NEW ORLEANS -- Fed up with being left out of backyard football games in his Orem, Utah, 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.
When she's asked about her 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.
And at age 26, 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," said Kruger, who now stands 6-foot-4, 265 pounds. "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."