NEW ORLEANS – On Sunday, just like before every other game this season, Paul Kruger will take a silent moment in front of his locker and trace his finger along the pattern of scars that line his stomach.
As he does so, almost by habit, the Baltimore Ravens linebacker will allow his thoughts to drift to a time and place that he otherwise keeps suppressed in the recesses of his mind – a Salt Lake City night five years ago when he almost lost his life.
It was January 19, 2008, when Kruger, then at the University of Utah, was hosting his brother David for a campus visit. After a dinner with team coaches, then a viewing party for a pay-per-view boxing bout featuring Roy Jones and Felix Trinidad, the group headed out for a night on the town.
As they left, Kruger says, they were confronted by a gang of around 12 youths who first yelled obscenities from their car, then confronted him and his group. As Kruger grappled with one assailant, he was stabbed in the stomach and side by another gang member, suffering a collapsed lung and opening up the front of his body.
"I'm not the only person who has been through difficult times but it was pretty extreme," he told Yahoo! Sports. "I could feel my intestines coming through the skin, and when one of my friends who was a medical student, saw me, it was clear just from his face that I was in a bad way."
Despite the gruesome injury, Kruger stepped out of a Utah hospital less than two weeks later, confounding doctors with his speedy recovery. He insists something changed in him from that point on, and says his life and career have been filled with extra purpose ever since.
Super Bowl Sunday or not, Kruger is a creature of habit and even the plethora of distractions surrounding the Ravens' championship showdown against the San Francisco 49ers will not alter his routine.
"I think about that and what happened before every game I ever play and it is a reminder to just seize the moment," Kruger said. "That is what it means to me. When there has been a moment in your life like the one I had, you never want to waste another.
"It is something you never want to happen to you, never want to happen to anybody. But it does make you stronger and add something to you, the whole process of surviving something like that and going back from it."
The night he was stabbed wasn't even Paul Kruger's first brush with death either. As a teenager, the Timpanogos, Utah, native had to have his spleen and one kidney removed after a horrific four-wheeler accident. Kruger says his long and arduous journey to Super Bowl is made all the sweeter by the prior tribulations.
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So, in the bowels of the Superdome on Sunday, it will once again be time for Kruger to remember the many ordeals he has overcome in his life.
"I know that there was a time when it was touch and go whether I was even going to be alive and then you turn it around all the way to this and being one game away from being a Super Bowl champion," Kruger said.
"It makes you mentally stronger, makes you more appreciative of what you have, not material things but just things like opportunities. Opportunities to be part of a team that wants to win, opportunities to compete for the chance to be a professional athlete, win a job on a roster, get playing time, help your team."
Kruger has seized his opportunity in his fourth year in the league, first standing tall when Terrell Suggs was injured early in the campaign, then continuing to improve to the point where his 9.5 sacks led the team during the regular season.
Perhaps his most vital play, however, came when he chased Peyton Manning out of the pocket in the closing stages of the Ravens' AFC divisional round nail-biter against the Denver Broncos, forcing Manning to throw the interception that effectively ended the game.
That led to a place in the AFC championship game, which in turn set up Baltimore's spot in the Super Bowl.
Kruger was soaking in all of the experiences of Super Bowl media week on Tuesday, determined to cherish the experience for all it was worth.
"If you find a way to get through and come back when the worst of things happens to you then you can allow yourself to enjoy it when the good stuff comes," Kruger said. "There was a time when the good stuff was just being alive. The Super Bowl? That's the really good stuff."
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