Fowler

Remembering Panthers' Fred Lane a decade after his killing

Staff WriterJuly 6, 2010 

Ten years ago today, Fred Lane died just inside his home in south Charlotte, shot twice by his own wife. Police found his body inside the front door. His keys still hung in the door lock, a haunting detail even a decade later.

It was a horrifying moment in Charlotte's sports history. If you lived in the city then, you probably remember where you were when you heard of the shooting of Lane, a former Carolina Panthers running back. I do - it was one of the oddest, saddest days of my journalism career.

Lane, 24, was killed by his estranged wife, Deidra Lane, in their Charlotte home. He was shot twice at close range with a 12-gauge, pump-action shotgun. The first blast struck his chest. The second hit the back of his head.

Deidra Lane ultimately pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in 2003. She was released from prison in 2009. Deidra and Fred Lane had a daughter who was seven days old at the time of the shooting. That child had her 10th birthday last week.

Fred Lane's parents, Fred Sr. and Mary Lane, live in Nashville. Fred Lane Sr. has retired after 32 years of teaching and coaching at the middle-school level in Tennessee. He said in a phone interview that the family has no plans for a memorial today on the 10th anniversary of his son's death.

"We're going to keep a low profile," Lane said. "We just keep trying to get through this, one day at a time. We think of him every day. Every day is an anniversary for us."

Lane was "Big Fred," his son was "Little Fred," and they were extremely close. "Big Fred" and "Little Fred" talked almost every day by phone, and the father always told the son he loved him at the end of each conversation.

When Big Fred entered a football stadium where Little Fred was playing, he would let out a high-pitched whistle. His son would find the source of that whistle, then smile and wave.

"I try to only remember the good times," Lane Sr. said. "And every day with him was a good time. Fred loved life. He was a joy to be around."

Fred and Mary Lane see their granddaughter a little more than once a year, Fred Lane Sr. said. Do they also have a relationship with Deidra Lane?

"Not really," Fred Lane Sr. said, "but I'd rather not get into that part of it."

Deidra Lane, 35, has been out of prison for 16 months. She couldn't be reached for comment. Her father, Charles Gary, owns a successful real-estate agent business in Columbia, S.C. He said neither he nor his family would comment and asked The Observer to consider not publishing this story at all because it would reopen old wounds.

Fred Lane Sr., however, expressed no reservations. And my editors and I thought it was important to write this column to remind people of the sort of man Fred Lane Jr. was and what that time 10 years ago in Charlotte felt like.

'Rocky' on the Panthers

Lane was one of the Panthers' true originals - a "Rocky"-type success story during his finest moments.

In 1997, Lane was an undrafted free agent from tiny Lane College in Tennessee. Lane was no relation to the school's founder, but it made for a memorable detail. His favorite food was spinach. He said he read his grandmother's tattered Bible each night.

Lane hadn't attended a bigger college mostly because of grade problems. He wasn't drafted because he was relatively slow for a running back and a knee injury had hampered his senior season.

But the guy could play. As a rookie, he led the Panthers with 809 rushing yards in 1997. (The guy handing him the ball, quarterback Kerry Collins, got a $7million signing bonus. Lane got $5,000.)

"Basically, I thought I was going to be sent home on the first cut," Lane said in 1997. "I thought they just had me in to be a practice body."

That year in an exhibition, Lane threw up on the 10-yard line after one play, came out, checked back into the game a couple of plays later and scored on fourth-and-goal. In the season, he surpassed 100 yards rushing four times.

Months before his death, Lane had been traded to the Indianapolis Colts. But he never played for the Colts, and so he is remembered as a Panther. He was the team's all-time leading rusher with 2,001 yards, still fifth on that list.

Lane wasn't a choirboy in his three seasons. He was held out of one game because he missed the team plane. He was suspended for another after celebrating a touchdown with a crotch grab. He caught heat once for not standing during the national anthem.

Most of those mistakes could be written off to immaturity - a quality he had but one usually trumped by Lane's heart being in the right place.

A community nightmare

On the day Lane died, it felt like the world of pro sports in Charlotte was falling apart.

I spent the first part of July 6, 2000, covering David Wesley's trial in connection with a wreck six months before that had killed his fellow Charlotte Hornet and close friend Bobby Phills. Shortly after 3 p.m., the judge was about to rule.

At the same time, in his home, Lane was dying.

Those two events followed on the heels of the death of Cherica Adams. Former Panthers wide receiver Rae Carruth eventually was sentenced to at least 18 years for hiring a hit man to kill Adams, who was pregnant with Carruth's child in November 1999.

It seemed like Charlotte was having a community nightmare, that it had turned into the place where all the worst stories about pro athletics came true: Guns. Porsches being driven way too fast (that's how Phills died). Court hearings. And deaths.

Lane's death, though, signified the end of that awful period. Charlotte has had its share of negative sports stories since - the Panthers' steroids scandal, the Hornets' move to New Orleans, Steve Smith beating up two Panthers teammates - but none has approached the shock of that heartbreaking eight-month period.

Prosecutors portrayed Deidra Lane as a money-hungry woman who ambushed her husband intent on collecting a $5 million insurance policy. Her lawyers said she was a battered wife fearing for her life.

'You don't get over it'

Deidra Lane's only substantive comments about the shooting came in her sentencing hearing in 2003. She faced her late husband's parents in court and said: "I am sorry for the loss of Fred. I loved Fred dearly. He was a good man. At times, he scared me, and I didn't understand him then. I'm sorry for the pain I've caused."

That pain still resonates in Nashville, where the Lanes keep pictures of their son all over the house. Big Fred handed out football cards at the funeral, trying to make people remember his son at his best.

"It's a hole," Fred Lane Sr. said recently. "You don't ever get over it. It's not something I would wish on anyone, even my worst enemy."

Only parents who have lost a child can probably understand the depth of that hole.

For me, I always think of the keys hanging in the Lanes' door lock when police arrived.

We always think of a key as a happy symbol, one that begins a journey.

For Fred Lane, though, his house key unlocked a door he could never close again. Like so many other people, I wish that none of this happened, that life had just gone on.

But a key went into a lock 10 years ago today. And moments after that, everything changed.

sfowler@charlotteobserver.com or 704-358-5140

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