sylva, N.C., in the western part of the state, is the brother of Jimmy Streater, who played quarterback at Tennessee two years ago.
As a free agent, Streater would be permitted to keep his signing bonus, but the Redskins would have no other financial obligations in the event he never plays.
"Our main concern right now is Steve's health. We just don't know the extent of the injuries," said Dick Myers, a Redskin assistant general manager.
Streater, 5 foot 11 and 171 pounds, was a factor in North Carolina's football success last year. The team finished with an 11-1 record, was undefeated in ACC competition and beat Texas in the Bluebonnet Bowl.
He was ABC-TV's player of the game in a North Carolina-Texas Tech game in September and finished his college career with 11 interceptions, fourth highest in North Carolina history.