New Orleans • Fed up with being left out of backyard football games in his Orem neighborhood, Paul Kruger forced his way into the lineup.
The second-grader punched an older boy, pretty much ensuring himself of always being picked to play. He’s been exerting his will on the field ever since, becoming a major contributor to the Baltimore Ravens’ AFC championship season as a pass-rushing linebacker.
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In Sunday’s Super Bowl XLVII, the University of Utah will be represented by Baltimore linebacker Paul Kruger, defensive tackle Ma’ake Kemoeatu and special teams player David Reed; San Francisco’s roster includes quarterback Alex Smith. The history of former Utes on Super Bowl game-day active rosters:
Bowl and player » Pos. Team Result
I Marv Fleming » WR Green Bay Green Bay 35, Kansas City 10
II Marv Fleming » WR Green Bay Green Bay 33, Oakland 14
V Roy Jefferson » WR Baltimore Baltimore 16, Dallas 13
VI Marv Fleming » WR Miami Dallas 24, Miami 3
VI Manny Fernandez » DT Miami Dallas 24, Miami 3
VII Marv Fleming » WR Miami Miami 14, Washington 7
VII Manny Fernandez » DT Miami Miami 14, Washington 7
VII Roy Jefferson » WR Washington Miami 14, Washington 7
VIII Marv Fleming » WR Miami Miami 24, Minnesota 7
VIII Manny Fernandez » DT Miami Miami 24, Minnesota 7
XVII Steve Clark » OT Miami Washington 27, Miami 17
XIX Steve Clark » OT Miami San Francisco 38, Miami 16
XIX Carl Monroe » RB San Francisco San Francisco 38, Miami 16
XXIII Del Rodgers » RB San Francisco San Francisco 20, Cincinnati 16
XXXIII Jamal Anderson » RB Atlanta Denver 34, Atlanta 19
XXXIV Kevin Dyson » WR Tennessee St. Louis 23, Tennessee 16
XXXV Anthony Davis » LB Baltimore Baltimore 34, N.Y. Giants 7
XXXVII Barry Sims » OG Oakland Tampa Bay 48, Oakland 21
XXXVIII Kevin Dyson » WR Carolina New England 32, Carolina 29
XXXVIII Jordan Gross » OT Carolina New England 32, Carolina 29
XXXVIII Steve Smith » WR Carolina New England 32, Carolina 29
XL Andre Dyson » DB Seattle Pittsburgh 21, Seattle 10
XLIII Chris Kemoeatu OG Pittsburgh Pittsburgh 27, Arizona 23
XLV Chris Kemoeatu » OG Pittsburgh Green Bay 31, Pittsburgh 25
XLV Stevenson Sylvester » LB Pittsburgh Green Bay 31, Pittsburgh 25
When she’s asked about her oldest son’s ascent to Super Bowl XLVII, Jennifer Kruger says, "An element of it is really unbelievable; an element of it is just what I expected from Paul. He was always one of those kids that was making things happen the way he wanted."
That’s still true, although his breakthrough season almost was derailed in September, when a back injury threatened to spoil his increased role. "I was extremely worried about it," Kruger said Tuesday, during Media Day at the Superdome. "It was really one of the most stressful times of my life."
That’s saying something. As a teenager, Kruger lost his spleen and a kidney following an accident while riding in a Jeep. After his freshman season at the University of Utah, he was stabbed in his stomach and ribs while walking away from a party in Salt Lake City, requiring several hours of surgery.
"I normally don’t say anything about religion or God or anything like that, especially when I’m being interviewed, but I really feel like I’m blessed, like prayers have been answered," Kruger said. "I’ve overcome a lot."
And here he is in the Super Bowl, although he might have scripted this differently while growing up as a quarterback. Ideally, he’d be wearing No. 11 and throwing passes for the Ravens, instead of wearing No. 99 and chasing San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Former Utah coach Urban Meyer signed him as a quarterback from Timpanogos High School, but soon after arriving at Utah in 2004, Kruger began eyeing other positions in the interest of playing sooner.
Kruger never wanted to wait his turn; just ask the kid who was in charge of that backyard competition. By the time he’d redshirted and returned from an LDS Church mission, Kruger found a home as a defensive end.
"I always thought I’d be playing quarterback, even in the NFL," he said. "Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way, but here we are."
After two seasons with the Utes, Kruger entered the NFL Draft and became a second-round pick. His development was fairly slow, but he’s suddenly in very good position after four pro seasons. A pass-rusher has tremendous impact potential — financially and otherwise — in an NFL era when passing schemes are more prevalent than ever.
Kruger’s emergence coincides with his impending free agency, and a team-leading 11.5 sacks (counting the playoffs) and a Super Bowl appearance will look pretty good on job applications.
"We were asking him to do a lot of things in the offseason, probably too many," said Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees. "We did a better job in the second half of the season when we kind of focused in on, ‘This is what you need to do.’ "
Chasing the quarterback is Kruger’s primary function. He was involved in three sacks of Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck in a wild-card playoff victory and his rush forced Denver’s Peyton Manning into the interception that led to Baltimore’s overtime victory in the divisional round.
He’s come a long way since September, when his back injury was so crippling that a trainer had to help him with his shoes and his mother, having spent considerable time with him in hospitals, accompanied him to an MRI exam the next morning. Jennifer Kruger remembers sitting behind the machine, seeing the signatures of other Ravens players and realizing, "As lonely as you feel, half of his team had been in the exact same spot."
Retelling the story as only a football-savvy mother could, she concluded, "Eleven-and-a-half sacks later, here we are."
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