- Tim Keown, ESPN Senior Writer
- 0 Shares
What would you remember?
Mike Tepper remembers the shoe, a size-15 black Vans skateboarding shoe. A week later, it was still there, propped up against the curb at the busy corner of Dwight and Telegraph, in a stain of dried blood.
He was in a wheelchair, on his way to a summer school class for the first time since the incident, and the sight of the shoe stopped him. A City of Berkeley cleanup crew was finally getting around to power-washing the blood off the street and the sidewalk.
That was him they were cleaning up. He stopped and watched, struck by how hard they had to work to lift the blood, his blood, out of the concrete and asphalt. Back and forth, back and forth, water lifting him, drop by drop, off the street. Tepper considered apologizing for the mess but said nothing.
People walked past, oblivious, sidestepping the enormous young man in the wheelchair who was watching the crew go about its mundane task. It was a private scene in a public place.
Of course, he also remembers what happened after midnight on June 26, 2005, or at least the blur of it all. He remembers the guys in the green car—there were four of them—popping off, propositioning his friend Camille Leffall. He told them to shut up; they told him to stay out of it. Two of them were ex-cons, used to this kind of thing. They hung out the windows, telling Camille to get in the car, and Mike—big, friendly Mike—told them he'd heard enough.
It was a confrontation as old as man. But then the driver slammed the car into reverse and swung it toward Mike and Camille. Here, in the seven to 10 seconds he estimates it took his life to change, is where things get hazy. As Mike lunged to get out of the way, his huge right arm swung back and clotheslined Camille, driving her clear of the onrushing vehicle. He's an offensive tackle, after all, used to moving bodies. Camille, a volleyball player at Berkeley, escaped with a few cuts and bruises. Was his intervention intentional? Heroic, even? Mike says it was just instinct.
The car knocked him down and rolled over his right leg, near the ankle. Before he could move, the vehicle was changing direction, going forward now, and thumping over his leg one more time. He dug his fingers into a sewer grate to avoid being dragged down the street.
I just got run over by a car, and I'm still alive, was his first thought. His second? It's a Chrysler, with the same rims as Dad's. His mom, his dad, the rest of his family, his longtime sweetheart Angela Vullo—they all glided through his mind.
He remembers the blood pooling around his leg, expanding in all directions, his jeans soaked red. He started thinking he might die after all. I'm going to lose the people I love most. It all seemed so wrong. Looking down, he saw a bone near his ankle, outside his body. That's not good. He struggled to get to his feet, all 300-plus pounds of him, and stumbled forward about 20 feet, his fibula broken in four places, the tibia sticking out of the side of his leg and his right foot turned 90° to the outside.
And he remembers a police officer named Jessica. She looked like Angela. He remembers her French braid, and how her words told him to be calm as her look of alarm said something different. He was walking around with a foot that wasn't connected in any significant way to his ankle, and he doesn't remember feeling any pain. But he was in shock, so who knows? How do you trust the memories created in that condition? Did Jessica even exist? He has never asked Camille about her; he's completely open to the idea that she is a figment of his imagination.
The news crews showed up the next day. They interviewed him as he lay in his recliner at the house he shared with three teammates. The guys in the green Chrysler were caught, and Camille was okay, so the reporters called Tepper a hero and patted him on the back and shook his hand. His head was filled with painkillers, but they didn't notice. They were sorry for his injuries, but damn, what a story! Cal football player saves girl from car filled with marauding thugs, gets run over—twice!—and lives to tell about it.
They wished him luck and moved on to the next tale of heroes and villains. Tepper didn't move on quite so easily. The episode messed with his mind as well as his body. He couldn't sleep or focus or comprehend what had happened. The sight of that shoe hit him hard. He dropped out of school for a semester. He didn't feel like a hero, no matter what they said.
WHAT WOULD go through your mind?
Rulon Davis was underneath a big rig, looking at four tires that were about to roll over his calves, and he was hearing the words of his junior college football coach. Don't do it, the coach had said. You're crazy to get that bike.
Everyone else had told him the same thing. Mom, Dad, friends. Yet the first voice he heard was that of Bill Fisk, his old head coach at Mt. San Antonio in Los Angeles County. Who knows how the mind works? Not that it mattered; Rulon didn't listen to any of them, and now his Suzuki GSXR 1300—crotch rocket supreme—was sliding down the I-10/605 interchange outside of LA without him. Rulon, meanwhile, was staring at the underside of a semi, desperately scrambling on all fours to escape.
This is not a man who is easily scared. The San Diego native spent almost four years in the Marines, including six months in Iraq. But the truth was, this bike scared the hell out of him from the moment he straddled it. Rulon had fallen off three times in the first four months. Shouldn't that have been proof that Coach Fisk and his mom and dad and friends were right?
Imagine the feeling: getting bumped from behind and thrown from your bike, then skidding across the pavement and underneath a truck. The rig was still moving, its driver unaware of the 6'5" 275-pound man who had slid dangerously close to the right rear wheels. Rulon's military and football training taught him to keep moving—it's always better to do something—so he crawled toward … where? Was there a right direction? It was July 13, 2005, and he was going to die. In the few seconds he had to comprehend that, all he could come up with was: Coach was right. They were all right.
The tires, two sets of rear-axle dualies, rolled over his calves. I should have listened, and now I'm going to die. Then he saw the stopped traffic behind him as the semi came to a halt in front of him. I just got run over by a big rig, and I'm still alive. It didn't seem possible, any of it.
Fire trucks came, then an ambulance, but all he wanted to do was call his mom. Let her know what happened and let her know he was going to be all right. Sylvia Davis worked in the advertising department at the Los Angeles Times. He punched in her office number and felt better as soon as he heard her voice.
A firefighter came up and looked at his legs. Rulon asked, "Am I going to play football again?" The guy told him to move his legs and he did, amazingly. "Yeah, you're going to play football again," was the reply.
He was probably just trying to make Rulon feel better. The firefighter couldn't have known he was examining a living miracle who hadn't even broken any bones. And he couldn't possibly have known that Rulon could keep playing football. The safe move with a man 6'5" and 275 is to tell him what he wants to hear. But it's also the kind move when he lies prone on the highway
WHAT BRINGS people together?
There are more than a hundred football players on each of a hundred different college teams across the country. What are the odds that two guys—run over within three weeks of each other—would wind up on the same team?
Is it fate, or chance?
Their stories do not come off the top of the Cal Bears' depth chart. To find Tepper and Davis, you have to bypass Marshawn Lynch and Nate Longshore and Daymeion Hughes and Desmond Bishop and DeSean Jackson, the stars of a team that has a chance to take the program to its first Rose Bowl since 1959. The story of the two healed players is not of the feel-good variety. Theirs is a story with, well, more legs.
They couldn't be more different. Davis is a madeto-order defensive end with great potential as a pass-rusher. He came to Cal after his Marine stint and two years of junior college. He's a sophomore athletically, but at 23, he's older and more worldly than others in his class, with the smooth, low voice of a late-night jazz-station DJ.
Tepper is 6'6", 336, a standard-issue mountain of an offensive tackle who has started two games but mostly provides depth. The 20-year-old sophomore runs slowly and with a little hitch, which is to be expected, but he is one of the strongest players on the team and a goofy, excitable presence.
Davis, who politely declines to discuss his tour of duty in Al Taqaddum, Iraq, weighs each word. Tepper has few unspoken thoughts. Davis is black, Tepper white. Tepper is from the OC, Davis is not.
Yet, as Davis says, "There's a commonality between us, a bond. No other man on this team, and no other man I know, knows what it's like to be run over."
Davis didn't know his compatriot's tale until one day last February, when he was talking with his roommate, offensive lineman Bryan Deemer. As Davis described his ordeal with the motorcycle and the big rig, Deemer said, "Wait a minute. Tepper got run over too."
The two get teased occasionally by their teammates, especially Tepper, the goofy one. He hears stuff like, "You know, Rulon got hit by a semi and didn't break anything."
After a Sunday evening practice in early October, Tepper is asked if he knows why a reporter wants to talk to him and Davis together. He says matter-offactly "Cuz we both got run over." As Davis jogs over to meet him, Tepper gets up and asks, "Rulon, why do you think someone wants to interview us together?"
"Because we both got run over," and they laugh and high-five.
But a week before, they weren't laughing. Both happened to arrive 10 minutes early for their Sociology of Culture class. They sat outside the room and talked, the conversation expanding from football to motorcycles to their shared experience.
Despite knowing each other's stories, they had never broached the subject before.
"Does it ever still bother you?" Davis asked.
"Oh, yeah," Tepper said, and proceeded to launch into a tale of sleeplessness and guilt and depression. He told Rulon about the emergency-room doctor who told him amputation was a strong possibility, and Rulon told Mike about the month he spent in the hospital after his legs became infected, and the three weeks he spent bedridden, and the discharge bag they attached to his leg to drain the and blood.
They nodded at each other's words. Tepper told Davis about a cop taking photos as he lay in the street, and Davis told Tepper about the ambulance going against stopped traffic on the 10 freeway. Tepper, familiar with LA, said, "That's awesome."
Finally, he said, "You should talk to one of the counselors and get some help. I did."
Davis felt relief when he heard the advice and vows to have that conversation. "I realized I still haven't come to grips with what happened," he says now. "I just try to think it never happened."
On this Sunday night in October, Tepper sits in the first row of the stands at Cal's Memorial Stadium. Davis is facing him, perched on the wall that separates the field from the fans. This is no longer an interview; it's two guys talking.
"I can handle the football stuff," Tepper says. "This is different. There are some things you just can't handle on your own. Your mind can play tricks on you. Who knows? If I had sought counseling earlier, maybe I wouldn't have had to withdraw from school for a semester."
These days, Davis won't even ride a bicycle. "The pain isn't what I remember," he says. "I remember the feeling that I was going to die."
Not only did Tepper and Davis survive, they're back on the field a year later. What are the odds? "Look at a semi next time it goes by," says Cal offensive line coach Jim Michalczik. "Then think about it running over you. And then think about being run over twice by a car. For these guys to come back seems impossible."
Tepper hopes to regain enough mobility to play in the NFL. Davis, who had 16.5 sacks in his first season at Mt. San Antonio, worries that missing a year of practice has set him back irreparably. "I wonder how much better I could have been," he says. "I still haven't figured out if my injury has affected me as an athlete."
Head coach Jeff Tedford has a motto: United we are strong. Sure, it's corny, and variations abound throughout every level of football. But just because it's a cliché doesn't mean it can't be true.
"The base of it all is trust," Davis says. "When I open up to Mike and share personal information I wouldn't normally share with anybody, that's my way of saying I trust him."
What brings people together? A sport, a team, a shared experience that goes beyond pain and probability?
Fate, or chance?