MARTINEZ -- As smoke billowed into his apartment bedroom, San Jose State football player Jared Leaf could see only one possible path of escape.

He didn't hesitate.

Leaf plunged through a "wall of fire," a roaring inferno so hot that he felt the skin slipping off his fingers during the seconds it took for him to dash through the flames to safety.

"It was a life-or-death moment," Leaf said of the April blaze near the SJSU campus. "I chose life and was willing to deal with the consequences later."

That toll would be second- and third-degree burns throughout his upper body that left him in critical condition. He spent 40 days at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, nearly dying of an infection after one surgery.

Leaf had expected to be the Spartans' starting middle linebacker this season. Instead, he's early in a grueling recovery process that he promises will culminate with him one day playing football again. More importantly, Leaf, who celebrated his 21st birthday this month, is just thankful to be alive.

"I don't want people to feel bad for me," Leaf said recently, sitting with his mother, Kirsten Hall, in their family home. "I'm going to be fine. It sounds like a cliché to say that we all have to live life to the fullest, but not every day is a given. It's really a gift that needs to be cherished."


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He also has proved to be remarkably resilient. Leaf has been mending so quickly that a doctor at Valley Medical Center called him "Wolverine" -- after the comic book and movie character with rapid healing powers. He is well on the way to gaining back the 45 pounds he lost from his powerful 6-foot-2 frame.

But he still has a long, long way to go. The severe burns covered about 50 percent of his body on the back, shoulders, sides, neck, arms and hands. His face has patches of slight discoloration. He wears protective compression gloves and wrist sleeves. Leaf said that beneath his long-sleeve shirt is pink, sensitive skin.

"It's going to take six months to a year to completely heal," Leaf said. "If you push the skin on my shoulder, it's like paper because it's so thin."

And three months after the blaze, Leaf is amazed what he survived.

More than an athlete

A star running back and linebacker at Alhambra High School in Martinez, Leaf fit in quickly on the SJSU campus after transferring from the University of Hawaii in 2013. Leaf couldn't play in games last season, in accordance with NCAA rules, but he impressed the coaches while practicing with the scout team and in the classroom -- posting a 4.0 grade-point average in his first semester.

"This is a special young guy," SJSU coach Ron Caragher said. "He's a true student-athlete. We all know the stereotype of football players, that academics aren't important. But that's not true, and Jared is a good example of that."

The junior also had been turning heads in the SJSU theater program as a budding actor. Leaf stood out in a fall production of the play "Tigers Be Still," where he had a leading role.

"The camera just loves him," said Amy Glazer, a theater and film professor. "Every 10 years or so, a student comes through here who has an obvious career in TV and film ahead of them, and he's one of them. He's just an amazingly talented actor who shows rare sensitivity."

On April 23, Leaf spent much of the day shooting a film for a class project before returning to an apartment on South Eighth Street that he shared with SJSU teammates Joe Gray and Sean Bacon, who were not home at the time. He went to sleep and awoke around 11:30 p.m. to the smell of smoke and got a call from Clarence Chima, a friend who had been staying at the apartment.

"He was like, 'The place is on fire! You gotta get out of there!" Leaf recalled.

Jumping from the third-floor window wasn't an option and neither was waiting for rescue. So he gulped down fresh air from the window and -- wearing just a T-shirt, shorts and socks -- ran into the blaze, heading for the open front door. The hallway, kitchen and living room were engulfed with thick smoke and flames.

"It was three seconds of hell," he said. "If it had been five seconds, I don't know what I would look like right now. You think you know what pain is, and then you go through that. I was going through the fire, thinking, 'How can anything hurt this much?' "

A typical house fire can reach 2,500 degrees, said Capt. Cleo Doss, a San Jose Fire Department spokesman.

"This young man is very brave, and he did what he had to do to save his life," Doss said. "But wow. I don't know if I could have done the same thing. But he took a chance and it paid off."

Once outside, Leaf remained conscious, asking bystanders how bad the burns were. Noel Grigsby, a former SJSU receiver who previously had lived in the apartment, rushed to the scene after learning about the fire on social media.

"He had burns all over his body, but especially his hands," Grigsby said. "They looked like they were bubbling up. I had never seen anything like that. He was standing there, just crying. Maybe he was in shock. I just told him to be strong. At that point, none of us had any idea that he was just starting this long fight."

Difficult recovery

At Valley Medical Center's Regional Burn Center, Leaf was in a medically induced coma for two weeks. He had no idea that he had almost died during the first of his two surgeries.

"He had an infection that went septic," Hall said. "They couldn't get his blood pressure up. The doctor came out and said, 'We're trying to save him.' She was actually crying, although maybe that's because she saw me crying."

Leaf was stabilized and after he emerged from the coma, Hall told her son how proud she was of him.

"He ran through fire to live," she said.

His only possession salvaged from the fire was the trophy for being named SJSU's defensive scout team player of the year last fall.

Nobody else was hurt in the blaze, and investigators determined that the cause was accidental. Chima told them, Doss said, that he had lit a candle and then stepped out to take a phone call before realizing that a couch somehow had caught fire. Leaf and Hall both have reassured the profusely apologetic Chima that there is nothing to forgive.

They are looking forward.

Leaf continues to go through rehabilitation. On Thursday, he was mobbed by teammates when he made a surprise visit to a summer workout at Spartan Stadium. He hopes to report to fall camp with the other Spartans, just so he can be around his friends, and plans to attend fall classes. Glazer, the drama teacher, is expecting him back on the stage, as well.

Caragher said that when Leaf is able to return to the field, the Spartans will have to rework their playbook to get the linebacker on the offensive unit so they can give him the ball on occasions when they need tough yards. After all, Leaf has proved what he's willing to run through.

"This really could become a story worth following," Caragher added. "I don't want to get too far down the road, but maybe he's the actor playing himself if they make a movie."

Follow Mark Emmons at Twitter.com/markedwinemmons.

JARED LEAF
Who: San Jose State football player who suffered severe upper-body burns in an April 23 apartment fire.
Age: 21
Hometown: Martinez
Major: Communications
Family: Mother Kirsten Hall, stepfather Erin Hall, sister Nicole (23), brothers Cody (10), Kaleo (8) and Josh (5).
Career: Standout running back and linebacker at Alhambra High School. Rushed for 1,381 yards and 19 touchdowns his senior season, and was selected to the Bay Area News Group's Cream of the Crop squad. After two seasons at the University of Hawaii, transferred to SJSU in 2013 and earned the starting middle linebacker position in spring drills.
Quotes: "Whatever Jared chooses to do, he's going to be successful. He's smart, articulate, talented. And he's got a great work ethic." -- SJSU coach Ron Caragher.
"Jared is a bright guy who's always motivated, never causing any trouble and always looking for the best in any situation. If you have a daughter, he's the kind of guy that you want to date her. Nobody will ever say anything bad about Jared." -- Former SJSU teammate Noel Grigsby.