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Scott G. Winterton, Deseret Morning News
Paul Kruger (looking back) practices with the University of Utah football team last week despite being stabbed in January.

Paul Kruger didn't understand what was bothering him, but something seemed wrong. As he left a party on the night of Jan. 19, he was filled with a sense of dread. He would recall this several times to his mother after it was all over and he was in a hospital stabbed and bleeding.

Kruger had just finished his freshman season of football at the University of Utah. A converted quarterback, he won a starting position at defensive end months after returning from a two-year LDS Church mission in Missouri. On this night last January, he and the rest of his party — his brother David and sister Jessica, his best friend Ryder Olsen, teammate Greg Newman, and two other friends, Jason Burg and Meredith Mangum — were en route to the Park City Film Festival. Along the way, they stopped at a Salt Lake party to say hello to friends. They stayed only 15 minutes, and while leaving the house Kruger had that ominous feeling come over him.

"Some people call it intuition, I guess," says Kruger. "It was just an uneasy feeling."

Moments later, three carloads of young men — most of them estimated to be in their 20s — drove by shouting obscenities. Suddenly, Kruger understood his feeling of dread.

"I didn't know what to think about the way I had felt, but when the cars pulled up I knew what was going on," he says.

Angry words were returned. Newman threw a snowball. Newman and David ran ahead to where one of the cars had stopped. There was a confrontation. Two other cars pulled up and more men joined the scrum.

Within moments, they realized the hoodlums had knives and were eager to use them. That was terrifying enough even without knowing this — Kruger has just one kidney and no spleen.

Almost everywhere he goes, the request is the same. People want Kruger to show them his scars. He patiently complies, lifting his shirt to reveal a maze of zippered red lines. There's a small slice in the middle, where the knife entered, and another 3-inch gash on the side, where the knife entered again and sliced downward, but it's obscured by the long surgical slices that surgeons made — side to front and down the center of his abdomen.

Kruger bared his scars for newspaper photographers last weekend at spring football practice. Remarkably, some eight weeks after the attack, he began football drills. For the most part, he participates on a limited basis — no tackling, light contact — but he did manage a few plays in a scrimmage at the end of Saturday's practice.

"That's the first time I've gone live for a while," he said. "I feel fully recovered."

But not quite. He still experiences a "tightness" in the stomach area. "It takes seven to eight months to fully heal from surgery," he says ... A special pad has been ordered to cover his stomach. That will join the special pad he wore last season to protect his lone kidney.

"We're still being fairly conservative with him," says Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham. "He will do very little, if any, live reps, and no real heavy lifting in the weight room. The doctors have cleared him for a gradual return. It's really a matter of what he can tolerate."

Kruger's mother, Jennifer, says, "We did not expect him to participate in spring ball at all. The biggest concern is that his abdomen will herniate. He's being careful. He pulls himself out of drills when he needs to. The coaches are being very understanding."

For his part, Kruger is relieved to be back on the field and to resume the life he had started for himself at Utah. Thinking back, he says, "It opened my eyes to a lot of things — how valuable life is and to take advantage of it, and to be around good people; put yourself in good situations."

But hadn't Kruger done exactly that when things went so wrong? He was with good people in a seemingly innocuous situation when the first car drove past his group.

"Sometimes you're just in the wrong place at the wrong time," he says ...

The men in Kruger's group must have presented an imposing spectacle that night — Newman and both of the Kruger men check in at about 6-foot-4 and more than 250 pounds — but they were badly outnumbered and their attackers must have been emboldened by their weapons. They quickly surrounded Newman and David. Paul, the sense of dread rising in him, hurried to the scene to stop trouble from escalating.

"This isn't worth fighting about," he told them.

The hoodlums thought otherwise; they were spoiling for a fight — some of them showed up at the scene already wearing brass knuckles. They wanted this, and now there was no turning back for Kruger and his company. There is no reasoning with a brainless mob that smells blood. A snowball and angry words were enough to drive the attackers to attempted murder.

"We were walking away," Jessica says. "Then a kid spit in Burg's face and it erupted."

In the melee that followed, each of the men in Kruger's group were forced to fight three assailants at once, according to Jessica, who watched the scene. David was being kicked and punched while he lay helpless on the ground. He managed to scramble to his feet, but two men jumped on his back as he fought with another man. Then someone from behind delivered a cowardly blow with a hard blunt object, perhaps brass knuckles or a pipe. Newman was stabbed twice in the back with a screwdriver.

Paul Kruger suffered the most serious wounds. He punched one man in the face and dropped him. "I kept thinking about my brother and sister," he recalls. He threw another man down to the ground, dropped on top of him and pummeled him with blows until someone from behind struck him twice — once in the abdomen and once in the side. Kruger rose to his feet and felt pain in his side.

"I thought he had just punched me hard, but it burned," he says. "I put my hand down there and there was blood, and I realized I had been stabbed."

As Jessica would recall later, Kruger had two men on his back at one point. She remembers that even after being stabbed, Kruger managed to throw two men into a fence, and then he called out, "Where's David?" Jessica had already seen to that. Seeing her brother bloodied and outnumbered, she had raced into the melee and escorted him to the car.

"No one touched me," she recalls. "I yelled for Paul. Paul kept yelling, 'Where's David?' I told him, 'I've got him.' Someone yelled, 'They've got knives,' and everyone dispersed."

The seven of them drove away from the scene. While Mangum drove toward the hospital, Jessica was on the phone with the hospital while also reaching over from the front passenger seat to apply pressure on Kruger's wounds as he lay on the back seat. She noted that part of his intestine was protruding through the wound in the abdomen, and he was bleeding. After driving only a short way, Kruger complained of dizziness. They pulled over and waited for an ambulance. Mangum, who is a nursing student, applied pressure to Kruger's wounds. Jessica remembered to tell Mangum, and later the EMTs, that her brother has only one kidney and no spleen.

Kruger had been in a serious accident years earlier. He was 13 when a Jeep rolled over him, leaving him in critical condition for three weeks. It cost him a kidney and spleen.

"We didn't think he was going to survive," says Kruger's mother, Jennifer. "He was on life support."

Now Kruger was badly injured again. Surgeons followed the line of the years-old incision to make the new incision to repair the front knife wound, and then made another foot-long incision in his side. In a four-hour operation, doctors pulled out his bowel, stomach and intestine to check them for damage. Most of the damage occurred in the side wound, where surgeons discovered a nicked artery, a chipped rib and a lung that had collapsed after filling up with blood. It took about 50 staples to close the incisions and wounds.

"They said his size and musculature probably saved his life," Jennifer says.

His lone kidney was also spared damage — it was on the opposite side of the knife wound.

"He has guardian angels that he's wearing out," Jennifer Kruger says.

Newman and David were hospitalized one night and recovered quickly from their injuries; Kruger was hospitalized five nights.

Not surprisingly, Jennifer counts herself fortunate. "The week after Paul got home from the hospital, two people were stabbed in Salt Lake, and the next week another one was stabbed and killed," she says. "There's one every week, it seems. I feel so — I'm going to cry — I could have had three children lost. I'm just grateful to have them."

Police have never captured the assailants, which frustrates the Krugers. As Paul says, "They should be caught. They're dangerous."

The one thing all involved have learned is that Kruger's friends would have been wise not to respond to the bait that was offered by their assailants, whether that bait is spitting, profanity or taunts. It would have been better to walk away with a wounded pride than puncture wounds.

No one put it more aptly than Whittingham: "In this day and age, you keep your mouth shut. You never know who's packing a gun or knife. The day of the tough guy is over."

E-mail: drob@desnews.com