He ran from the truck with his hunting jacket, because you're supposed to keep injured people warm, right? He rumbled down the embankment, and his feet squashed in the water of the drainage ditch. So much mud. He kneeled, wrapped the jacket around Bobby Hurley's shoulders, and tugged it tightly.
Hurley looked up. "Pep . . . what happened?" His voice was weak, almost dreamlike. His eyes were glassy, and blood dripped from his ear. "Pep? . . ."
"You're gonna be all right," Mike Peplowski said.
He cradled him, breathing hard, and waited for the paramedics. Peplowski had no idea if Hurley would be all right. He had never been this close to a seriously wounded man, he knew he shouldn't move him -- they say that in the movies -- but he also knew this was no minor accident.
Hurley was soaked in blood and dirty water, his hair and face a slimy mess. The impact of the crash had sent him hurtling through the air, like an apple core tossed from a speeding car, and dropped him in a ditch. He was face down in water when a witness found him, rolled him over, and saved him from drowning. Peplowski arrived minutes later, and now he held his teammate, looked up the hill, and wondered how on earth something this terrible could happen this fast.
"My back . . . it hurts," Hurley groaned.
"We'll take care of it," Peplowski said. That was a good sign, wasn't it? That he could feel his back? Wasn't it?
"Pep . . . what happened?" Hurley asked again.
Peplowski hugged him. How could he explain? He saw more blood over Hurley's eye, and a gash on the side of his head. Hurley was gasping, and Peplowski thought he might choke. He kept asking him questions, trying to keep him conscious, because conscious meant he was alive, right?
"Do you know where you are?" he asked. "Do you remember the game? Do you know what day it is?"
The night was cold, but Peplow-ski was sweating heavily, his heart was pounding. They were both wet now, and they were both helpless. It was dark. It was eerily quiet.
"Pep . . . am I gonna die?" Bobby Hurley asked.
Peplowski shivered. "Don't be ridiculous," he whispered, and he looked to the road, praying the ambulance would get there already.
Don't stop, he had told himself. He had seen the overturned vehicle on Del Paso Road, a lightly traveled route some Sacramento players take home from Arco Arena. The Kings had lost yet another game, this time to the Clippers. Peplowski had friends visiting from out of town, and he was in a hurry to get home. Don't stop. . . .
He stopped. He had to. He has always been that kind of person. Back at Michigan State, he was riding his motorcycle when a car drove off the highway, went straight across the grassy median, then suddenly straightened and stopped. The driver had fallen asleep. Peplowski drove to the window, made sure everything was OK. This is the kind of kid he is. His friends call him "a big softie."
On Del Paso Road, he killed his engine and stared at the gold-colored truck that seemed to be sliced in two. He saw another vehicle, a station wagon, which looked like balled-up aluminum foil. A man was trapped inside that vehicle, and someone was tending to him. "Man, this is really bad," Peplowski thought. He heard someone yell: "Look for bodies on that side!"
He ran over. He saw nothing. He crossed the road, and in the weak glow of the streetlight, he saw the figure down the embankment. "So far from the wreck?" Peplowski wondered. Then he realized whoever it was had been ejected like a rag-doll astronaut. He looked down, and felt a horrible shiver.
In the grass, along the road, was a pair of basketball sneakers.
The crash had separated Bobby Hurley from his shoes.
"Hang on, Bob, hang on," Peplowski said now, still hugging his bleeding teammate, as the paramedics raced down the hill, the lights flashing, people screaming directions. . . .
How strange this was. Almost surreal. Just a few hours earlier, Hurley and Peplowski had been in the Kings' locker room, comparing notes about their rookie seasons. They were both starters, Hurley, the intense, buck-toothed point guard from Jersey City, Peplowski, the hulking, easygoing center from Michigan. An odd pair. Sort of Mutt and Jeff. Rookie teammates.
"Man, I'm just not happy with the way things are going," Hurley had said. The Kings were 5-14, and coming from Duke, where Hurley had won two national titles, this was most abnormal.
"Relax," Peplowski said, laughing. "You're playing great. Don't be so hard on yourself. It'll get better."
They were just starting to be friends. They played cards together. They ate together on the road. Now this -- Peplowski holding Hurley's hand as the medics strapped Hurley to a board. Peplowski looked in Hurley's eyes, so dazed, the mud and blood covering his face.
They were just starting to be friends.
"Don't worry, Bob, I'll take care of everything."
And, man of his word, he did.
Using the police car radio, Peplowski called the Kings trainer, so that a team doctor would be there for his teammate. Then he called the Kings coach, Garry St. Jean, who kept asking, "What happened? What happened?" Peplowski explained.
Then he called Hurley's girlfriend. He didn't know her name. He had to ask if it was she. When she said it was, he cleared his throat and said, as calmly as he could, "Listen, Bob has been in a serious car accident. I think he'll be OK. I'm coming to pick you up. We'll go to the hospital. Do you understand?"
She began to cry, but Peplowski calmed her, and said he would be right over. Less than an hour earlier, he was thinking only about his buddies and the fun they'd have. Now he got into his truck, and headed for the home of a guy he was just getting to know, to pick up a crying woman whom he had never met, to drive to a hospital and hope that death didn't follow.
Peplowski keeps a rosary on his rear-view mirror. He grabbed it as he drove off, and said every prayer he knew.
Hurley's lungs had collapsed. His ribs were broken. He suffered cuts and bruises, but remarkably -- considering he wasn't wearing his seat belt when the station wagon, which police said didn't have its headlights on, smashed his truck at 50-60 mph -- he didn't suffer any head or heart injuries. He was in serious but stable condition. With luck, eventually, he should be OK.
With luck -- and friends. Hurley never knew what kind of friend he had in Peplowski. He may not even remember what Peplowski did that night. The TV cameras found the big guy and peppered him with questions and he answered a few, but he really didn't feel like telling the whole story, because every time he closes his eyes, he sees it all over. The blood. The shoes. Hurley's asking: "Pep . . . am I going to die?"
"I never want to see anything like that again," Peplowski says. "It was the most horrible thing." That night he stuffed the rosary in his pants pocket. It is still there. He keeps transferring it from one pair of pants to another, as if anticipating another catastrophe. Still, his thoughts are with Hurley. "I feel so bad for Bob's family . . . " he says.
We live in a time where getting involved is a hazard. We put on blinders. We drive past. In the world of high-priced sports, this is even more true, because famous people often feel they are above cleaning up anyone else's mess. Often, they don't clean their own.
But when Mike Peplowski was 14 years old, his family took a trip to Northern Michigan, a cabin they had there. Late at night, someone knocked on the door. Peplowski and his uncle answered. A man's car had broken down. His family was scared. He asked for help. Without another word, Peplowski's uncle took his nephew, got in his car, picked up the stranger's family, and drove them all to the nearest lodging.
"How can we thank you?" the man said. "Can we pay you?"
"No," the uncle answered, "just remember this the next time someone asks you for help, and do the same thing. That'll be thanks enough."
Peplowski never forgot that night. Which is partly why he stopped his car Sunday night, and, who knows, might have even saved Hurley's life. This is what Peplowski knows that too many of us have forgotten: Life is with people. You have to be involved.
You think about what happened on Del Paso Road. You think about this big kid with a rosary in his pocket. And you realize we throw the word "hero" around far too cheaply in the sports world. We should save it for when it really counts.