The shots heard around our world

By Scott Fowler
Updated: July 6, 2010

CHARLOTTE — Ten years ago Tuesday, Fred Lane died just inside his home in south Charlotte, shot twice by his own wife.

Police found his body just inside the front door. His keys still hung in the door lock, a detail that haunts me a decade later.

It was a horrifying moment in Charlotte’s sports history. If you lived here then, you probably remember where you were when you heard of the shooting of Lane, a former Carolina Panthers starting running back.

I certainly 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 South Charlotte home.

She shot her husband 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 connection with her husband’s death in 2003. She was released from prison in 2009. Deidra and Fred Lane had a newborn 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 Tuesday 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 so his son knew he had arrived. His son would find the source of that whistle, then smile and wave.

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

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

“Not really,” Fred Lane 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 for this story. Her father, Charles Gary, has for many years owned a successful real-estate agent business in Columbia.

He said neither he nor any other member of his family would make any comments for the story 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 about this story when I called him. And my editors and I thought it was important to write this column. I want 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

I’ve never forgotten the day Lane was shot – or Lane himself. He was one of the Panthers’ true originals – a “Rocky”-type success story during his finest moments here.

In 1997, Lane was an undrafted rookie 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 man, the guy could play. He burst into Charlotte as a rookie, leading the Panthers with 809 rushing yards in 1997. (The guy handing him the ball, quarterback Kerry Collins, got a $7 million signing bonus from the Panthers. Lane got $5,000).

“Basically, I thought I was going to be sent home on the first cut,” Lane told me in 1997. “I thought they just had me in to be a practice body.” One teammate joked when hearing Lane’s name that the Panthers must have signed Lois Lane’s cousin.

That year in a preseason game, 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 regular season, he went over 100 yards rushing four times.

Only months before his death, Lane had been traded to the Indianapolis Colts. But he never played for the Colts, and so everyone remembers him only as a Panther. The day he got shot, Lane was the Panthers’ all-time leading rusher with 2,001 yards.

He’s still fifth on that list. Lane wasn’t a choirboy in three seasons here. He was held out of one Panthers 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.

But after being around Lane regularly for three years, I wrote most of those mistakes off to his immaturity – a quality he certainly had but one I thought was usually trumped by Lane’s heart being in the right place.

A community nightmare

On the day Lane died, it felt to me 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. I couldn’t get into the newspaper building to discuss the Wesley trial before someone told me in the parking lot that Lane had been shot.

Those two events followed on the heels of the death of Cherica Adams. Former Panther wide receiver Rae Carruth – a one-time teammate of Lane’s – would eventually be sentenced to at least 18 years of jail time 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.

In fact, though, Lane’s death signified the end of that awful period of Charlotte’s pro sports life. We’ve had our share of negative sports stories in the 10 years since – the Panthers’ steroids scandal, the Hornets’ move to New Orleans, Steve Smith beating up two teammates – but none of them has approached the shock of what happened to Adams, Phills and Lane in a heartbreaking eight-month period.

Prosecutors portrayed Deidra Lane as a money-hungry woman who ambushed her husband just inside the front door, intent on collecting a $5 million life policy. Her attorneys said she was a battered wife who feared for her life when she shot her husband.

(In a separate issue, Deidra Lane pleaded guilty in federal court in 2002 to conspiring to commit bank larceny in connection with the 1998 theft of $41,200 from a Charlotte bank. She was sentenced to four months in prison for that crime).

‘You don’t ever get over it’

Deidra Lane’s only substantive comments about the shooting came in her sentencing hearing in 2003.

Moments before the judge sentenced her for her husband’s death, Deidra Lane 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 still keep pictures of their son all over the house. Big Fred handed out football cards of his son at Little Fred’s funeral, trying to make people remember his son at his best.

Fred Lane Sr. said he keeps busy by going fishing and playing with his grandchildren, but that it feels like it has been far less than 10 years since his son was killed. Fresher. More painful.

“It’s a hole,” Lane said. “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 those keys hanging in the Lanes’ door lock when police got there.

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 he had never gone home that day, that none of this happened, that life had simply gone on.

But a key went into a lock 10 years ago Tuesday in southeast Charlotte.

And a few minutes after that, everything changed.