True grit: Kruger overcomes hardships

OWINGS MILLS -- The scars run a distinct zigzag pattern across his torso, a const ant reminder of a bloody confrontation with a gang in Salt Lake City that nearly cost Paul Kruger his life. More than one year removed from four hours of surgery to repair life-threatening stab wounds to his abdomen and ribs, Kruger is left with marks on his body that resemble railroad tracks.

Surgeons removed portions of his stomach and intestines, and their incisions revealed a chipped rib and a nicked artery. Plus, the young football player's lung had collapsed after being filled with blood.

The scars don't bother him, though.

The Baltimore Ravens' rookie defensive end-outside linebacker is simply happy to be alive after surviving the gang attack in January of 2008 while he was playing for the University of Utah.

And Kruger is ecstatic that's he's still able to play the game he loves despite having no spleen and only one kidney.

"I've experienced some traumatic things, but I've played through them for years," Kruger said after being drafted him in the second round. "I'm lucky to be where I am, very fortunate, but it was a serious incident for sure."

That doesn't underscore quite how close Kruger came to dying.

Kruger, his sister, Jessica, his younger brother, Dave, and a teammate were attacked by 15 to 20 combatants.

Kruger was stabbed twice. His brother's cheekbone was shattered by brass knuckles. And his teammate's back was punctured by a screwdriver.

While Kruger was being rushed to the hospital, he could feel his own intestines while trying to apply pressure to the cuts.

After a fancy steak dinner during Dave Kruger's recruiting visit, they were heading over to the Sundance Film Festival when they were accosted.

"The stabbing incident was one of those deals," Kruger said. "As we were leaving the party, there was a gang, a group of guys drove by and started saying things out of the windows."

One of Kruger's teammates tossed a snowball at the car in response to the insults. Kruger tried to calm down the situation, but the violence ensued anyway.

"The group I was with just sort of threw their hands up, and the guys pulled over and it ended up being a big brawl," Kruger said. "We were outnumbered about four-to-one, and it just got real bad, very fast. As I was fighting with a couple of kids, one of their other friends came up behind me and stabbed me twice in the side, and everybody split after that. Luckily, I got to the hospital and everything was OK."

The crime remains unsolved. It's believed that the culprits were from a Latin gang from Las Vegas that transports crystal methamphetamines to Utah. Nearly a decade before the stabbing, a 13-year-old Kruger was four-wheeling in a Jeep Wrangler accident that left him in critical condition for three weeks. His kidney and his spleen were removed.

"We started rolling down the hill, and the Jeep flipped over and it flipped me out," Kruger said. "Then, it rolled on top of me and smashed my kidney and my spleen."

In an interview with Utah reporters after the stabbing incident, Kruger's mother, Jennifer Kruger, said that her son is wearing out his guardian angels.

Just like that early medical brush, Kruger attacked his recovery with intensity.

As a redshirt sophomore last year, Kruger was named All-Mountain West Conference as he led the Utes with 7 1/2 sacks to go with 16 1/2 tackles for losses, two forced fumbles and an interception.

"I'm a guy who loves to play with emotion, and so one of the major things that I think I can contribute is a lot of effort, a lot of intensity," Kruger said. "I feel like I'm talented and strong, and I have all the physical attributes as well."

Kruger declared early for the draft because he's 23 years old after spending two years on a church mission, and he's determined to justify the Ravens' investment.

"A lot of people have told me that it could have a big effect on me from a medical standpoint, just the risk involved," Kruger said. "I'm just really happy, and this situation I'm in right now is second to none."

The 6-foot-4, 265-pounder lined up with the first-string defense during minicamps in franchise outside linebacker Terrell Suggs' absence.

"We've seen a good motor, and he goes hard," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "He's very physical, has good hands. He's a load, but he's got a lot to learn."

Kruger flashed a decent repertoire of pass-rushing moves, but still needs to work on lowering his pad level to gain leverage against larger, stronger blockers.

"He was just what we thought he would be," defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said. "He's a Raven that plays with a high motor. Tough kid, and he's going to fit right in with what we want to do."

A former blue-chip quarterback from Timpanogos High in Orem, Utah, Kruger has a reputation for athleticism and versatility. Not to mention his strong character.

He remains in touch with some of the families he got to know during his church mission where he read scripture to anyone who would listen and even mowed lawns.

"I feel like I have my head on straight," Kruger said. "You're not going to have any issues with me with off-the-field kind of stuff. I feel like I definitely bring some maturity and some focus."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

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