- Marty Smith, NASCAR
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Jeff Kerr is the jack of hearts.
Kerr, like most every other Sprint Cup Series crew member, strolled into Time Warner Arena on May 14 focused on earning the $10,000 prize for individual skill supremacy in the pit crew challenge. He was motivated by the money like never before.
Ten grand is a pretty penny, not to mention the bragging rights an individual skills winner gets to carry up and down pit lane for the rest of the season. Kerr knew all about that. He'd won the jack man contest before.
But Kerr, who hoists Martin Truex Jr.'s Chevys skyward every Sunday, wasn't interested in spending the cash or gloating about his prowess.
He wanted to give it away, to donate to those in need.
In late April, Kerr heard the story of Preston Loyd, a 4-year-old boy whose family attended the same Mooresville, N.C., church that Kerr and his family attended.
Young Preston had been inside the Loyd home watching television the afternoon of April 22 and ran outside unbeknownst to his grandfather, who was mowing the family's lawn on a riding mower.
Grandfather never saw Preston -- who had uncharacteristically exited the house through the back door -- and accidentally backed over him. Below his chest down to his waist, from his spinal column over, the entire left side of Preston's torso was sheared off.
He lost all ribs on his left side, along with his stomach, spleen and left kidney. His liver was lacerated. His arm was cut badly. Preston was airlifted to Charlotte Medical Center, and upon arrival the trauma surgeon gave the boy less than a 50 percent chance of survival. It was more grim than that at the scene.
Kevin Clark, a 23-year veteran volunteer fireman at Lake Norman Volunteer Fire Dept., now deputy chief, was en route to pick up his own 4-year-old when the call came from dispatch. He knew immediately that it was bad. He was the first responder to the scene.
"I went in and the grandfather was white, white. Preston was white, white, too," Clark said. "It was a terrible injury. In all my years of experience, a young child doesn't have that much blood. My opinion is he didn't have anything left in him."
Clark took Preston from the grandfather and rolled him over. That's when he noticed the gaping wound. Preston's lung was severed, so Clark used his hand to try to seal the wound. Two other volunteers arrived to assist his breathing. He was losing air quickly.
"He 'postured,' which in a kid is usually a sign that he's done," Clark said. "Children, their little bodies are great at compensating, but when they're done, they're done. I thought it was over. He was in rough shape."
And that wasn't the only emergency situation on site.
"I thought we'd actually have to figure out who to work on first -- I thought the grandfather was going to have a massive coronary, right there," Clark said.
"One of the paramedics said that it was the most intense seven minutes he'd ever been involved in at a scene," said Ashton Loyd, Preston's father. "One of the nurses told me everything had to happen perfectly for Preston to be alive."
"He's a miracle. He really is," Clark said. "His little heart just kept going. Twice I thought we lost him."
Ashton is a former athlete, having played and coached football at Davidson University before choosing a career as an agent for Nationwide Insurance.
"I can't really put into words what this has been like," Ashton said. "One of my biggest struggles, as an athlete, a coach, a guy in general, we're used to being fixers. We didn't run that play right. We didn't have the camber adjusted right. We can fix that. That's fixable. Now we're better. That's not the case in something like this."
Kerr was heartbroken when he heard the story. He has a little boy around Preston's age. He couldn't fathom the pain. So the Sunday before the pit crew competition, Kerr sent Ashton a text message to this effect: "If I manage to win, the money is yours."
"He was very broken down about it," Kerr said bashfully. "It was just one of those things I felt led to do. They're a good family in a bad situation."
Thing is, it's not like they were best friends.
"I would call us casual friends," Ashton said. "Misty [Kerr's wife] found me and said, 'Jeff told me to remind you if he wins anything in the pit crew challenge, he's giving it to you.'"
Kerr instead was overwhelmed by the human spirit, moved to assist those in need.
Ashton watched the competition intently, and when Kerr posted the quickest time among Cup jack men, it took him a moment to grasp the magnitude of the gift.
"I kept tabs on it, yeah," Ashton said, laughing. "It was like, 'Wow.' I hadn't even processed it at the time -- OK, he's going to donate. Then you see him standing there with the big check for 10 G's and I'm thinking, 'He can't give me $10,000.'"
Ashton Loyd's spirit is infectious. Here his sweet little boy is terribly injured, and he's concerned about the tax ramifications of Kerr's gift.
"I started thinking, 'OK, well, if he does think he's donating that money, they're going to send him a [Form] 1099. I have to give him the tax dollars back!'"
Ashton says this experience has made him a better man, more patient. He wouldn't wish this hell on anybody, certainly. But his faith, already quite strong, is stronger. He and his wife, Cinamon, are humbled by the outpouring of generosity.
Gorgeous sympathy cards arrive in the mail with stories from folks they don't know who've experienced similar tragedy. Some worse. Oddly, they're comforting to the Loyds. Checks show up from anonymous donors -- $500 here, $100 there.
Doctors haven't offered an official timeline on Preston's recovery just yet, but using "country-boy logic," Ashton estimates they'll have their little boy home by the end of the summer.
Three days after the accident, that seemed impossible. Preston experienced a hypoxic brain injury during the accident. He never stopped breathing, but his brain was deprived of oxygen during the trauma. The prognosis for future cognition was a concern.
There were challenges in the beginning with bleeding, too. Ashton is uncertain his son will ever have a stomach again. For the next year or so, he'll have a spit fistula, meaning his esophagus terminates outside the body.
After Preston grows a bit more, doctors plan to reattach his esophagus to his intestines. The future holds much rehab, including plastic surgery and skin grafts. But now, after 32 days in a coma, Preston is awake and jovial.
Preston recently spoke for 30 minutes with his preschool teacher. His best buddy, little Miller, showed up with some goodies the other day, too, and they had a fine ol' time cutting up. Preston will have to relearn some things, but he seems to be well on the way to cognitive recovery.
"Is it absolutely Preston all the time? No," Ashton said. "But the neurologist came in yesterday and Preston was talking to the nurse. The neurologist said, 'Well, OK, I think that's about all I need to see.' The progress we have made has been crazy. We're already out of ICU, which I didn't think that would ever happen this quickly."
Back at the track, Kerr's crewmate Mark Kennerly handed him $200.
A random fan and his wife offered another $200.
"It's the most amazing thing," Ashton said. "The human spirit's not so bad after all."
Indeed. Jeff Kerr should be an example to us all.
"If I was in that position, I'd hope somebody would do that for me," Kerr said. "I think about the grandfather -- that would be the worst punishment of all. They need that money more than I do."
The world needs a few more Jeff Kerrs.
Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.