TAMPA — Danous Estenor had decided he was too hungry to wait until he got home for dinner, and as he parked his car outside the Bulls Den Cafe on USF's campus, he heard a woman screaming for help.
Across the parking lot on that Thursday night in February, he saw a frightening scene: a tow truck driver pinned under the rear tire of a 1990 Cadillac Seville that had lurched forward as he worked underneath it, his wife struggling in vain with two men to lift the car.
Anyone could have heard the screams. But fortunately for Pedro Arzola, Estenor is not only a football player at USF, he is one of the strongest ones, a 6-foot-3, 295-pound offensive lineman.
"I just see his legs," said Estenor, 21, a child of Haitian immigrants from Palm Beach. "The car is crushing him. He's not moving. I'm thinking, 'Oh, God, this guy is going to die.' "
"I tried to lift the car, and when I first tried, it didn't budge. I backed up. I don't know. But I felt this energy come, and I lifted it. I don't know how, but somebody pulled him from the car."
Maria Uribe had been sleeping in the cab of her husband's truck when she heard Arzola, 34 and a father of four, yelling "Ayudame!" — help me. The scene looked "like a horror movie … a lot of blood," she said. The Cadillac's front right tire had run over Arzola's torso and dragged him about 10 feet.
Somehow he sustained only cuts, bruises and a dislocated shoulder, which was pinned beneath the rear tire. He was back towing cars two weeks later.
"I said, 'God, bring an angel to my side, help me,' " Uribe said. "In Spanish, we say, 'milagro' (miracle). I appreciate (Estenor) doing what he did, saving my husband's life. If nobody helps me, I don't know if he is in the room right now."
Estenor walked away from the scene and into the cafeteria. And as hungry as he'd been, he could barely eat, shaking in disbelief at what had happened.
"The shock of doing that, it's not an everyday thing you do," he said.
That night he told his roommates, offensive tackles Jamar Bass and Damien Edwards. "Did this really just happen?" he asked. Teammates the next morning didn't believe him. But one day after spring practice, coach Skip Holtz asked Estenor to stand in front of the team.
"I wanted to let you know that Danous is a real hero," began the letter written by Jodi Rivera, manager of the Bulls Den Cafe, and read by Holtz. The letter closed with, "I know in my heart that without Danous there, the driver may not have survived the night. His quick thinking, willingness to help and strength saved that man's life."
"Unbelievable story," Holtz said last week. "What a phenomenal story. Not all of us can lift a car. I'd be over there going (strains, laughing), 'Um, call the ambulance.' And Danous just walked away? I can totally see that. Just humble, quiet, keeps to himself."
How could Estenor lift a Cadillac that weighs roughly 3,500 pounds?
The phenomenon is called hysterical strength, a burst of adrenaline that allows people to perform feats far beyond their normal physical limitations. USF's strength and conditioning coach, Mike Golden, said Estenor can bench-press 405 pounds but few people even of his size and strength could do what he did.
"He's just a good, hard-nosed, country-strong kind of kid," Golden said Thursday. "Danous has that extra little strength in him that people don't just normally walk around with. You could name 100 people — I mean NFL people — and ask them to walk over to a car and pick it up like that, and they couldn't.
"The World's Strongest Man guys would struggle with that. He just was in the right place at the right time, got that adrenaline rush and got it done."
And once you've lifted a Cadillac, what can't be accomplished on a football field?
Estenor has played 10 games during a career slowed by a knee injury, but he's healthy entering his redshirt junior season and competing for a starting position on a line that lost three starters. His teammates give him grief and call him "hero" during workouts, but it reminds him not to set limits on what he can do.
"Ever since Coach Holtz read the letter, they all say, 'Oh, where's your cape?' " Estenor said. "It's not bad. They're just making fun, but I'm glad (Holtz) let them know what happened. I always feel good when I do a good deed, to help somebody any kind of way. Small or big, as long as I can make a difference, I feel good about it."
Estenor, who is majoring in organizational communications with a minor in economics and hopes to go into sports administration, has gone back to the Bulls Den a few times since. He has talked with the two men who helped him lift the car, Chris Merrick, a cook at the Bulls Den who owns the Cadillac, and Marcus Baker, who works as a dishwasher.
"I don't think we would have gotten (the car) up if it wasn't for him," Baker said Wednesday on his front porch in Ybor City. "It's like it was meant to happen. I still remember him. Every time I see him, I'm like, 'How did you pick up a car?' "
Arzola still gets dispatched to the parking lot on USF's campus. Uribe said one time the student he was towing asked him if he knew another driver who had been pinned under a car there and died.
"Pedro laughed and said, 'You know what, sir? That's me,' " Uribe said. "Everybody says, 'That's a miracle.' I don't know how to explain it. It's too crazy."
Greg Auman can be reached at email@example.com and (813) 226-3346. Check out his blog at tampabay.com/blogs/bulls and follow him at twitter.com/gregauman.