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A life on the line

Jake Long, Michigan's All-American offensive tackle, had a close call when he barely escaped from a house fire in the summer of 2004

December 27, 2006|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

ANN ARBOR, MICH. — If this were a Hollywood script, Jake Long would be a consensus All-American at left tackle because of some epiphany on the night when he awoke to find his bedroom filling with smoke.

If this were a deeply meaningful story, then Long would take the field for Michigan in the Rose Bowl to make good on a promise, to make the most of life after the night he almost died.

But that's not the truth.

"It wasn't a life-changing type thing," he said. "Something happened, and I lived through it."

What happened was a raging house fire that, stripped of melodrama, is interesting background on a young man who ranks among the top offensive linemen in the nation and is a key to his team's chances against USC on New Year's Day.

As Michigan tailback Mike Hart explains of the 316-pound co-captain, "He's the guy who makes things happen."

And he really did almost die.

It was two years ago, the summer after Long's freshman year. He and nine other players were sharing a downtown Ann Arbor house, a big place where friends often stopped by.

That night, Long recalls being especially tired and falling into a deep sleep.

The persistent beeping of a smoke alarm woke him sometime around 4 a.m. Reacting on instinct, he stumbled through the haze and opened the door to his room.

"The smoke sucked in and knocked me over," he said. "I didn't know it could be that powerful."

Flames had ignited on the porch, authorities later discovered. Maybe they were sparked by a neighbor's fireworks -- the Detroit Pistons had won the NBA championship the previous night.

Whatever the origin, fire spread quickly into the home and up the stairs toward Long's second-story room.

Forced back from the landing, the big man scrambled into a corner, desperate for air. Then he pulled himself to a window and kicked out the screen.

Two stories or not, he said, "I knew I had to get out."

So he jumped. Onto his buddy's truck.

"Belly-flopped it," he said. "I really wasn't feeling anything."

Thoughts turned immediately to his teammates. Among those living in the house were Adam Kraus, who now lines up beside Long at left guard, linebackers Shawn Crable and Prescott Burgess, and kicker Garrett Rivas.

One by one, the roommates found each other in the yard, taking a quick head count.

"Actually, we thought someone was still inside, so we were about to go back in," Long said.

The final roommate was located across the street, where they all gathered to watch the three-story house burn down. Coach Lloyd Carr got word and arrived soon after.

"It was hard to believe you were really seeing what was happening," Carr told the Detroit News the next day. "We got there and the kids were literally running around in their underwear."

Another lineman, Pat Sharrow, suffered minor injuries from kicking an air conditioner out of his window and jumping to the ground. Paramedics took him and an unidentified woman to a hospital.

Long told the firefighters he felt fine, but they noticed that he couldn't stop coughing and vomiting. Carr also worried about his tackle.

"You couldn't recognize Jake," the coach said. "He was completely covered by all the soot."

In the emergency room, the diagnosis was smoke inhalation. Doctors kept Long sedated for three days, a tube sucking jars of soot from his lungs.

The drug-induced fog spared him from getting emotional over what had transpired, at least for a while. Only after his release from intensive care did he stop to consider: What if it had been worse? What if someone had died?

Such thoughts soon passed. Long was neither inspired to contemplate his mortality nor otherwise driven to become a better football player.

"I'm always asked about that," he said. "It just didn't hit me."

This isn't a Hollywood script. Just the story of a young man who survived a frightening night.

Well, maybe there was one lasting lesson.

"I was one of those people, when the smoke alarm was beeping, you took the battery out and figured nothing would happen," he said. "I definitely learned about smoke alarms."

david.wharton@latimes.com

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