From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
In the old, cramped children's wing of a Providence, R.I., hospital, Carolyn Suzanne Sapp, Miss America 1992, leans over a little girl who is crying in a wheelchair. She whispers something only the child can hear, and a tremulous smile forms on the girl's lips. Miss America moves on. "Hi, Jeffrey, I'm Carolyn," she says to one boy. "Hi, Joel, what are you in here for?" Invariably, Carolyn remembers the name of each child she meets. "You have to take this seriously," she says. "This is my one chance to make an impression."

Until now, the impression the tall, curvy brunet has made on much of the nation is that she is little more than, as some put it, "a babe." After the Sept. 14 Miss America pageant, front-page stories suggested—incorrectly—that she had won on her great looks alone, and gossip columnists implied—again incorrectly, she says—that she'd had a romance with Donald Trump. "All that upset me," says Carolyn—but nothing like the story that broke two days after her crowning: that Miss America had been beaten and terrorized by her football-player boyfriend. This, more than anything, devastated Carolyn, for this bit of news was true.

"Even Miss America has problems," says the 24-year-old beauty queen. "I'm a real person with real problems." In fact, to many of the women Carolyn will represent during her yearlong reign, it is not her beauty or poise, her energy or even her remarkable kindness that will leave the most lasting impression. It is, instead, the secret—and the courage—she shares with them. Like some 3 million other American women, Carolyn was beaten by the man she loved. Like so many of them, she put up with several episodes of abuse—both physical and emotional—before she could find the strength to stop it. "The thing to understand," says Carolyn, breathing deeply as she prepares to face up to the anguish of her frightening past, "is you can be strong and you need to get out."

Carolyn Sapp met Nuu Faaola in the spring of 1987 at a Just Say No rally in a shopping mall in Kona, Hawaii. She was Miss Kona Coffee, spokeswoman for the producer of the domestically grown coffee; he was a running back for the New York Jets. "She asked me for my autograph, and I asked her for hers," says Faaola, 26. It was more than the allure of local celebrity, though, that brought the two together. "I saw the way he interacted with children," says Sapp, "and that drew me in." "She was outgoing and giving," says Faaola. "She had the same heart as mine." Neither distance nor hectic schedules—Faaola lived on the island of Oahu, a 30-minute plane ride away from Sapp's home on the Big Island, and both traveled extensively—could keep the bond between them from growing. "I used to call her up and say, 'This is Nuu's secretary calling, and he wants to wish you a beautiful day,' " recalls Faaola. Carolyn, who'd never had a serious boyfriend before, was charmed by his playful flirtation. "He was very romantic—and giving," she says. "At the end of a meal he'd be the first one to jump up and wash all the dishes. He was wonderful." In April 1988 they became engaged. "This was the man I had committed myself to," says Sapp. "I wanted to marry him and have his children."

Their dream romance took a nightmarish turn in September of 1989 when Nuu returned to Kona from New York. He told Carolyn he'd been cut from the Jets. As the two strolled in a park one evening, he was dejected and angry. What exactly provoked Faaola to turn against Carolyn she can no longer even remember. "It was a spur-of-the-moment thing," she says. "He became a different person, overwhelmed with pure, uncontrolled anger." Carolyn's throat tightens and she fights back tears as she struggles with the unbearable image; her 5'11", 210-lb. fiancé gone berserk, striking her and kicking her again and again, threatening to kill her. "I went down kicking, screaming and fighting," she says, "but he is a huge man."

When the madness had passed, when Nuu had calmed down and Carolyn lay on the ground, battered and sobbing, what she fell, more than anger or fear, was confusion. What had happened to the gentle, loving man she knew? What had caused him to change so abruptly? He had not been drinking, and Carolyn felt certain that Nuu, an adamant Just Say No advocate, would never take drugs. The fault, she decided, had to be hers. "I really thought I was the one provoking it," she says.

The situation, in Carolyn's mind, was simple. Football, she had long known, was Nuu's life. Now it was being taken away, and his psyche—as fragile as his physique was strong—was crumbling. He was born in American Samoa in 1965, the youngest of eight sons. His parents separated when he was still a toddler, and Nuu moved with his oldest brother to Oahu. Not once while Nuu was growing up did his father come to visit, and he took the abandonment hard. "I didn't know who my dad was until I was 20," he says. It was Nuu's athletic prowess (he was a star running back at Farrington high school and later at the University of Hawaii) that transformed Faaola from a forgotten child into a local hero.

Losing his place on the Jets was devastating enough, Carolyn realized. To make matters worse, his career was skidding just as her own was beginning to take off. As Miss Kona Coffee, she traveled throughout the U.S. and Japan, meeting politicians and business executives, forging ahead toward her own exciting future. She met her fiancé's vulnerability with unabashed—and, she decided eventually, inappropriate—self-confidence. "I would sit there pushing him," she says, "telling him, 'Go to school, be a lawyer, go for it.' " In the end, she decided, she pushed him too hard. "I'm very headstrong, and I had high expectations in everything," she says. "I was very demanding."

While Carolyn chastised herself, Nuu, repentant and in tears, began immediately begging for forgiveness. "He said, 'I'm changing. I'm going to control it. Give me another chance,' " she says. And so, convinced the blowup was an isolated incident—for which she was largely to blame—Carolyn went back to Nuu. And Nuu, for a while, went quietly back to being himself. Weeks later he was signed by the Miami Dolphins. "He turned around," says Carolyn, "and was sweet, loving, kind and generous again."

Then, that December, Nuu was cut by the Dolphins, and the fury and frustration were unleashed once more. As he and Carolyn were taking a drive, a disagreement turned ugly. Suddenly, Carolyn, who was driving, found herself fighting for her life as Nuu tried to push her out of the speeding car and strangle her with her seat belt. Frantic, she screeched the car to a halt in a nearby parking lot. When Nuu jumped out, intending, she says, to attack her from the driver's side, Carolyn sped off. Afterward, despondent and trembling, Carolyn struggled to collect her thoughts. What had provoked Nuu this time? What should she do now? The bruises that covered her neck were answer enough. Carolyn telephoned Nuu and called off the engagement. "I realized it wasn't right for him to hit me," she says. "It didn't matter if I had pushed and provoked him."

And yet, in her heart, she still blamed herself. Since childhood, Carolyn had been taught to take charge. Her parents, Susan and Fred Sapp, who divorced amicably when she was an infant, were both self-starters. Fred, 54, a Lutheran minister, moved to Kona and built his church with his own hands. Susan, 49, moved with young Carolyn to Kettle Falls, Wash. (pop. 1,200), where she started her own dance school.

Carolyn, it turned out, was made of the same stuff. At the Columbia River Bible Church and Academy, which Carolyn attended along with 120 students from kindergarten to 12th grade, it was she who started the school government. When her volleyball team, which had made it to the championship play-offs in a national Christian-school tournament, lost its first game, it was she who inspired the others to continue. "Everybody else broke down," says Carolyn's friend Lisbet Pearson, "but Carolyn urged us to keep fighting. She turned our attitudes around." Whatever the circumstances, whether she was rallying a downtrodden team or financing her own education at the University of Hawaii through scholarship pageants, Carolyn was accustomed to making things work. "I was a leader," she says. "I tried to solve my own problems."

Faaola's dangerous temper, in Carolyn's mind, was just another challenge to overcome—and she planned to provide the strength to help him. Now, beaten and betrayed for a second time, Carolyn was ashamed to realize she couldn't even help herself. "I always wanted everyone to think that I was in control and that I had a grip on life," says Carolyn, "but I didn't."

Reluctantly, she confided in her father and in her step-grandparents, Victor and Carmen Almaida, with whom she lived in Honolulu. "They were all devastated," says Carolyn. "They were scared for me." But Nuu kept his distance, and eventually the bruises faded. It soon became clear, though, that Faaola had dealt a devastating blow to Carolyn's usually elastic self-confidence. "I felt I was weak," she says. "I was embarrassed. I didn't want people—who look to me as a strong person—to say, 'You're a woman who would let a man do this to you?' My dad sat down with me and wrote out on a piece of paper for me, 'Carolyn, you're okay and we love you no matter what.' But that feeling, that I'm okay as a person, had to come from within."

Ironically, the one person she wanted to turn to for support was the very man who had caused her the pain. "Nuu was my best friend for three years," she explains. "He was such an important part of my life—and then all of a sudden there was nobody. Your family and friends don't fill that gap." And so, soon after she banished him from her life, Carolyn invited Nuu back in. "I'm just as weak as the next person," she says, "I started communicating with him."

When Faaola called her at 3 A.M. last Oct. 13, saying he was drunk and needed a ride home, Carolyn hesitated. After little more than two months with the Cleveland Browns, he'd been cut again and returned to Hawaii "overwhelmed with emotions," says Carolyn. She made it clear she only wanted to be friends, but Nuu was having trouble letting go. The voice on the end of the line was tense. Carolyn's head said, "Stay away," but her heart wasn't listening. She went to pick him up. "He was at a very hard time in his life," she says. "I was picking him up as a friend who was calling out for help."

By the time Carolyn got him inside the house of a friend, Curtis Lefler, where Nuu was staying, her ex-fiancé was once again in a fury. "He became very bitter that I'd broken up with him," says Carolyn. She wanted to leave, but Faaola insisted she stay. When she ran up the stairs toward the door, he grabbed her and threw her against the wall and down to the floor. "He jumped on top of me and was slamming my body up and down," says Sapp. Then, out of nowhere, she says, Faaola pulled out a knife and pressed it against her face, threatening to kill her. Terror and anger left her numb. "At that point," Carolyn says, "I was beyond feeling." Before she knew it, Lefler, who'd been in his room, came running and pulled Faaola away.

It was the last time Carolyn would flee for her life. When she returned home that night, something inside her had changed. She made no excuses for Faaola. She didn't blame herself. "I was furious," she says. "I was bitter. It finally hit home. I didn't deserve this. Here was somebody whom I trusted, and he did this to me." The next day she went to the Hawaii District Court and filed for a restraining order. Faaola never touched her again.

It has been one year since Carolyn slammed that final, angry door on her relationship with Nuu. Much has changed in her life—and in his. Today, his football career over, Nuu reportedly works as a stevedore, hauling cargo on a Honolulu dock. Now and then he visits a local pastor to help him come to terms with Carolyn's departure—and his own violent past. "I'm getting my life straight," he says. Still, his feelings for Carolyn are strong—"He's still in love with her," says a friend—and learning to live without her hasn't been easy. Last month, when word of their troubled romance leaked to the Honolulu press, then went national, Faaola's dormant anger threatened to erupt once more. "I was embarrassed," he says. "I asked myself, 'Should I get mad, or what?' " Instead he drove to a favorite spot and cooled down. "I sat there for three or four hours, thinking and praying," he says. "I cried. I asked God for help." In the end he decided to simply tell the story as he had lived it. "Carolyn was scared," says Faaola, "and I don't blame her. The problem was me. I was very aggressive and I had a temper. The person to throw rocks at is me."

A world away, Carolyn is doing her best to move on. In a hotel room in New York City, on a bed strewn with dresses, sheet music, a half-cat-en croissant and a worn leather Bible, sits her Miss America tiara. It is a glistening reminder of how far Carolyn has come—and how much the future promises to bring. As she packs her bags, ready for another city, another ground-breaking, another needy, wide-eyed child, her voice becomes momentarily weary. "I can forgive him," she says, "but I can't forget. The thing is, I loved this man. I believed in him, and every time he hurt me I wanted to trust him again. I wanted to believe that he would change." She breathes in deeply, but this time her sigh is not one of pain but of relief—of separation, at last, from a chapter of her life she is ready to close. "I'm slowly breaking away," says Carolyn, her sad smile giving way to a true Miss America grin. "I'm becoming myself again."

KAREN S. SCHNEIDER
SUE CARSWELL in New York City, ROBIN MICHELI in Hawaii, CATHY FREE in Kettle Falls

  • Contributors:
  • Sue Carswell,
  • Robin Micheli,
  • Cathy Free.