Two Men, Two Flips of Fate

February 07, 2000

Two NFL stars. Two days. Two seat belts unbuckled. Two horrible
accidents.

The police who arrive at the first wreck say they've rarely seen
a car so crushed after flipping. They're sure the occupants are
goners. But the first star, St. Louis Rams Pro Bowl wide
receiver Isaac Bruce, crawls out of it, hardly needing a
Band-Aid. His girlfriend is also fine.

The police who arrive at the second wreck are surprised the car
isn't more damaged after flipping. But the second star, Kansas
City Chiefs Pro Bowl linebacker Derrick Thomas, is carried away
by ambulance, no feeling in his legs. His best friend is dead.

Same two men, Sunday's Super Bowl, each with the sound of the
crowd ringing in his ears, each in a room with colorful banners
on the walls and tension in the air, each needing a personal
triumph in the worst kind of way. The first man, Bruce, sprints
down the sideline in Atlanta's Georgia Dome, turns for a spiral,
catches it in front of one defensive back, ducks under another
and flashes into the end zone to give the Rams the winning
touchdown in the most thrilling Super Bowl finish ever. He's
covered in hugs. "That wasn't me," Bruce says later. "That was
all God. I knew I had to make an adjustment on the ball, and God
did the rest."

The other man, Thomas, knows he has to make an adjustment, too.
After six hours of emergency surgery on Jan. 24 at Miami's
Jackson Memorial Hospital, he woke to find himself paralyzed
from the chest down. His Super Bowl Sunday goal is to find the
courage to let himself be lifted out of his bed and into a
wheelchair for his first ride into a future he never dreamed of.
Surrounded by his new teammates--his mother, his surgeon, his
therapists--in a room papered with banners from well-wishers,
it's too much. He decides not to try. His head sinks back into
the pillow. He's covered in hugs. "Tomorrow," says Barth Green,
the University of Miami spinal-cord specialist who operated on
him. "Tomorrow he gets in the wheelchair. Today, with the game
on and everything, it's very tough."

In Atlanta, Bruce's tomorrows are all limos and roses. He wears
a Super Bowl championship hat, a Super Bowl championship T-shirt
and a smile you can't buy. "Coach [wide receivers coach Al
Saunders] told me to work hard and good things will happen,"
Bruce says. "He was right."

In Miami, Thomas wears a rigid collar around his neck, a plastic
shell around his chest and a deadness in his eye you can't miss.
He hasn't shaved, and he's hardly eaten in a week. He's
listening to a pep talk from two more new teammates--Nick and
Marc Buoniconti. Nick is the bustling former All-Pro linebacker
for the Miami Dolphins; Marc, his son, is in a wheelchair, left
crippled by one play with The Citadel in 1985. Together with
Green, they helped start the Miami Project, a 120-scientist
dream to cure spinal paralysis.

The Buonicontis tell Thomas that if he's ever going to walk
again, it will be through the Miami Project (800-543-WALK). They
tell him if he works hard--raising cash and hope--good things
will happen. Thomas hopes they're right.

Two men. Two flips of fate.

"Do you ever think about Thomas and say, 'That could be me'?" I
ask Bruce.

"Oh, no, not at all," Bruce says.

"Why not?" I ask.

"Because as I was flipping, I threw my hands off the wheel and
called Jesus' name."

"Does that mean God doesn't love Derrick Thomas?" I ask.

"Oh, no," Bruce says. "I don't know what Derrick said as his car
was flipping."

"What about Payne Stewart? He was a Christian man. Does that mean
God didn't love Payne Stewart?"

"I have no idea what Payne Stewart said in that plane that day."

"Well, are you saying if Payne Stewart had invoked the name of
Jesus Christ, he'd be alive today?"

"Oh, definitely."

"What about the Columbine High student who was asked by one of
the killers if she believed in God? She said yes, and he blew her
away. How can that be?"

"You don't know what she said, do you?"

"There were witnesses."

"But you weren't there, right?"

TWO MEN. Pray for them both.

COLOR PHOTO: DANA FINEMAN/SYGMA

On Super Sunday, Isaac Bruce and Derrick Thomas each needed a
personal triumph in the worst kind of way.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)