HOUSTON -- Minutes after crashing his car on a freeway exit ramp and watching as his best friend was thrown to his death early yesterday, Houston Oilers defensive tackle Jeff Alm took a shotgun from the car and killed himself in an apparent fit of guilt or despair, police said.
While some details of the incident just after 2:30 a.m. local time were still unknown, authorities said they believed that the car crashed accidentally, after Alm was speeding and lost control of his 1993 Cadillac El Dorado. In the accident, Alm's boyhood friend, Sean P. Lynch, who apparently wasn't wearing a seatbelt, was thrown from the car. After the car came to a stop, Alm got out, ran across the ramp and looked down an embankment, discovering that Lynch had been thrown to his death.
"It's believed he was despondent, and obtained a pistol-grip shotgun [from the car]," said Alvin Wright, a spokesman for the Houston Police Department.
"It's believed he fired off two rounds in the air before going to the guardrail, sitting down and shooting himself in the head."
Wright said that there were no apparent injuries to Alm apart from the gunshot wound.
The ramp off Interstate 610, located in southwest Houston, had a curve that Alm apparently was going too fast to negotiate, police said. After the car hit the concrete guardrail, they said, Lynch was ejected from the car and went over the rail, landing more than 20 feet below on a roadway beneath the overpass.
The Oilers said Alm was a gun collector and was legally carrying the shotgun in his car.
Alm and Lynch, both 25 years old, grew up in a Chicago suburb and were teammates on the football team at Carl Sandburg High School.
Though Lynch did not go on to play college or professional football, the two remained best friends and Lynch, who ran a restaurant in theChicago area, frequently visited Alm in Houston and attended Oilers games.
"They were closer than most friends are," said Danny Schumacher, a loan officer in Chicago who was a wide receiver on the same team with Alm and Lynch.
"If you saw Jeff, you usually saw Sean with him," Schumacher said, recalling that the two at one point even drove the same model car, a Lincoln Mark VII, with both good-naturedly competing over who had the more elaborate car stereo.
Said Alm's older brother, Lance, of Schererville, Ind., "I think the whole accident was just so traumatic that Jeff lost his mind," he said.
The incident was a stunning development for the Oilers, who got off to a 1-4 start this season but have won eight in a row since.
Head coach Jack Pardee said at a news conference at the Oilers' training facility that Alm had been "probably a little bit" depressed in recent weeks because of his frustration over having to sit out several games with a hairline fracture in his right leg.
But, Pardee said, neither he nor anyone else on the team had reason to consider Alm suicidal.
"Evidently, he convicted himself for doing something wrong," thecoach said of Alm. "It's a pretty stiff sentence he put on himself."
Karyn Hall, a clinical psychologist in Houston, said that while some people meticulously plan their suicides, there are cases in which a person acts suddenly, often in response to a traumatic event.
"It's almost like emotional tunnel vision and they see no alternatives," Hall said. "And when there is access to weapons, it becomes a very impulsive act."
Hall said sudden suicides can also be triggered in part by alcohol or drugs. Police said they had no evidence of either in Alm's car.
Alm, 6 feet 6 and 269 pounds, was a star at Notre Dame, starting all 12 games in the team's 1988 national championship season. He was the Oilers' second-round draft pick in 1990 and last year he played in 14 games, collecting 35 tackles, one sack and two forced fumbles.
But he sat out nearly half this season in a contract dispute, and when he came back he played briefly in two games before the injury. He had talked about coming back against Pittsburgh this Sunday.
Pardee yesterday described Alm as an "emotional guy with highs and lows." and "a very competitive player." Teammate Spencer Tillman said: "Anyone who knew Jeff knew he was a live wire, easily fueled."