OWINGS MILLS, Md. – Playing in the National Football League is no easy feat: fewer than 1,500 athletes buckle up chin straps and strap on pads among 32 teams in a league’s weekly schedule.
Getting to the NFL is even more difficult, with hundreds of colleges available to sharpen an athlete’s skills.
Now imagine switching playing positions on the field. Or having up to 20 gang members randomly attack you, your brother, and a teammate.
They were trying times for Ravens defensive end/linebacker Paul Kruger. But that didn’t stop him from trying even harder.
He was ranked as one of the best 30 high school quarterbacks in the country growing up an hour south of Salt Lake City. He spent a year as a redshirt freshman quarterback with the University of Utah in 2004, and then ventured in Kansas and Missouri for two years on a church mission for the Latter Day Saints.
“Besides teaching people about the Scriptures, about the church, about Christ, you’re doing a lot of service,” Kruger says. “Mowing somebody’s lawn, helping somebody with some construction, you’re doing a lot of different things to benefit people, and be someone that people can rely on.”
While he was a stellar quarterback, he watched Alex Smith lead Utah to a Fiesta Bowl victory and be the top overall pick by the San Francisco 49ers in the 2005 NFL draft. Kruger had to make a decision.
“My opportunity to play [as quarterback] was going to be a couple years down the road,” he admits. “I wanted to play immediately, so [head coaches Urban] Meyer and [Kyle] Wittingham made the decision that defensive end would be the best spot for me, and as soon as I made that switch, it just clicked.”
His 63 tackles were the most among freshmen in 2007 in the Mountain West Conference, and he anchored a Utah defense that ranked 11th in the nation.
After he paved the way to improve people’s lives in the Midwest and was paving his way to improve his fledgling defensive career, he abruptly found one of the most difficult mountains anyone would ever face.
In January 2008, he, his younger brother, and a college teammate were leaving a party in Salt Lake City, and were attacked by 15 to 20 members of a Latino gang. His younger brother, David, suffered a broken nose and cheek bone after getting hit with brass knuckles. His teammate, Greg Newman, was stabbed with a screwdriver.
But Paul was stabbed in the ribs and abdomen with a knife, as blood poured through his shirt and could feel his intestines with a reach of his fingers. He was rushed to the hospital, spent four hours in surgery as doctors examined his vital organs for significant damage, and needed nearly 50 staples to close the wounds.
“That’s one of those things you never expect to happen to you. In a million years, I never thought I’d be stabbed,” he says.
This came nearly a decade after he lost a kidney and spleen in an overturned auto accident.
“You really never know what can happen, how time can stop for you, and how quickly your life can go from one extreme to the next,” Kruger says, still somber nearly five years later.
He missed spring practices, but fully recovered and returned to play as a sophomore in the fall, and was part of a smothering defense that led to a Sugar Bowl win.
He decided to forgo his final two seasons in college, and was selected in the second round (57th overall) by the Ravens in the 2009 NFL draft.