The cheers Irving Fryar heard Friday night when he caught his first pass for the Washington Redskins took him by surprise. He was expecting silence. Or boos, if any reaction at all.
Boos and catcalls were what he last remembered hearing at Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium, coming last season from fans so disgusted with their team that they heckled Fryar for a touchdown reception they feared would undermine the Eagles' chance of a last-place finish and top pick in the NFL draft.
The Eagles' miserable 3-13 season--in which the offense and passing game ranked worst in the NFL--was so hard on Fryar and his family that he chose to retire, essentially the most appealing option presented by management after a 15-year career.
To Fryar, a licensed preacher, the twist of fortune that followed was the handiwork of God. The Eagles' NFC East rivals, the Redskins, came calling and their offer included all he could have wanted: a chance to play again, a chance to enjoy the game again and, above all, a chance to end his career on a positive note.
"It's good to be back," said Fryar, 36. "It's good to be somewhere where you're wanted."
Fryar has been like a man reborn since signing with the Redskins Aug. 19. He is showing up early for practice and staying late in a frenetic effort to get back into game shape. Coach Norv Turner held him out of the preseason game played just one week after his arrival, but Fryar dressed anyway to run wind sprints on the field before kickoff.
Fryar's debut came in the preseason finale against Tampa Bay, in which Turner unveiled a no-huddle offense featuring three wide receivers on the opening possession. With Fryar lining up with Michael Westbrook and Albert Connell, the Redskins moved the ball easily but were held to a field goal in their first two drives.
Fryar finished with a team-high three receptions (26 yards), including two for first downs. He had one miscue on a play he had never seen before, which Turner said was understandable given his brief experience with the offense.
"He is an excellent route runner," Turner said. "He's got great quickness in and out of breaks that I can't believe is a whole lot different than what he has had. He's intelligent and has got great feel for getting into the right spot."
Fryar figures to be a staple of the three-wide package this season, as well as a spot reliever for Westbrook and Connell. And he likes the no-huddle approach.
"Obviously now, anybody we play will be ready for it, but I think it's very effective," Fryar said. "Not only does it keep the defense somewhat limited, but at the same time the coaches can still give the quarterback the play. It keeps the game moving, keeps the defense kind of on its heels and allows us to generate some type of rhythm."
Fryar's resume almost ensures a place in the Hall of Fame. His 784 receptions rank seventh all-time; 30 more would tie him for sixth with former Redskin Henry Ellard, and 36 more would move him ahead of Steve Largent at No. 5.
Turner is convinced Fryar has plenty of catches left after studying his pregame rituals and seeing him practice.
"I really like to watch players in pregame because you get a feel for how they get going and how they are when they have adrenaline," Turner said. "[Fryar] was good in Philadelphia in the pregame warm-ups. But he was outstanding [Friday] night. He was running routes, coming off the ball, coming out of breaks. If you looked out there and asked how old the guy was, you'd say 28, 29 years old."
Added quarterback Brad Johnson: "The first day, he came out zooming around. We just kind of just said, 'Irving, this is where you line up.' He brings a winning attitude to work and in the locker room. It's a great addition for us."
Last season, which Fryar describes as the worst of his career, he had 48 receptions for the Eagles. That's more than Westbrook has caught in any of his four seasons with the Redskins and more than Connell has caught in his two seasons combined.
In signing Fryar, Redskins officials hoped to add discipline and veteran leadership to their receiving corps, as well as the stability and consistency that neither Westbrook nor Connell has demonstrated.
At first, the team's interest in Fryar rankled Connell, who was reveling in his promotion to starter following Leslie Shepherd's departure. Fryar had read enough in the newspapers to expect resentment when he arrived. But, he said, he found the opposite.
"My first day here, both of them [Connell and Westbrook] came up to me and welcomed me, and things have been fine since then," Fryar said. "Even Michael came up to me [Saturday] and said, 'You must be one of the coolest people I've ever known. You're not one of those guys who come around and act like you're holier than thou. You talk to us like it's for real.' "
Fryar knew few of his teammates at first. He is close to guard Keith Sims, whose wedding ceremony he performed. And he has an obvious rapport with backup quarterback Rodney Peete, a former Eagle.
"The terminology is a little bit different, so when [Peete] calls a play, I don't see it in my mind the same way I used to see it in Philadelphia," Fryar said. "It'll come a little easier when I get a few more reps and a few more weeks under my belt."
And he has been impressed with Johnson.
"Brad is more of a timing and touch guy, and Rodney has a little bit more of a rocket and moves around a little bit more," Fryar said. "But I think in both those guys, we have tremendous quarterbacks. If we can keep those guys healthy and continue the relationships to where the rhythm continues to go, I think we've got a great chance this year."