That Kear doesn't pretend to be an altar boy seems to be precisely why the people of Colwich embrace him. Rather than preach about second chances, Kear dispenses his own peculiar brand of wisdom: He used to go out with his buddies to get wasted; now he goes in search of camaraderie. To demonstrate the beauty of life, he pulls on a pair of cut-off work gloves and wades bare-chested into the local waters to wrestle catfish. During a coffee break one day, he sits down and eyes the pesticide backpack he's been lugging around all morning. "I get to have a workout while I'm at work," he says, shrugging.

Kear may not sound like much of a miracle, but as the faithful are fond of saying, God works in mysterious ways. The Reverend Hotze hopes to review his findings with the Vatican investigator in January. If all goes as planned, he'll send his final report to Rome in June. Then it's up to the Pope's Congregation for Saints to make a decision.

Assuming he did intervene to save Kear's life, it's fitting that the offbeat Kapaun would choose to pin his hopes for sainthood on such a colorful character. In late summer, his young disciple breaks out a sleeveless T-shirt, a black Kenny Chesney-style cowboy hat, and cargo shorts, and leaves home with his parents to meet with a traumatic-brain-injury support group in Wichita. He still has issues, he confesses. His weight gain is in part due to the steroids used to treat the swelling in his brain. He recently suffered two seizures; the first knocked him off a bar stool, the second laid him out in the flip-flop section at Wal-Mart. As a result, he had to stop driving for a while, so his mom shuttled him around as if he were 14 years old. His short-term memory still deserts him. One minute he'll joke that the greatest gift from the accident is that Miller Lite tastes like cherries, and the next he'll say, "Did I ever tell you Miller Lite tastes like cherries?" But most of the other patients in the room are worse off. Some are in wheelchairs. Others struggle to eat their complimentary cookies. When a fiftysomething drunk-driving victim jokes that the football team at Kear's alma mater is worthless, the former defensive back decides not to give him a pass. To his parents' horror, he stands up from his chair and leans across the table.

"What's that, old man? You can't say that if you can't back it up."

There's a moment of silence as the man processes this. "Oh, yeah?" he barks. "And what do you think you can do about it?"

No one recognizes what Kear is up to, not until he cracks that gap-toothed grin and both men lean back chuckling. In this part of the world, guys like to get rowdy, to bond by flexing their muscles. It's a strange way of operating, of course, but much like Father Kapaun before him, Chase Kear has made a connection. He's inspired someone to keep on living. When he returns to school in the fall, he thinks, he just might want to become a teacher.