Split-Second Courage

updated 11/05/2007 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/05/2007 AT 01:00 AM EST

A RABID RACCOON WAS NO MATCH FOR THIS MOM

Denise Morrison, 40 Cheshire, Conn.

"I was hiking in the woods on Aug. 9 with my sons Conner and Jameson and their friends Tristan and Pearson Byrnes. I heard something crackling in the brush. Then it flew out: one of the biggest raccoons I'd ever seen, bounding toward us, baring its teeth, growling. It was scruffy, not cute. It got hold of Pearson and sank its teeth into his leg; he fell in front of me, screaming. I looked for a rock, a log, something to hit it with, but I didn't want to hurt Pearson, who's 5. So I wrapped my hands around the raccoon's neck and pressed until it released Pearson's leg. I yelled for Jameson to take Pearson and run. But the raccoon was thrashing, so I kept choking it until I was sure it would never move again. I was terrified. I was also grossed out. It smelled horrible, like death. My heart was racing, my mouth was dry. I ran home thinking, 'It's going to wake up and come after me.'"

THE PLAY OF THEIR LIVES

Sammie Hill, Denatay Heard, Kendrick Smith; Stillman College, Tuscaloosa, Ala.

It was the dead of night on Aug. 22, and the Webb family—Cassandra, brother Val Jr. and father Val Sr.—were sound asleep. Something, perhaps the smell of smoke, stirred Val Jr., 42, who got up to see flames raging in a spare bedroom. He and Cassandra, 36, ran out the front door, then saw, to their horror, that their dad wasn't there. "We tried to go back in," she says, "but there was too much smoke."

Sammie Hill, 20, a lineman on the Stillman football team, was driving his friends to campus after watching practice films when they saw the fire. "Let's go back!" yelled Denatay Heard, 22. Using shirts as masks, the three charged inside. "I heard a moan," says Kendrick Smith, 22, who found 68-year-old Val Sr. in the living room and, with his pals, carried him out. "They risked their lives for a stranger," says Cassandra, adding that she's promised the guys a home-cooked meal: "They said, when football season is over, they'll come eat."

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