Maurice Bertrand's football physique likely saved his life when he was shot five times on a blistering summer day last year in Camden.
When he arrived at Cooper University Hospital, "first thing they said was, 'This guy is still alive?' " Bertrand recalled recently at Lincoln University in Chester County, where he has resumed the sport many thought he'd never play again.
Doctors, including Robert Ostrum, the surgeon who helped save former New Jersey Gov. Jon S. Corzine after a serious auto accident, rushed to tend to Bertrand's injuries: High-caliber bullets had broken Bertrand's right thigh bone into 10 or 15 pieces, gone through his left ankle, and struck his back; one hit his left biceps so hard it went through his shoulder and into his eye.
Bertrand's large body - 6-foot-2 and 280 pounds - helped stop the bullets from puncturing vital organs. He had spent the summer weight-training for his last season at Lincoln and working toward a professional career.
"I was really lucky," said Bertrand, 24, a 2005 graduate of Cherry Hill High School West.
Sixteen months later, he's back on the field at Lincoln, taking hits as a defensive lineman. His recovery has been described as just short of miraculous.
"This kid was so motivated," said Ostrum, now at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Bertrand and his parents "told me from day one he was going to beat this."
On June 26, 2011, Bertrand was attending a memorial barbecue in Cramer Hill for a friend, Wayne Jackson, who had been struck and killed by a car in June 2004 while crossing Route 38 in Cherry Hill.
When the host ran out of barbecue sauce, Bertrand walked to a corner store to buy more.
The Puerto Rican Day Parade had just wrapped up, and the streets were getting crowded. A fight broke out as Bertrand approached the store, and he helped a man on the ground.
When he left the store, near the intersection of Beideman Avenue and River Road, a man started firing shots at him, sending him crashing to the pavement. No one has been arrested, but Bertrand believes he was shot in retaliation for breaking up the fight.
Bertrand did not feel the pain as five bullets pierced his body, but he vividly remembers the burning sensation as the metal lodged in his muscles.
"It was very, very hot," he recalled.
In the few minutes as he waited for the ambulance, Bertrand thought about dying, about his parents, and about whether he would be able to play football again.
At Cooper, trauma surgeons stabilized him and operated on his broken leg. He was transferred to Thomas Jefferson in Philadelphia for eye surgery.
It was there that Lincoln head football coach O.J. Abanishe and defensive coordinator Herb Pickens first saw Bertrand after the shooting.
"First thing he said was, 'Don't count me out for the season,' " Pickens said.
But when Pickens and the rest of the training staff at Lincoln looked at Bertrand's X-rays, they knew he wouldn't be playing that fall – if ever.
"It's an injury you would see in war," Pickens recalled. "Our trainers were amazed."
A long metal rod was screwed into Bertrand's right leg. In the original X-ray, pieces of bone can be seen splattered throughout his thigh.
"He had always been a mentally tough person," Abanishe said. But after the shooting, the head coach saw Bertrand mature into an adult.
"He takes his future a lot more serious now," Abanishe said. Bertrand agrees. He says he went from 23 to 55 years old almost overnight.
Born and raised in Yonkers, N.Y., Bertrand moved with his parents and older sister to Cherry Hill in 2001, shortly after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. His father, Tyrone, had been deployed with the National Guard to do search and rescue for 16 days straight at ground zero.
"I got aggravated" and wanted to leave New York, Tyrone Bertrand said. The family's involvement in Bread of Life Ministry Baptist Church in Philadelphia drew them to South Jersey.
After Maurice Bertrand graduated from Cherry Hill West, he went on to play football at Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C., where a fraternity brother of his father's was head football coach. After the coach took a job elsewhere, Bertrand transferred.
In 2009, he enrolled at Lincoln University and joined its new NCAA Division II football program, quickly becoming a team leader.
During summer 2011, Bertrand was running and weight-training for two hours a day and doing football drills twice a week. He wanted to prove he belonged with the pros.
After the shooting, Bertrand recovered at home, trying to move a little more each day. He quickly moved from wheelchair to walker to crutches to cane.
"Maurice was so grateful to be alive that it changed his whole mentality," his mother, Georgette, said.
Within two months of being shot, Bertrand was "back up on his feet" and in school, his parents said. There, Lincoln's director of sports medicine, Chris Vigneault, had a team of athletic trainers and coaches to help him.
As Bertrand gained his weight back and got stronger, Vigneault incorporated sports-related exercises. Sometimes Bertrand would spend four hours a day in the training room and pool.
Vigneault saw "how bad this kid wanted to play," but behind closed doors, coaches wondered whether Bertrand could make a comeback, he said.
Pickens won't forget Bertrand's joy the first day he went to practice, just months after he had been shot and undergone extensive surgery.
" 'They cleared me; they cleared me,' is all he kept saying," Pickens said. "We sat back and watched him. Just to think that a few months ago, he was in a hospital bed."
Bertrand knows he is not yet at 100 percent; he needs to work to strengthen his bad leg and add flexibility. He also has two more surgeries for his eye, where vision is still "very blurry," he says.
But the cheerful optimist noted that some of sports' greatest athletes have not had perfect vision.
"Babe Ruth played with one eye," Bertrand said with a smile, as he chatted about his recovery after a disappointing 63-19 loss to Elizabeth City State University on Oct. 13.
But very few professional players have succeeded with such severe injuries, especially a shattered femur, Vigneault said.
If professional football doesn't work out, Bertrand has a Plan B: a job offer for a management training program at the Enterprise rental-car agency, where he worked over the summer.
For now, he is focused on winning Lincoln's last two games and talking to professional football agents and recruiters.
His coaches and family are just happy to see him back on the field, doing what he loves.
"He's a walking motivation, too, because everyone knows what he's been through," Abanishe said. "If someone can go through hell and back, then we can get through this, too."