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A crash, a life saved, and a player turns hero

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By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published May 3, 2002

My new favorite player is neither rich nor famous, although if there were any justice, he would be both.

He is a journeyman linebacker who never has intercepted a pass, who has one career sack and who has started only eight games in the NFL. He has kicked around with three teams in four years, and he hasn't made the Pro Bowl with any of them. Still, the Bucs have my permission to trade for him at any time.

My new favorite player is a guy named Chris Draft.

All he does is save lives.

Perhaps you heard about Draft, who plays for the Falcons, the past few days. Then again, perhaps you didn't. If Draft, 26, had been driving a truckload of marijuana or getting into a bar fight, that you would have heard about. At 7, at 11 and at 2 a.m.

Instead, Draft pulled a man from a burning car.

And how did you spend your Saturday night?

Teachers should teach Chris Draft's story in schools. Children should know his name. And the rest of us should rest a little easier that guys such as him are around.

It was about 3 a.m., closing time, when Draft and his friends left a club in Atlanta's Buckhead district. Hey, he's single. Even heroes are allowed to have a good time.

Draft dropped one friend off, then headed north toward his Lawrenceville home on Interstate 85. An old friend from Stanford, Che Holloway, was in the car, and the conversation was easy. About a half-hour later, near Duluth, Draft saw the taillights of a maroon BMW some 100 yards ahead of him. The car drifted right over two lanes and hit the guard rail on the right side of the road. It then swerved left -- so sharply Draft was surprised the car didn't flip over -- and went across five lanes and headlong into the concrete retaining wall.

"He must have been going about 70 to 75 miles an hour," Draft thought. "I just went, "Wow. Did you see that?' "

That was Draft's first thought. His second was, "Whoa." The BMW bounced off the retaining wall and back toward the center of the interstate. "I thought: He might come back and hit me," Draft said.

Draft stopped his car and dialed 911 on his cell phone. The circuits were busy. At 3 a.m.? Draft thought if the man was in his seat belt and had airbags, he might need help getting out of his car. So Draft got out and approached the wrecked vehicle.

Inside, he saw the head of the driver, Anthony Ivory, was on the passenger's floorboard, his feet on the driver's seat.

"I knew from playing football I shouldn't move him," Draft said. "He might have had a broken neck or something."

Draft called 911 again and this time he got through. But as he got off the phone, he noticed the car was smoking badly. Another passing motorist reached in and turned off the ignition. Then Draft heard Holloway say, "Oh, man. The car is on fire."

"It was the rear of the car," Draft said. "Where the fuel tank is. I knew I had to get him out. All the seconds counted now. I knew that all the fire had to do was touch the fuel and it was all over. I was thinking, "I'm going to get him out, or we're going to blow up together.' I was too close not to do anything."

So Draft tugged on Ivory's legs, and he noticed there was a lot of this guy. Ivory is a large man, and Draft half dragged, half carried the guy. Holloway took his legs, and another guy, a bowling alley employee, grabbed hold, and they all carted him to safety.

"I turned him over and I thought, "You'd better be alive,' " Draft said, laughing softly. "If I risked my life, you'd better be alive."

Anthony Ivory, 35, is still alive. He can thank Draft for that, and God for the fact that no one else died, either, on a night he had no business being on the highway. (The official police report said Ivory didn't even know what road he was on.)

Ivory has "a messed up neck," a few bruises and a driving-under-the-influence charge. All in all, it beats being turned into a charcoal briquette.

"I went to sleep," Ivory told the Times. "I passed out. I guess it just wasn't my time."

Ivory said he's a Falcons fan "when the team is winning." He admits he never had heard of Chris Draft. Even now, you have to repeat Draft's name twice before he recognizes it.

"I know this made him pretty famous," Ivory said. "You guess I can get some season passes out of this?"

Perhaps you should give season passes to Draft, he is told.

"Hey, he's the one who got drafted," Ivory said.

There is something to be said for risking your life for strangers without gratitude. If Ivory isn't eaten up with thanks, well, perhaps the rest of us should be.

Much of the time, human beings expect the worst from each other. We expect others to drive past an accident. We expect people to not get involved. In the days since, a lot of people have asked Draft, in disbelief, why he stopped.

Draft answers by saying this: A lot of people stopped.

In the moments after Draft dragged the man from the car, there was a lot of activity in the middle of the night. The man who had turned off the ignition was now trying to direct traffic. A trucker had stopped with a fire extinguisher to put out the flame. Two women who worked at a nearby emergency room were checking the victim. When they suggested his head should be elevated, a man sat cross-legged in the road and put the victim's head in his lap. Someone had a blanket.

Call it human nature at its finest. The image of all those people, strangers doing what they could do, should make you feel good today. It works for Draft.

"It was a sight," he said. "It was a shining moment for a lot of people. Everyone was pitching in. People had their roles to play.

"I don't know. Maybe I was meant to be there. Maybe I was the only guy who could have pulled him out of the car."

In a way, Draft also pulled some of the reputation of athletes -- which has taken a beating of late -- from the wreckage. He enabled you to tell the old stories, of how Herschel Walker once pulled the door from a car to rescue the victims as the gas leaked around him, how John Offerdahl once pulled a couple from a car that had driven into a pond. He allowed us to remember Joe Delaney, who died trying to save drowning children, and baseball umpire Steve Palermo, who was paralyzed from a gunshot while helping robbery victims.

In the terms of the sports world, Draft's actions should have been the play of the day. Maybe there wasn't enough film. Maybe there wasn't enough familiarity.

Draft is one of those heart players, a hardworking, overachieving guy who has graduated from four turns on the waiver wire to two practice squads to special teams to backup to starter. "I'm going to run harder than you and I'm going to work harder," he said of the way he plays.

Maybe you don't find anything special in Chris Draft.

Unless you're trapped inside a burning car with your life on the line. In which case, Chris Draft, some kind of hero, will become your favorite player too.

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