Dennis Erickson is like many NFL coaches, starting his day very early. But his first stop of the day is unlike anybody else's.
Three mornings a week, the first-year Seattle Seahawks coach attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings that begin at 6 o'clock, part of the punishment for a drunken-driving arrest April 15, three months after he was hired."It wakes you up fast," Erickson said.
The dark cloud that has hung over the Seahawks for nine months hardly disappears once Erickson leaves the AA meeting and drives to work.
Brian Blades, the Seahawks' best receiver, was arrested last month on manslaughter charges in what has been termed the accidental shooting death of his cousin, Charles, on July 5.
Fullback Lamar Smith faces a trial Jan. 8 for vehicular assault in a Dec. 1 accident one mile from the Seahawks offices. It left defensive tackle Mike Frier, a passenger in the car Smith was allegedly driving, paralyzed. Authorities reportedly have said Smith was drunk and driving recklessly.
"The thing that I've learned over the years dealing with things like that is you've got to continue on," Erickson said. "We've done that. Sometimes somebody thinks there's a bad shadow over our heads. But that's not true. It's kind of brought us together a little bit as a team."
Because this is one of the most beautiful areas of the country, the Seahawks could emerge as the NFL's next elite team by simply selling the quality of life and their state-of-the-art facilities to prospective free agents.
But the Seahawks, now entering their 20th year and coming off back-to-back 6-10 seasons (preceded by a 2-14 campaign in '92) seem snakebit - even if some of their longtime players refuse to believe so.
"People die every day. People get cancer. People are hurting," said safety Eugene Robinson, in his 11th year with the team. "(Any dark cloud) doesn't skip over football players or teams or anybody else."
Last year, the Seahawks were forced to play three home games at the University of Washington after tiles fell from the ceiling of the Kingdome. Owner Ken Behring has joined the list of owners disgruntled with their stadium situation and is making inquiries about filling the void in Los Angeles after his team reportedly lost $5 million to $6 million in 1994.
Enter the 48-year-old Erickson, who returns to his hometown after a hugely successful six-year run at the University of Miami, where he went 63-9 with two national championships.
The winningest coach in college football brings a high-energy approach, a souped-up offensive scheme, and genuine excitement to Seattle. But ever since leaving Miami, he has been bombarded with accusations about improprieties in the Hurricanes program, including coverups of positive drug tests, charges he denies.
"Some of the things said out there are totally absurd," Erickson said. "There are so many untruths out there it makes me sick. I'll put that program up in all aspects with any in the country."
Yet Erickson's past in Miami doesn't even register on the Seahawks' disaster meter - nor has it had any apparent effect on the team. "We could care less about what's going on there," quarterback Rick Mirer said.
The Blades situation is tragically different - and there's no telling the effect it will have on the club. Named the Seahawks' 1994 Man of the Year for his play on the field (a team-leading 79 catches) and his charity work, the 30-year-old Blades has apparently not opened up to teammates about the events that led to his cousin being killed. In fact, Blades has not spoken publicly about the incident other than an emotional reading of a statement July 11 outside his family's home in Plantation, Fla.
"I know Charles' death was an accident," Blades said last month. "The police know Charles' death was an accident, and most important, God knows Charles' death was an accident. ...
"Not only did Charles die last week, but a part of Brian Blades died."
Football has provided somewhat of a sanctuary for Blades, whose teammates have understandably given him some space.
"It's tough shoes to be in. Very tough shoes to be in," said Robinson, a teammate of Blades for seven years. "If you look at his face, you know there is something else going on. When you see him smile and laugh and joke, you say, `Oh, man, he's taking a break from it."'
Yet Blades, who declined through team officials to be interviewed last week, has been having his share of bad days dealing with the incident. "Brian is an emotional person in everything he does," said offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski, who went to Florida for the funeral. "It takes time to heal. What I see coming from him is the grief."
Robinson said when he heard the news, "The only thing I could think of is how much passion he has for his family and I know that is one hurt man. That dude loves his family."
Ten weeks earlier, Erickson was driving his 1995 BMW on an interstate about 9 p.m., when another motorist alerted police on his cellular phone about Erickson's driving. He had abruptly cut off two cars while changing lanes and another as he was exiting the highway.
Two breathalyzer tests were administered and Erickson registered .23, more than twice the legal limit in Washington. Erickson, who was evaluated and determined to have a significant drinking problem, entered into a deferred prosecution program for two years.
"It was just an awful mistake that I made and I just thank God nobody got hurt," said Erickson, who has also spent the past few months worrying about his father's battle against cancer. "It was something that I'm not very proud of. But I'm dealing with it."
When Erickson went into the deferred prosecution program, he spent 60 hours the first month in counseling. Now he goes the three mornings for about one hour a day plus other various sessions.
Asked if he feels better about himself not drinking or even healthier, he said, "Not necessarily. I'm just doing what I need to do for me. I like what I'm doing right now."
When the news came out about the DWI, Erickson apologized to the team. Seahawks owners instituted an alcohol counseling program for employees. Mirer says he doesn't believe the coach lost his ability to lead the team as a result of his transgression.
Smith, meanwhile, will play this season with the trial hanging over his head, but maintains he's concentrating on football. "I don't have any distractions or anything," he said.
When asked how he's dealt with the memories of that night, he said, "In the first few months, it was tough for me because of what happened to Mike ..." He paused. "I'd rather not talk about it."
It's been a brutal nine months off the field for Seattle. On the field, the Seahawks, who have not made the playoffs since 1988, will be improved with Erickson. But with all the problems the Seahawks have, it may be difficult for them to be successful in '95.
"Football has actually gotten somewhat therapeutic because is gives you a respite from all the things we've been having," Robinson said. "I call these all `The Woes.' We've been having our share of woes.
"When does it end?"