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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.