THE FIGHT OF THEIR LIVES

part 2 of 3
"He's never going to be back," said his mother. "He's never going to be the Paul that we knew."

Holcomb had been raised in Colorado, and it was on vacations to see her family that Paul had fallen in love with the place.

She and her first husband divorced when Paul was ten, and she had struggled to raise her sons while working as a legal secretary. She would have liked to move back to Colorado but thought it important to stay near the boys' father. Although he eventually moved to Florida, by that time she had gotten remarried--to a doctor.

Paul didn't seem to be affected by the divorce. He was a popular kid, voted "friendliest" three years running in high school. He had his share of teenager troubles, a couple of minor infractions with the law when he was a senior in high school: for possessing alcohol as a minor and being in a Little Rock park after hours. But nothing major. He was a decent student until that last year, when he slacked off. Still, his grades were good enough to get him accepted into the University of Arkansas, where he intended to study architecture. But then he decided to take some time off. In January 1992 Paul Kelly went to live in Boulder, to be near the mountains he loved.

Holcomb hadn't liked the shaved-head-and-goatee look her son adopted that year. She thought it was dangerous and told him so when she visited the following January. "I said, `Paul, it's scary to me.' But he said it shouldn't matter."

Her sister, who lived in Denver, tried to talk Paul out of shaving his head. "She told him, `Paul, don't do it. It means something here,'" Holcomb remembers. "But Paul, the idealist, just said that people shouldn't be judged by how they look."

Now he was lying in a hospital bed in critical condition. And though Holcomb didn't know it yet, he had been put there by high school boys who believed he was a skinhead.

Mary Graber McBride's kids had told her about the fight Saturday night. Justin and Ian were upset, but it wasn't until Monday--when the newspaper came out--that they learned of the seriousness of Kelly's injuries.

"They were unglued," McBride says. She didn't know what to make of the Camera's story. She believed her sons, who had never been in trouble with the law before. But she hadn't liked Ryan Rushing or Forest Timothy from the start and had told Justin to keep them out of her house.

After reading the Camera, she contacted a lawyer and asked whether her sons should go to the police and confess. "The lawyer said, `No, let them come to you,'" she remembers.

Ben Rushing opened the Daily Camera that morning and was shocked by the story on Paul Kelly, who was shown in a picture from his high school yearbook. He looked like an all-American kid. Ben showed the newspaper to his wife, Sherry. Big-city violence seemed to have made it even to Boulder, he sighed.

They both had been born and raised in a small Texas town just north of the Mexican border; their children had been born there, too. As a young man, Ben Rushing had smoked a little pot, but he wasn't proud of it, and he told his kids that he hoped they wouldn't repeat his mistakes.

A small man, he had never been one to get into fights and had stayed out of trouble with the law. Ryan, the oldest, had his share of schoolyard scraps, after which his father was careful to explain that fighting was only acceptable to defend himself or someone else. He also made it clear to his children that they must always take responsibility for their actions.

The family left Texas--where Ben had been the assistant to the publisher of a small newspaper chain--in 1988 to find better schools for their children and to expose them to the wider world. They went first to Eugene, Oregon, but the gray, wet winter made them homesick.

So they compromised by moving to Boulder, which the family had visited once on vacation. It was closer to Texas and was supposed to have good schools. Sherry was going to stay at home with the kids, and Ben thought the city was cosmopolitan enough to support his marketing business while retaining a small-town feel.

When they arrived in Boulder, Ryan was just entering the eighth grade. It was soon apparent that he had trouble concentrating on his subjects and was not keeping up with his classmates. His teachers reported that he often made self-deprecating remarks about his academic abilities, especially when comparing himself to his sister, Erica.

So it was almost a relief when he was diagnosed with learning disabilities. But that meant his parents would have to monitor him closely to keep him on track, the counselors explained.

Still, he was a friendly kid, a good athlete and well-liked by other students and his teachers. If Ben Rushing had a major concern, it was that Ryan had a tendency to follow others' leads. All he seemed to want to do was skateboard and hang out with friends like Forest, who got into a lot of trouble. They had recently tried to discourage the relationship.

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