SALT LAKE CITY – Shortly after the brawl – after the gang members sped away with their knives and screwdrivers and brass knuckles – Paul Kruger sprawled out in the rear of a black Durango and looked up at his sister.
"Jessica," he said, "I'm having trouble breathing."
Kruger's face was pale. Blood seeped from his abdomen, through his shirt and onto his hands. When Kruger touched one of the stab wounds on his stomach, he could feel his intestines.
"Don't go to sleep, Paul," Jessica said as they waited for the ambulance. "Don't go to sleep."
Nine months later, in a Marriott hotel room in Salt Lake City, Kruger was emotionless as he talked about that January night. The Utah defensive end was almost numb to the story, having rehashed it countless times for the people who asked to see the scars that zigzag across his torso.
The 15 to 20 Latino gang members who jumped Kruger as he was leaving a party also drove a screwdriver through the back of his teammate, Greg Newman, and used brass knuckles to break the nose and shatter the cheekbone of his younger brother, Dave.
It was Kruger, though, who awoke the following morning in a Utah hospital with life-threatening injuries.
After more than 100 Utes players and coaches had filed in and out of his room, Kruger summoned the doctor who had repaired his nicked artery, the one who lifted Kruger's organs from his body and examined them before putting them back in their place.
"Doc," Kruger said, "will I ever play football again?"
If only she'd looked at a license plate or paid closer attention to faces and cars. Maybe then, Jessica Kruger said, the men who attacked her brothers and their friends would be behind bars instead of roaming the streets.
Salt Lake City police still are investigating leads surrounding the Jan. 19 attack. The Kruger family said they've been told the assailants might be members of a Las Vegas gang that transports crystal methamphetamine to Utah. But no one is sure.
"It's easy to have what-ifs after a situation like that," said Jessica, 21. "At the time, all I cared about was helping my brothers."
With about 20 prospects in for official visits, the Jan. 19 weekend was a big one for the Utah football program. After dining with the coaching staff and their families at Rodizio Grill, several of the recruits and players gathered at a house away from campus to watch the Felix Trinidad vs. Roy Jones Jr. boxing match.
Paul, who had just finished his redshirt freshman season, went with Jessica and Dave, then a 17-year-old high school senior.
Before the pay-per-view ever began, Paul and his group decided to head for the Sundance Film Festival across town. As they walked toward the street, Paul noticed a car driving slowly past the house with the window rolled down.
"These guys just started yelling at us and cursing, saying all kinds of things," Paul said. "People trash-talk all the time and just kind of move on. But something about this was different. Something just didn't feel right."
Things escalated when Newman hurled a snowball at the car. When the men got out and approached the players, Paul attempted to play peacemaker.
"(Paul) ran up and got between everyone and said, 'We don't want a fight. We don't want any trouble,' " Dave said. "It seemed like everything was going to die down, but then one of the guys spit in our friend's face."
Fighting ensued, and before Paul and his group knew it, two more cars filled with hooligans had pulled up and unloaded. It was 15-on-five – "at least," Paul said – and, for a time, the football players held their own.
David pummeled one man while two others clung to his back. Paul lifted an assailant off the ground with one hand and slammed him against a fence while fending off two more attackers with the other.
Standing nearby, Jessica did her best to break up the fight. When she noticed Dave was bleeding, she grabbed him and pulled him away from the melee. He'd been hit with brass knuckles, and the skin on his cheek was folded outward.
Then there was Paul, who felt a burning sensation in his side.
"I heard someone scream, 'They've got knives,' " Paul said. "But I didn't realize I'd been stabbed. I got to the car and reached under my shirt. I could feel my intestines. Then I pulled my hand out. It was pure blood."
As the assailants fled, Paul and his friends headed for the hospital, but they eventually stopped the car and called 911 when Paul's breathing became strained and he complained of dizziness. Jessica and her friend, Meredith Mangum – a nursing student – put pressure on his two stab wounds until the ambulance arrived.
"It was definitely traumatic," Paul said. "I didn't know what was going on or how bad it was. My friend, Ryder (Olsen), leaned over the seat to look at my stomach. His eyes got really wide. I could tell he was scared, and that scared me, because he's a med school student. He knows more about that kind of stuff than the average person."
Making things even scarier for Paul was that he has just one kidney and no spleen, the result of an accident that occurred nearly 10 years earlier. When Paul was 13, a Jeep Wrangler in which he was riding rolled over and landed on him. He was in critical condition with internal bleeding for three weeks.
"He has guardian angels that he's wearing out," Paul's mother, Jennifer, said last spring.
This time, in a four-hour operation, doctors removed Paul's bowel, intestines and stomach to check for damage. They also discovered a chipped rib, a nicked artery and a lung that collapsed after filling with blood.
In all, it took nearly 50 staples to close the incisions that were made during surgery. Kruger lost 20 pounds while recovering – as well as a considerable amount of strength. Even though doctors told him he eventually would be able to return to the football field, there were questions regarding how quickly he'd become an effective player again.
"The people that truly know him didn't doubt him," Jennifer Kruger said. "He didn't get depressed. He didn't get angry. He just got into this mindset of 'Over the next 10 weeks, I have to get better.' That's how Paul is.
"In situations like that he almost goes blind with intensity."
In just his second season on the field, Kruger is one of the main reasons No. 12 Utah is 8-0 and a legitimate threat to play in a Bowl Championship Series game.
Even at 260 pounds, Kruger is the most athletic player on a unit that ranks ninth in the country in both pass defense and total defense. Individually, he's No. 9 on the national chart for tackles for loss with 13.5. All-conference honors seem like a lock. Some pundits even are tossing around his name for All-America.
– Oregon State coach Mike Riley
Not bad for a guy who cheated death less than one year ago.
"Paul Kruger," Oregon State coach Mike Riley said, "is one of those special, special players."
Folks around Utah's program say they've seen this coming for years.
During a practice in the fall of 2004, when Kruger was a redshirt freshman, he batted down a pass from future first-round NFL draft pick Alex Smith. Utes assistants scolded Kruger for getting so close to Smith on the play and told him to back off.
Apparently Kruger didn't hear them, because on the very next snap, he swatted away another pass and celebrated by screaming a few barbs and taunts at Smith. The assistants screamed at Kruger but, away from the action, then-coach Urban Meyer was doubled over in laughter.
"He's the leader out there," said Dave, now a freshman lineman at Utah and one of six Kruger children. "He's a fiery intense guy. He sets the tone in the huddle and people follow."
Kruger left Utah after the fall of 2004 to embark on a Latter Day Saints church mission in Kansas and Missouri. For two years, he'd awake each day and roam various areas, attempting to spread the word. Sometimes he'd find himself volunteering to mow the lawn of a less-fortunate family; other times he'd counsel or read scriptures to someone looking for guidance.
To this day, Kruger still keeps in touch with the young children he and a friend met in a single-parent home in Manhattan, Kan., where the father was struggling to make ends meet.
"They were in need of some good influences," Kruger said. "It seemed like something was missing, and we helped fill that gap. We helped change the way they acted. They looked up to us like we were their heroes."
"It's ironic," he said. "Your mission is to do things for others, but when you're done with it, you've probably changed more than anyone. That experience made a huge difference in my life."
Kruger returned to Utah two days before Christmas in 2006. For two years he hadn't lifted weights or run to stay in shape. Still, he was intent on earning a starting job in 2007.
One afternoon he won a competition that called for players to race around the weight room pushing a 45-pound plate that laid flat against the ground. No one knew it then, but once it was over, he went into the weight room and threw up.
"He's a tough kid," said Paul's father, Paul Sr., who played at Oregon State. "And when I say tough, I'm talking about mentally tough."
That trait came in handy after Kruger was attacked in January. Just as he fought back from the Jeep injury and from the two years he spent away from football, Kruger got after it once he was cleared to resume workouts following the stabbing.
Because of a fear that his abdomen would herniate, Kruger was held out of hitting drills during spring ball and barred from heavy lifting in the weight room. Doctors told him it would take seven to eight months to fully recuperate and, as late as August, he still was feeling occasional tightness in his stomach.
But now, with just four games remaining in the season, those issues are long gone. A special pad covers Kruger's midsection, and he also wears a pad to protect his only kidney.
"It's just amazing to watch him out there after all he's been through," Jessica said. "He's my hero. He's everyone's hero."
- Paul Kruger