IT WAS THE LAST GAME OF THE University of Kentucky’s 1994 football season, and sophomore walk-on Harold Dennis was getting his first chance to play for the team. Although he was on the field only briefly—blocking during a punt return against the University of Tennessee—he was named Player of the Game. “Everyone was like, ‘Congratulations!’ ” says Dennis. “I thought they meant my getting to play. But no, they’re like, ‘Player of the Game.’ ‘Whoa,’ I said. ‘Quit, that’s not funny.’ But they’re like, ‘No, seriously.’ ”
That honor last fall didn’t please Dennis, 21. “I didn’t deserve it,” he says. But many Kentuckians disagree—less because of what Harold Dennis did on the field than because of the courage it took him to get there. On May 14, 1988, Dennis nearly died in one of the nation’s worst school bus accidents, a fiery crash near Carrollton, Ky., that killed 27 people—all but three of them children—and left many of the 40 survivors, including Dennis, seriously disfigured.
Dennis, then 14, suffered third-degree burns on his face, left shoulder and left ear—and spent two months in a hospital burn unit. Today, after two years of reconstructive surgery, his face, with skin grafted from other parts of his body, is a scarred reminder of his ordeal. But his spirit has survived unscathed. “It happened and there was nothing I could do about it,” he says matter-of-factly. “I knew I had to make the best of it.”
Kentucky football coach Bill Curry says Dennis has done more than that. “I think there are very few people,” says Curry, “who, number one, would have survived what he survived; who, number two, would have sought to use their infirmity to help other people the way he does; and who, number three, would attempt to come out and play a brutal sport. I look forward to seeing Harold every day. He inspires me.”
Dennis was in the eighth grade in 1988 when he and his older sister Kim, now 24, and friends from Radcliff, Ky., took a bus trip sponsored by the First Assembly of God Church to an amusement park near Cincinnati. Dennis sat near the front on the way home and fell asleep. Just before 11 p.m., a drunk driver, traveling in the wrong lane on Interstate 71, drove his pickup truck head-on into the bus. “There was a lot of screaming,” recalls Dennis. “Then, all of a sudden, there was a burst of flames, and everyone was going crazy trying to get out of there.”
Somehow, Dennis made it to the back of the bus where people were packed to the roof, desperately trying to squeeze out the windows and the rear emergency door as the inferno engulfed them. He was rescued by a passing motorist who pulled him out of the pile through the door. “He saw a lot of arms,” says Dennis. “But for some reason he pinpointed mine.”
While he lay on the ground, Dennis heard that his sister had made it off the bus. (She received second-degree burns on both hands, an ear and a knee.) It would be weeks, though, before he would learn anything more about the accident. Flown by helicopter to Kosair Children’s Hospital in Louisville, Dennis spent the first four days on life support and the rest of May in intensive care. “He was so damaged,” says his mother, Barbara, a daycare supervisor who was divorced from the children’s father, retired Army warrant officer Harold Sr., in 1981.
The burns on his face kept Dennis from speaking, so he wrote notes to his mother asking about the fate of his friend Andy Marks, but she put him off, saying, “We will talk about it later.” The doctors instructed the nurses not to give him the mirror he kept asking for. But a new nurse didn’t get the message, and Barbara remembers hearing Dennis’s anguished cries one day as she walked up the corridor. “He was just screaming,” she says. “He knew nothing, so I went ahead and told him about the 27 deaths. I told him Andy had died. I said, ‘Yes, you are very badly burned. But you’re lucky you’re alive.’ This gave him the courage to go on.”
But it was difficult. That September, as he started his freshman year at Radcliff’s North Hardin High, he was concerned about how his peers would regard him—needlessly, it turned out. “The accident probably made him more popular,” says his friend Mike Lewis. In retrospect, Dennis says, he worried about “silly things, really,” like, “Are the girls going to like me?”
One girl in particular, Andrea Matkey, now 20 and a sophomore at the University of Louisville, came to like him a good deal. “Before I knew him, I saw the scars,” says Matkey. “But once I got to know Harold, I didn’t see them anymore.” They dated for six months before they kissed—and even then she was the initiator. “It took over a year for him to get used to my touching his face,” Matkey recalls. Dennis found her affection confusing. “There would be times,” he says, “when I would ask myself: ‘Why would she want to be with me?’ ”
In his sophomore year doctors gave him the okay to play sports again, and he eventually became the leading scorer on Hardin’s soccer team and a place kicker in football. He was recruited by the University of Louisville for soccer, but quit after one season and transferred to Kentucky in the fall of 1993. He heard the football team needed a kicker and tried out in 1994. But his speed impressed the coaches, so they turned the 5’9″, 169-lb. ex-soccer star into a wide receiver.
Dennis would like to play more, of course, and he has seen more action this year. In the meantime, he hopes he is serving a purpose. “I believe God has a path for everyone,” he says. “I think he allowed this to happen to me, so I would be able to let people hear my story and maybe change or save a life. But I never thought I was doing anything special.” Coach Curry begs to differ. “Harold has already done something special,” he says. “He has inspired a state.”