For the majority of the 2009 NFL draft class adapting to the pro game will feel like a monumental challenge at times. Setbacks are common for rookies feeling their way through their first NFL season. For Utah defensive end Paul Kruger, whatever low points might come with respect to his budding football career they will pale in comparison to what the pass rusher has already been through in his young life.
As a 13-year old Kruger was in a terrible car accident leaving him without his spleen and one kidney.
"A jeep rolled over," said Kruger succinctly. "We were four-wheeling up in the mountains. The jeep flipped, rolled over my stomach and it smashed my spleen and my kidney. So I lost both of those."
To protect his one remaining healthy kidney Kruger wears a protective pad around his abdomen. Playing defensive end fortunately keeps him from taking shots to the back, but for the past 10 years playing football he has taken other precautions.
"It's something I'm used to, something I've dealt with," Kruger said. "The main thing from a medical standpoint is just keeping my diet and hydration regulated."
But on Jan. 20, 2008, the car accident that left him severely injured nine years earlier seemed minor compared to the challenge he would face next. Following the 2007 season Kruger was stabbed, during a fight outside a party. The Utah defensive end sustained two stab wounds to the ribs and abdomen, with one coming very close to a lung.
By the time police arrived, Kruger's friends already had him en route to a nearby hospital where emergency surgery was performed.
Kruger respects the severity of the incident, but chooses not to make a big story out of the near tragedy.
"It was very life threatening," he said. "But as far as the surgery went and the way it affected my body it wasn't that severe."
As a result of the wounds and subsequent surgery, Kruger was held out of spring drills.
"From mid January to June was a tough time. You've got to be patient and let your body recuperate. After that it was just lifting and getting back to it."
Kruger was back in the weight room by June and quickly regained the 10 pounds he had lost from being forced to lie in wait for his body to once again heal from a terrible incident.
The hard work he put in to ensure he'd be ready for the 2008 campaign paid off as Kruger was an integral part of Utah's undefeated season, which included a Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama. Kruger contributed 61 tackles, led the team with 7.5 sacks and 16.5 tackles for loss as well as an interception.
And the proud Ute isn't shy about voicing his opinion as to whether they should have been named national champions.
"Definitely," he said. "We were the only undefeated team. We beat some big teams. That's basically all I need to say."
Known as a workhorse, Kruger is a relentless player on the field consumed with getting to the quarterback. He's been compared to NFL pass rushers like Seattle's Patrick Kerney and Minnesota's Jared Allen.
"I'm a reliable guy," said Kruger. "I'm not a person who's going to have issues off the field. I'm very coachable. I have high goals for myself in the league. I plan on bettering a team wherever I go and being a leader. I would like the coaches to know I'm a person who's going to bring good favor and good rapport on the team."
And having come through a pair of brushes with death, Kruger also values the NFL opportunity in front of him all the more.
"I learned a lot from that," said Kruger. "That life is short. Being a football player you kind of think the world revolves around you. That mindset is definitely cut short once you have something like (the stabbing). You realize you're very insignificant at times. I've learned a tremendous amount just being smart, knowing your surroundings and learning how to avoid situations like that.
"Every day I think about being lucky to be alive and I don't want to go through something like that again because if anything changes I might not be here. It's terrible to be in situations like that but after you recover from them you understand a lot of things about life and you're very grateful to be in the situation you're in."