MT. HOLLY, N.J. — Sunday has always been a glorious day for Irving Fryar. First there was the glory of football. Now there is the glory of God.
It’s Sunday morning, and all eyes at the New Jerusalem House of God are on Elder Pastor Irving Fryar, the former Patriots All-Pro wide receiver who played 17 NFL seasons with four teams before becoming an ordained minister.
To watch him preach is like watching the late, great James Brown perform. He has to use a purple washcloth several times to mop the sweat from his face.
But if he’s sweating his latest scrape with the law, you’d never know it.
The State of New Jersey vs. Irving Fryar could be his toughest matchup yet.
In October, Fryar, 51, was indicted by a New Jersey state grand jury along with his mother, Allene McGhee, 72, on second-degree charges of conspiracy and theft by deception. On Jan. 21, both pleaded not guilty at their arraignment in Burlington County (N.J.) Superior Court to charges they conspired to steal more than $690,000 in an elaborate New Jersey mortgage scam. Fryar faces a five- to 10-year state prison sentence plus full restitution if convicted.
Their defense lawyers say they were victims of a broker’s scam. Before his church sermon, he is asked if he is a victim.
“I have nothing to say about that,” says Fryar. “My lawyer told me not to talk about the case.
“Now you have to excuse me. I have a sermon to prepare.”
Later in the day, the reporter makes a second attempt to talk to Fryar, this time about religion and football.
“Don’t start,” he says.
. . .
On this day, Pastor Fryar celebrates the first Annual Men’s Day, and the church will be packed for the late afternoon service. Lord knows he never mentions his arraignment in church on Sunday.
Fryar is no stranger to trouble, especially in New England. There were drugs, alcohol, gun arrests, fights, a car accident, and lies.
In 1986, he missed the AFC Championship game after he sustained cuts on his hand in a domestic dispute with his pregnant wife and then lied about it. He returned to play in the Super Bowl and scored the only touchdown in a blowout loss to the Chicago Bears.
Sports Illustrated once called him the “All Pro screw-up, the Human Incident, and the Original Sinner.” Wade Boggs declared himself the “White Irving Fryar” after he fell out of a Jeep driven by his wife in spring training.
Then in 1990, Fryar gave his life to Jesus in a Roxbury church, and life got better. He became an ordained minister, and in 1998, he won the Bart Starr Award as the NFL player who best exemplifies outstanding character and leadership in the home, on the field, and in the community.
A crooked trail
In court, Fryar refused a plea bargain of five years in prison and was released on $20,000 bail. His mother’s attorney, Mark Fury, says McGhee was just trying to refinance her house and was conned.
“This case arises out of a federal case where a third party during the height of the real estate boom made hundreds of shaky and questionable loans, frankly preying upon on the borrowers,” Fury said in court. “The feds leaned on this person to find names of two, or three, or five, or 10 [others] that they could then pursue. The only name that was interesting to the feds was a famous name, Irving Fryar.”
According to Fury, William Barksdale, of Levittown, Pa., owned a mortgage counseling business linked to a scheme in which he assisted families in fraudulently applying for millions of dollars between April 2007 and May 2010. Barksdale pled guilty in 2011 to a federal charge of wire fraud and was offered a deal to cooperate, Fury said. He is currently awaiting sentencing.
Barksdale’s attorney did not return a phone call seeking comment.
“One crooked guy happened to do business with one famous name, and that’s what we’re being prosecuted for,” Fury told the court. “The victims here are these two.”
Fryar was uncharacteristically quiet during the arraignment. At one point, Fury asked Fryar, “Were you No. 9 all-time in receptions when you retired?
“Five,” Fryar answered softly.
But the state attorney general’s office issued a statement after the October indictment, offering a different picture: “They provided false wage information on McGhee’s loan applications, falsely claiming she earned thousands of dollars a month as an event coordinator for Fryar’s church. Fryar himself allegedly received or spent more than $200,000 of the fraudulently obtained loan proceeds. Fryar and McGhee made only a few payments on four of the loans, and those banks eventually wrote the loans off as losses.”
New Jersey Acting Attorney General John Hoffman added, “This is not a case in which Mr. Fryar and his mother simply omitted or misstated information on loan applications.”
Reached for comment, Michael Gilberti, Fryar’s lawyer, said he is currently going through 5,000 pages of documents of discovery.
“All I can tell you is that Irving has denied making any money from Barksdale’s mortgage fraud scheme,” he said. “He didn’t receive any money as a result of Barksdale’s mortgage fraud scheme.”
Gilberti also said Fryar did not know about the multiple applications at different banks.
“Nope,” he said. “He has denied any knowledge of it.”
But for some, the allegations themselves are game-changing. Fryar was fired by Robbinsville High School during his first year as football coach.
Stirring the crowd
Back at the New Jerusalem House of God, the spirit is loving and festive.
Fryar, despite his legal problems, is well-prepared for three separate services. He delivers his 40-minute sermon, “Being Da Man,” from memory, quoting scripture by heart, never looking at notes. When he gets to the points he’s excited about, he says, “Watch this,” as though he’s in the film room and knows Dan Marino is about to hit him on a fly route.
At the beginning of one service, he includes the Fryar family in a list of people to pray for.
“Lift up our brothers and sisters who we called up from our prayer list,” he says. “They are in need, God; they are in need of you.
“God, this is not a selfish prayer, though yes we, too, do need prayer . . . to ask you, God, to meet every one of their needs . . . To take that which is crooked and make it straight.’’
Fryar, dressed in black with a purple bow tie and matching silk handkerchief, says he loves to stay in church all day.
No one in the congregation breathes a word of Fryar’s arraignment. But a reporter is told that he is not allowed to ask the congregation any questions about Fryar or he will be escorted from the premises by the well-dressed security. No photographs, either.
Meanwhile the congregation sings, “Welcome to New Jerusalem,” to all visitors.
At one point, a woman and her two children respond to Fryar’s plea for people to be saved. The three embrace Fryar. They pray as one. Ushers pass out tissues and fans.
Giddy with joy that Jesus has saved three souls, Fryar goes off into a touchdown dance of joy.
“Your pastor is cuckoo for Jesus,” he says.
He also relates a story about how God told him he was a “knucklehead” for the way he treated his beloved wife Jacqueline, who sits right up front.
“We pray, God, that you will still the ripples of life,” he says. “Still the storms.”
The congregation urges him on.
“Say it, brother. Amen”
At the end of the service, Fryar asks the congregation for a sacrificial gift to finish a building project next door. That’s above and beyond the weekly offering. He says he will feed the hungry.
“We’re asking you to sacrifice over the next six months,” he says. “Leave that pair of shoes at the store. Sacrifice so we can get this building done. Amen?”
And the faithful fill the envelopes.
Standing by him
Outside, on the road to Mount Holly, a man who identifies himself as “K Parker” waits for the bus after the service. He says he has known Fryar since both attended Rancocas Valley Regional High School.
“Do I think he is a thief?” he says. “No. No.
“What do I think of him as a human being, as a person, as a man? He’s doing the best that he can.
“I never had a problem with Mr. Fryar. He’s my buddy, we are buddies. It’s allegations. I think it’s more propaganda.
“Did he plot on the banks? My first thought would be no. He’s a millionaire. I don’t care what they allege. He’s still a millionaire.
“I’m not going to tell you he’s the best man, but I’m telling you he’s a good man, that’s all I know.”
He’s also widely popular, even after the indictments became public.
What does the congregation think of the charges?
“Well, he is the congregation. That’s the problem he’s got, because he’s everything here. Irving has a thousand more friends. Just today he had a guest speaker from the NFL.’’
At the Men’s Day celebration, Keith Elias, a former New York Giants running back, is the guest speaker. Another Mt. Holly church, the one where Fryar was baptized, has sent over a choir. The house is standing room only and rocking.
Elias, who starred at Princeton before playing with the Giants, sings the praises of Fryar.
“The Reverend Doctor Mr. Irving Fryar,” he says. “We met years ago, but we reconnected a year ago. What he doesn’t know is that there was a point in my life where I had plateaued in my walk and I asked him. I said, ‘Lord, I need a mentor. Lord, I need a leader of men.’ And God sent me Irving.”
“Amen,” says the congregation.
Elias continues, “The lessons of God. The Bible studies. The presence of God. You have led me. You have disciplined me. You have mentored me and I just wanted to thank you.”
Afterward, Fryar sits down to a chicken dinner provided by his ministry for the entire congregation.
Jacqueline Fryar’s fur coat slips off a table and falls to the floor.
“How’s he doing?” asks a guest, scooping up the coat.
“He’s fine,” she says. “He’s going to be fine.”
Fryar turns around to see that the reporter is still there and offers him dinner.
A security guard — a football coach himself — moves in closer to limit access.
“What do you have to say to your fans in New England?” Fryar is asked.
“Tell ’em I love ’em,” he says.
Stan Grossfeld can be reached at email@example.com.