LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Before it had really begun, Leroy Collins' life was nearly over.
A 10-wheel truck had mangled his fragile body as it dragged the six-year-old 25 feet down the street in Hudson, N.Y.
He and his four-year-old brother, Ernest, had been playing cowboys and Indians on a sunny weekday afternoon in June 1982.
Leroy whimsically chased Ernest along the two-lane road that ran through downtown. He never saw the truck coming.
It hit Ernest first, skimming his left leg and leaving it a disfigured mess, with bone protruding from the skin.
Then the truck barreled into Leroy, pinning him beneath its massive wheels. When it finally rolled to a stop, it had left the youngster in a heap on the road.
His skull was fractured, his chest collapsed. The skin from his inner thighs clung to the asphalt yards from where he lay. Sixteen bones - including his pelvis, hip, collarbone and several ribs - had been crushed. His heart was sputtering.
When the boys' hysterical father, Leroy Sr., and paramedics reached the gruesome scene, his lungs slowly expanded and contracted, the brave breaths of a once jocular boy. When his heartbeat faded and then stopped altogether, no one was shocked.
The paramedics revived him, but as they sped toward nearby Columbia Memorial Hospital, they lost him a second time. Then a third.
Leroy Collins survived, but wasn't expected to walk or talk, much less run.
He wasn't supposed to grow to 6 feet and 200 pounds or be an explosive 22-year-old running back at the heart of this season's Louisville football team. But because of medicine and a miracle, that's what he's become.
In the first 10 Cardinal games, he steamed for 18 touchdowns, breaking Lenny Lyles' 34-year-old school record for a season, and 1,022 yards on 192 carries.
"I'm a walking miracle," Collins said. "And I'm definitely on a mission."
Heart refused to stop
At its inspirational core, his success is because of the heart that tried to stop 16 years ago, the heart that has refused to quit since.
Hudson is an economically depressed town nestled along the Hudson River midway between Poughkeepsie and Albany.
Leroy and Geneva Collins moved there in 1969, and their second child, Leroy, Jr. - the first of four sons - was born seven years later. He was an inquisitive child full of inexhaustible adolescent energy.
Ernest, born two years after Leroy, was the same way.
The day of the accident, Leroy, Sr., was working at a service station, five blocks from the Collins' apartment.
The gas station was a favorite stop for local police, who fueled and serviced their cars there. Perpetual chatter on the police scanner could be heard throughout the station.
As the first word of the accident crackled over the scanner, Police Chief Larry Walker was fueling his car.
He broke the news to Collins, who immediately sprinted to the scene.
"I was thinking one thing: the boys," he said. "I thought I'd lost one of my boys. I didn't know they hit two."
He reached Ernest first. His left leg was smashed, and as his father stared helplessly at that son, his attention was demanded farther down the street.
"I got bug wild when I looked down the road and my other boy was there," Collins said. "You wouldn't believe it. It was incredible. I didn't know what was going on down there."
As he stared at Leroy, Jr., his wife ran out of their home nearby. She saw the carnage and retreated in shock.
"She couldn't take it," Collins said. "The boys were so young and in so much pain. Leroy was totally out of it. The truck had hit him, fractured his skull, twisted him up and drug off all his skin. He was totally naked. I was sure he was gone."
Both boys were treated at Hudson's hospital, but Leroy's condition was grave. He was rushed 60 miles to an Albany hospital that was better equipped to handle his voluminous injuries.
"They were both broke up real bad," said Thomas Merante, a volunteer emergency medical technician who drove the ambulance that day. "They were very lucky. Everybody in town, that's what they remember. These boys were so, so lucky."
Ernest stayed in the Hudson hospital for more than a month, relearning to walk with Geneva's assistance.
Leroy, Jr., remained in Albany. For the first few days he slipped in and out of consciousness. Doctors told his father that, if Leroy survived, he'd be severely brain damaged and probably never would walk again.
But in time his prognosis was upgraded from critical to stable to good as his brain healed without risky surgery. After more than two months, he was well enough to return to Hudson.
A year later he was playing linebacker on his Pop Warner football team.
The Collinses attribute the boys' recoveries to a gift from God.
"I just know that it was the hand of God for both of us, but even more so for Leroy because his situation was a lot more critical than mine," Ernest said. "One minute Leroy was pronounced dead, and the next minute he was up and very well alive."
"I remember waking up in the hospital and not knowing who anybody was," Leroy said. "It was crazy. For years people have asked me, `Did you travel through time? Did you see a light? Did you see any of our relatives?' I didn't see nothing. My heart stopped, but God brought me back."
The boys grew to be legends in Hudson, as much for their football prowess as for the accident.
Leroy set the New York State rushing record with 2,559 yards as a senior at Hudson High. He was a three-time all-state selection and fell 4 yards shy of becoming the second back in New York history to rush for 5,000 yards in a high school career.
In three seasons he scored 366 points, including 210 as a senior, when his 34 touchdowns were the second-highest total in state history.
Because he struggled academically, he went to a junior college near Hudson but left after a knee injury prematurely ended his freshman season. After a lengthy rehabilitation, he went to Alfred (N.Y.) State to play for Coach Mark Shadlow, whom he had met in high school.
Collins quickly emerged as a leader on and off the field.
He bombarded Shadlow with inspirational poems, which he read at team banquets and often read to the team before games.
One, a rendition of Psalm 121 ("I lift my eyes unto the hills"), still hangs framed in the coach's office.
On the field, Collins earned junior-college All-America honorable mention after gaining 964 yards on 136 carries and scoring 11 touchdowns as a sophomore. He finished with 1,880 career yards and 25 touchdowns and became the first Alfred State player to sign with a Division I-A program when he chose Louisville over Syracuse and Buffalo last January.
"He's a fine, upstanding young man with a level of intelligence that's second to none," Shadlow said. "For him to know when and how to make a statement so impact-driven, it's amazing. I continue to learn a lot from him."
The chain gang
Collins made a statement - and then an impact - early this season.
He had picked Louisville because of first-year coach John L. Smith, who recruited him while at Utah State, but Collins was as frustrated as anyone by the team's 0-2 start.
He went to a hardware store and spent $3 for 150 tiny chain links, then handed them out to his teammates the night before the game at Illinois.
After reading a poem he had written, he asked every player to slide a link over the shoelaces in his cleats as a symbol of solidarity.
The next day Collins rambled for three touchdowns, and Louisville snapped a 10-game losing streak by beating Illinois 35-9.
"Leroy's poem set the tone," defensive end Otis Floyd said afterward. "He told us it was time we stopped being cowards and started playing like we cared."
The idea for the chain gang came from Shadlow, who has used it every season he's been a coach.
"At this level we don't get paid anything, but that is a reward that there's no money you can associate with it," Shadlow said. "That's my pay to know that I made an impression on him. This little school has had an effect on 100 players at Louisville."
Known to his teammates as Mr. Excitement, Collins continues to impress.
"Everything's moving so fast," he said. "I want it to slow down so I can look around, but I don't have any time for that right now."
He hopes to be reunited with Ernest next season.
As a sophomore defensive back this fall at Hudson Valley College, Ernest made 31 tackles, forced two fumbles, recovered two, picked off two passes and broke up two others. He's determined to be in a Louisville uniform next year.
That would please his parents, who recently moved to Fredericksburg, Va.
"Even though this thing happened, you've got to live on," Leroy, Sr., said. "These boys gave us no reason to regret it. Everything they've done is fantastic.
"The accident had to happen, but I give the Lord all the glory. If it happened because of whatever His decision was, He fixed it. I've seen this tragedy, and the Lord fixed it."