BETHLEHEM, Pa. (AP) _ It seemed like a normal hit, one of thousands that Brad Gaines' body had absorbed in his football career. The result, though, was more than his heart and soul could absorb in a lifetime.

The defensive back who had taken the ball from Gaines never moved his legs again. From the field where Mississippi was facing Vanderbilt, Chucky Mullins was rushed to Memphis with a broken neck.

That moment transformed Mullins from a vibrant athlete to a young man in a wheelchair. Less than two years later, it would lead to his death at age 21.

It also transformed Gaines.

A product of a family that produced two NFL players, Gaines began playing at an early age and grew into a 6-foot, 230-pound man with broad shoulders and a thick neck.

His career at Vanderbilt blossomed when he started playing fullback in 1989 as a junior. But after the game against Mississippi, he could not play another season.

``Football had given me a bitter taste in my mouth, and that's not me. I love football. All my brothers played pro ball, and that was my life,'' he said. ``Something like that affected me so much, I didn't care.''

He wrestled with his conscience, and, sometimes, he lost.

``I went through the whole feeling of, `Did I cause this? Was it my fault?''' he said.

He also knew he had to talk with Mullins. At the end of the season, he flew to Memphis and headed for the hospital

``I'll never forget me getting off the elevator and there being a line of 100 people there waiting to see him,'' he said. ``I remember walking down through there and the people just parted. I could hear the whispers under the voices: `That's Brad Gaines.' I could almost feel the heat.''

Mullins also was eager to meet with Gaines, according Carver Phillips, who had raised Mullins since the player's mother died when he was 12.

``Chucky had heard Brad was beating himself for what happened,'' Phillips said in a phone interview from Oxford, Miss. ``Chucky had said, `He's not to blame. I tackled him. It was a freak accident.'''

Gaines was struck by Mullins' sincerity, his smile and his sympathy. From that tentative beginning, a strong friendship emerged. Over the next 1 1/2 years, Gaines visited Mullins frequently, and they spoke over the phone weekly.

``He knew how I felt, and that's the kind of person he was, he helped me get over,'' Gaines said. ``I think he tried to make me feel at ease more than himself.''

Mullins returned to Mississippi to work on his degree, but at the end of his first year back, a blood clot formed in his hip and traveled into his lungs.

Had he not been paralyzed, Mullins would have been able to feel the pain from the clot. He drifted into unconsciousness and was hospitalized. Phillips called Gaines at the health club Phillips had opened in Nashville, Tenn.

``I took off down to Memphis like pronto and spent three days by him at his bedside with Carver and his family,'' Gaines said. ``The doctor came in and told me that his brain was pretty much flat.''

On May 6, 1991, Gaines was at Mullins' bedside when they pulled the plug on the respirator.

Gaines kept working at his health club and wasn't thinking about football until the CFL's Shreveport franchise called in 1994.

``I beat out a couple of former Pro Bowlers and it was like I hadn't missed a beat. I felt great,'' Gaines said.

Gaines caught the eye of Philadelphia Eagles coach Ray Rhodes when Rhodes went down to scout quarterback Jon Stark before this year's draft. Gaines was catching for Stark during a workout.

When the injuries kept two Eagles fullbacks out of practice this week, Gaines got the call and came to the team's training camp at Lehigh University.

Almost 29, and with nearly no football experience in the last six years, Gaines is aware he's a long shot to stick with the Eagles.

``Yeah, I know the odds are long but you know, so what?,'' he said. ``I don't worry about things like that.''

NBC has signed an option to do a movie about the friendship between Gaines and Mullins, which Gaines sees as ``a `Brian's Song'-type movie.'' Gaines is white, Mullins was black.

``It's not just a sports story, it's a human interest story,'' he said. ``It's not just a story that can affect people who like football. It can affect white people, black people, athletes, everybody. Anybody can get something good out of this story.''

The Eagles have assigned Gaines No. 38.

``Not that they knew, or not that I said anything,'' he said.

That was the number Mullins wore.