As the yellow school bus cruised down Interstate 71, Harold
Dennis's life was tranquillity in motion. It was late evening,
and Harold was worn out from a long, sun-soaked day at an
amusement park. He was snoozing away, his 14-year-old body
sandwiched between those of two friends in the fifth row behind
the driver. It would have taken a crash to wake him up.
At 10:55 p.m. Harold was suddenly thrown against the seat in
front of him. He was startled and disoriented but unharmed. He
gathered his wits, rubbed his eyes and took a deep breath.
His life would never be the same. "We were at a standstill," he
recalls, "and then, all of a sudden"--he snaps his
fingers--"there was an explosion."
Dennis is 21 now. He is a Division I college football player and
dressed accordingly, wearing a black Nike baseball cap, a
zirconium stud in his right ear and a gray sweat T-shirt
emblazoned with the words KENTUCKY FOOTBALL. This season Dennis
is a backup on special teams, and he has seen some action at
wide receiver. He has come a long way since May 14, 1988.
Dennis clutches a pillow as he sits on a couch in his Lexington,
Ky., apartment and talks about the accident that left his face
permanently disfigured. The trip had started at about 8 a.m., in
Radcliff, Ky., where 34 members of the First Assembly of God
church youth group, 30 of their friends (including Harold and
his 16-year-old sister, Kim) and three adults had piled into the
bus and headed to Kings Island amusement park outside Cincinnati.
After countless rides on his favorite roller coaster, the Beast,
Harold met the others at 9:30 p.m. for the two-hour return trip
south. As the bus neared Carrollton, Ky., about 60 miles from
Radcliff, northbound drivers on I-71 noticed a pickup truck
headed north in a southbound lane. Barring a miracle, tragedy
was moments away.
There was no miracle. The black Toyota truck slammed head-on
into the school bus, piercing the bus's fuel tank. The bus burst
into flames, and its interior was flooded with thick black smoke.
Harold tried to flee through his window, but it wouldn't budge.
With flames coming into the front of the bus, the only escape
route was the rear emergency door. But the aisle was only 12
inches wide, and the bus was crowded. From his spot in the fifth
row, Harold's odds of surviving were slim.
Kids screamed and panicked, swarming the aisle, their bodies
piling up. The smoke made it impossible to see, and the
temperature in the bus skyrocketed to 2,000 degrees. Harold
thought he was trapped.
The next thing he knew, his body hit the ground outside the rear
exit. How did I get here? he asked himself. He had blacked out,
and to this day he can't answer that question. "I feel like God
took me in his hands," he says, "and carried me back there."
He had suffered third-degree burns. His head was the size of a
watermelon. His yellow nylon mesh shirt had melted onto his
skin. He couldn't open his eyes. After hearing a few more gas
explosions, he started running blindly away from the bus.
Meanwhile, Kim, who had been two rows behind her brother and
escaped with less serious injuries, had to be restrained from
jumping back onto the bus to find him. It turned out she had had
every reason to panic: 27 people didn't make it off. They were
killed by flames and smoke inhalation.
Harold was flown to Kosair Children's Hospital in Louisville via
helicopter. When his mother, Barbara, arrived, she did not
recognize him. His head was bandaged, and tubes were running up
and down his arms. His mouth was swollen shut, and his lungs had
been so damaged that he couldn't speak. Once Harold could wiggle
his fingers, two days later, he communicated by writing
messages. The first thing he scribbled to his mother was, "Is
By then Kim was getting better. She had spent three days in
critical condition, but her her lungs had improved, and the
second-degree burns on her ear and hands were nothing compared
with those of her younger brother. After four days Harold was
still on life support. Doctors were additionally concerned
because he kept pulling the oxygen tube out of his esophagus
during his frequent nightmares. The second time he did so,
though, doctors saw that he was breathing comfortably, and they
took him off life support.
Harold spent the next two weeks in intensive care with his
mother at his side. She slept in a reclining chair a few feet
from his bed and, when he was thirsty, fed him ice cubes. One
morning Barbara went to get a cup of coffee, and on her return,
when she stepped off the elevator on Harold's floor, she heard
him let out a desperate, angry scream. She immediately knew why.
For days Harold had been asking the nurses for a hand mirror,
only to be told that he wasn't ready. On this day, however, a
new nurse was on duty, and Harold had turned on all his
After Barbara heard the scream, she decided it was time for
Harold to know everything. She pulled out newspaper clips from
the memorial service: 27 people had died, she told him. It was
the worst drunken-driving accident in U.S. history. Anthony
Marks, one of Harold's best friends, who had been sitting right
next to him, had perished. "So many people didn't make it," she
told him. "But you're alive!"
Harold underwent four operations before leaving the burn unit.
The skin around his eyes was reconstructed. Doctors rebuilt the
top portion of his left ear using cartilage from his ribs and
skin from his back. Other skin was cut from his thigh and used
on his face. Harold managed to joke that his body looked like a
After two months of steady improvement, he returned home. By
September he was well enough to start his freshman year at North
Hardin High in Radcliff. He hoped to lead the life of a normal
student--no easy task, given the fact that he had to wear a
nylon bodysuit and mask.
On the first day of school most of his classmates smiled
politely. They all knew about the crash. But a few of them
teased him about the mask. Crushed, he swore never to wear it in
public again. Although his mother tried to convince him his
scars would heal faster with it on, she saw an upside to the
situation. "He was more comfortable saying, 'This is how I
look,'" she says. "If he didn't hide behind a mask, people would
have to accept him."
Harold's emotional scars were tested three months into his
sophomore year, when he testified at the trial of Larry Mahoney,
the former factory worker who had been behind the wheel of the
pickup. Mahoney had survived with only a concussion and a
collapsed lung, but he often wished he hadn't been so lucky.
While testifying, Harold glared at Mahoney, hoping their eyes
would meet, but he got no such satisfaction.
The Commonwealth of Kentucky was seeking life imprisonment on 27
counts of murder, which seemed reasonable to Harold, considering
that Mahoney's blood-alcohol content had been at least .21%,
more than twice the legal limit. But after 17 days of
heart-wrenching testimony from 124 witnesses, the jury convicted
Mahoney only of second-degree manslaughter. He was sentenced to
16 years in jail. Mahoney is now in prison in LaGrange, Ky. He
will be eligible for parole on July 20, 1997.
Harold was angered by the outcome but realized he had to get on
with his life. He knew that playing sports would help. Harold
had always been the first player picked and the fastest on every
team, whether in backyard football, playground basketball or
youth league soccer. He had started playing soccer at six, and
it was his favorite sport. Because his burns were confined to
his face and left shoulder, they would have no effect on his
athletic prowess. As a junior he was the North Hardin varsity
soccer team's most valuable player, scoring 18 goals in 23 games.
That year his social life also took a turn for the better. In
geometry class he met a sophomore named Andrea Matkey, and at a
party that summer they found themselves together. That night
they took a drive in Harold's blue Ford Escort. Both teenagers
were R&B fans, so they played Name That Tune, and they talked
and talked. "I just remember thinking he was the nicest guy I
had ever met," says Matkey, now a sophomore at Louisville. "You
know how when you get to know people they become attractive
because of their personality? He seemed to me like the most
attractive guy in the whole school." They continued dating when
school started two weeks later.
But Harold was still insecure. A year passed before he and
Andrea talked in any detail about the crash, and two years
before Dennis allowed her to touch his face. "He thought I'd be
grossed out, but it didn't bother me at all," she says. "I
wanted to act like a normal couple." Despite those complications
the two stayed together, and they have talked about getting
Meanwhile, Harold's athletic career continued to flourish. He
scored 24 goals his senior year, was named honorable mention
all-state, and went 3 for 6 as a field goal kicker, though he
considered football to be no more than a diversion from soccer.
He was disappointed not to be recruited for soccer by Kentucky,
whose basketball standouts Sam Bowie and Rex Chapman had been
his childhood idols. But Louisville courted him, offering him a
chance to earn a scholarship as a sophomore, and that made his
college choice easy.
As a freshman Dennis started at striker for the Cardinals, but
he soon lost interest in soccer, not least because Louisville
finished the season 4-13-3 and the team's coach resigned. With
soccer in his past, Dennis decided to transfer to Kentucky.
He thought his sports career was over until he heard Kentucky
needed a placekicker. He tried out in the spring of '94, but the
coaching staff, after seeing Dennis's quick feet during agility
drills, had a different spot in mind for him: wide receiver.
While it is rare in college football for a position player to
convert to placekicker, it's virtually unheard-of for a
kicker--a 5'9", 165-pound former soccer player, no less--to make
the switch to wide receiver. Dennis had 4.4 speed but a dearth
of experience in running patterns, so the coaches started
working with him on special teams to help ease the transition to
wide receiver. They couldn't have picked a better candidate.
"Harold's not afraid of anything," says Kentucky receivers coach
Joker Phillips. "He's fearless."
More important to Dennis than playing was his teammates'
acceptance: He refused to be viewed as a walking United Way
poster. If the Wildcats wanted him on the field, it would be
because of his talent, not his past. Coach Bill Curry realized
this. Although he loves to talk about Dennis's bravery, he has
avoided the temptation to share Dennis's survival story with the
team. One time last season, however, Curry did make an example
of Dennis. "What I said was, 'Watch Harold work,'" Curry
recalls. "I did not want to single him out because of the
incident; I wanted to single him out for his work habits.
Everybody knows what happened to him and how he could be just
sitting around, winning honors for being courageous. But instead
he's running through ropes and getting the daylights knocked out
of him. He doesn't have to do that."
Dennis made steady progress during the fall, and before the
Wildcats' finale at Tennessee, Curry told him he would be put on
the punt-coverage team starting with the Volunteers' second
punt. Kentucky was nearing the end of a horrific season, and
with the nation's second-worst rushing defense, the Wildcats
rarely forced opponents to punt. In this game, an eventual 52-0
rout by Tennessee that would bring Kentucky's record to 1-10,
the Volunteers did not prepare to make their second punt until
just six minutes were left.
Dennis sprinted out onto the turf of Neyland Stadium, his helmet
shielding his past. Though he had never been ashamed of his
appearance, this was the scene he always hoped for. "I wanted
people to see me as one of those players with a Kentucky helmet
on," he says. "Not special or different from anyone else, just
someone who's out there for the same reason as the rest of the
Dennis threw a couple of blocks, but Tennessee would not punt
again, so his season ended on the same uneventful play on which
it began. That didn't bother him. What did gnaw at him was the
possible perception that he was inserted in the game out of
sympathy. "Because we were getting blown out," he says, "it
looked like they were just throwing me in there."
This season should be different for Dennis, who has two years of
eligibility left. It certainly should be better than last year,
when a reporter from a newspaper in Tennessee asked him to
compare his plight with that of Rudy, Notre Dame's most
famous--and infamous--walk-on. The mild-mannered Dennis didn't
like the question. "There are really no similarities," he says.
"Rudy was obviously a scrub, but I do have minimal talent."
Minimal talent? On the football field, maybe. But in every other
way, this kid's a star. "You can't walk in a room or on a field
and look at Harold Dennis without being inspired," Curry says.
"Just by his presence, he has lifted all of us."
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID COYLE (2) Because of his talent--not his life story--Dennis has earned some playing time at wideout this season. [Harold Dennis playing football]
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID COYLE (2) [See caption above--Harold Dennis on sidelines]
COLOR PHOTO: JIM CALLAWAY/AP The collision on I-71, which caused 27 deaths, was the worst drunken-driving accident in U.S. history. [School bus and car after accident]
B/W PHOTO: THE COURIER-JOURNAL Dennis started at striker for Louisville in '92 but transferred after the Cardinals went 4-13-3. [Harold Dennis]COLOR PHOTO: DAVID COYLE Curry says Dennis's mere presence on the field lifts the entire team. [Bill Curry and Harold Dennis]