Bartlett cornerback Zach Nicholson feared he had just watched his best friend and teammate, Kevin Krause, die in a rollover automobile accident.
It was late afternoon on Saturday, Sept. 29. The Hawks had polished off Lake Park an hour earlier in the warm Autumn sunshine to win their homecoming game 21-13. It was time to head home and get spiffed up for the ensuing dance.
The two were in great moods, happy as high school seniors can be as they left the school parking lot in separate vehicles. As they turned left from Schick Road onto Bartlett Road., Nicholson was directly behind the 2002 Chevy Blazer driven by Krause, a starting middle linebacker.
Both 17 year olds -- thick as thieves since they met as fourth graders at Centennial Elementary School -- were still clad in their football pants and long, green game socks, their faces still smeared with eye black.
As they passed Struckman Blvd., Krause made a cellphone call to his mother, Cathy, to see if she could pick up the corsage for his homecoming date. When his mom didn't answer, Krause attempted to hang up the phone but said he had difficulty accessing the touch-screen button. He said he took his eye off the road ever-so briefly, no longer than it takes to change a radio station.
That was all it took.
Krause's Blazer drifted to the right and the front tire jumped the curb. The front tire dropped back down to street level, but both wheels on the right side hugged the curb and popped as the young driver attempted to countersteer.
Fortunately, there was no oncoming traffic as the Blazer jerked left into the median and did a 180. Krause was suddenly facing the opposite direction as his Blazer screeched backward, out of control. A back wheel hit the curb on the opposite side of the road and the SUV proceeded to roll three times.
As the vehicle tumbled, Krause was ejected through the passenger-side window, which he had earlier rolled down halfway.
"As soon as it happened, I just covered my head and prayed that I wasn't going to die," Krause said. "I saw my life flash before my eyes. I remember being in the air, and I covered my eyes and let everything happen from there. I remember hitting the ground."
The unexpected sight of his friend's vehicle careening off the road ahead of him was surreal for Nicholson.
"I remember staring at the car as it was flipping and I couldn't believe what was happening in front of me," Nicholson said. "I was so happy from the game and then it was just gone. I didn't know what to think.
"I thought I saw him fly from the window, but I didn't think that was possible because the car was smashed from rolling. I was second guessing myself. I thought, 'Did he just fly out the window?' "
Nicholson slammed on his brakes and the cars behind him stopped. He sprinted across the street in his flip-flops to help his friend. Based on the severity of the incident, he braced for the worst and feared what he was about to discover.
"I'm looking for him and I'm thinking if he's dead, I'm going to be the first one to find his body. That terrified me," Nicholson said. "This was my best friend from elementary school. The thought of him being killed in a car accident in front of me was terrible."
To his relief, Nicholson was amazed to find Krause sitting up 10 to 15 feet from the vehicle with his eyes open, though those eyes held the faraway gaze of someone clearly in shock. Krause was bleeding from glass embedded in his hands and knees, and blood streamed from a wound in his back. He didn't know it, but his collarbone had been pulled from the AC joint in his shoulder.
They weren't out of danger yet. Though the Blazer had stopped tumbling, the engine mount was broken and was causing the throttle to stick. Immediately after Krause was ejected the still-revving vehicle proceeded to strike a telephone pole, then jackknifed back toward Krause.
He might have been run over by his own vehicle if not for a fire hydrant a few feet in front of him that stopped the Blazer in its tracks, its wheels still churning and smoking.
An unknown Samaritan raced to the car, jumped in and turned off the ignition to halt the smoking tires. Meanwhile, Nicholson called 911. Paramedics arrived within minutes and took Krause to the hospital via ambulance.
Against all odds, Krause's injuries were not life threatening. He broke no bones, had no internal injuries and required only 57 stitches: 30 in his right knee, 17 in the left side of his back, 10 in his left arm.
However, he was ticketed for cellphone use while driving, illegal in Illinois for novice drivers under the age of 19. He was also ticketed for seat belt noncompliance, though he said he intends to dispute that citation. Krause said he buckles up as a rule and remembers doing so before he left the school parking lot. He believes his elbow must have hit the release mechanism on the seat belt lock as the Blazer was rolling.
Word of the accident spread quickly. Friends, teammates and his homecoming date soon called, saying they were going to blow off the dance to be at the hospital. Krause insisted they attend the dance instead, saying he was with the doctors and would be OK. He saw no need for his friends to miss their senior homecoming.
The full scope of his brush with death didn't hit Krause until he saw his father Raymond, mom Kathy and his older brother Mike enter his hospital room. Suddenly, the magnitude of the close call overwhelmed him.
"That's when I got emotional," he said. "I was just so happy to see them. I sat there in the hospital the whole night. I was just sitting there thinking, wow, my parents could have been burying me in a week. I got really emotional and I couldn't sleep because I thought of what could have been. It really makes you step back and be thankful for what you've got.
"The way I look at it, I got extremely lucky three times. I could have hit my head on the ground since I went pretty high in the air, the car could have rolled on top of me and the fire hydrant stopped it from coming back at me. A lot of things happened that saved my life.
"It was a miracle. Someone was looking out for me."
Another amazing aspect of this story is that Krause missed only two football games. He made an appearance at practice the following week in street clothes, his arm in a sling and bandages on his wounds. Thrilled to see their teammate up and moving, the Bartlett players encircled him and clapped.
"The kids were fired up," Bartlett coach Tom Meaney said. "He was one of our boys, one of our starters, one of our kids."
"It was so amazing to see him out there," Nicholson said. "I was so happy for him."
Though Krause figured his football season was over with three weeks remaining in the regular season, his doctor told him the recovery time for the AC joint was actually two to three weeks. He diligently adhered to his therapy, working daily with Bartlett's trainer and pumping iron at home to regain shoulder strength.
He was cleared to practice for the Week 8 game against South Elgin on Oct. 12, but the pain in the shoulder was still too intense. He said he felt about 90 percent healed the following week and returned for a few series in the regular-season finale at Neuqua Valley.
Finally feeling like himself again, Krause regained his starting spot last week in time for the Class 8A playoff opener against Leyden. He made 4 tackles and recorded his second sack of the season in a 14-0 victory. He will again start this Saturday when No. 10 Bartlett (7-3) takes on No. 2 Loyola Academy (9-1) in Round 2 at Millennium Field at 1:30 p.m.
"It feels great," Krause said of being back in action. "I feel more comfortable back on the field now. I'm more motivated to play and just excited to be back out there with my team. I honestly can't believe how fast I recovered from it all."
Though being alive to tell his tale is already more than Krause could have expected when his vehicle went spinning out of control, his friends felt he had missed something too important: his senior homecoming. And Krause was not alone. A Bartlett cheerleader also missed the dance after she was taken from the Lake Park game in an ambulance due to a hard fall. She also has recovered since.
Thus, a group of five friends have arranged to hold Bartlett Homecoming Part II, which will be held on Nov. 11 at the Bartlett Community Center. According to a Facebook invitation, several hundred Bartlett students plan to attend.
"We just want to let them get their senior homecoming back because that's a bad thing to miss," said Nicholson, who along with teammates Mitch Reid and Justin Clement are among the event's five organizers.
"I really have to thank my friends and teammates," Krause said of the gesture. "I've known a lot of these people since middle school. It's going to be a regular homecoming. I'll put on a nice shirt and tie and stuff."
No matter what he wears that night, Kevin Krause is guaranteed to be the life of the party.