As a car barreled down a county road in the wrong direction, heading straight for him and six cars behind him, Elko New Market police officer Steve Malecka had only seconds to decide what to do.

A drunken driver was aimed at them like a missile, speeding through the icy December darkness. And Malecka could see on his radar gun that the driver was actually speeding up.

"I hit the lights on my squad, all the overheads and the spotlights, to get his attention, but he was still climbing into the 60s," he said Thursday.

What Malecka chose to do next earned him a Medal of Valor for extraordinary bravery in the line of duty.

He slid his brand-new cruiser out across both westbound lanes of County Road 2 to protect the people behind him, and, without any time to leap outside, braced for a direct hit into the driver's side. It was a traffic cop's answer to a Secret Service agent's leap into the path of an assassin's bullet.

"Steve, in his usual personality, downplayed it," said his boss, Police Chief Rick Jensen. "But I'm like, 'Good God, man! You know you could have gotten out of the way. No problem. No one would have said anything.'"

The 39-year-old husband, father of two and stepfather of one is alive to tell the story because, in his chief's words, "something clicked" in the booze-soaked brain of the driver of the junky Saturn.

"By the grace of God," Malecka said, "he stopped about 6 inches from the front of my car."

Malecka doesn't remember any feeling of shock, any profound reflections upon the dangers of the job even in a seemingly bucolic small town at the fringe of the metro area. "I just thought, 'Wow, I almost got hit.'"

As far as he knows, none of the people behind him ever grasped the magnitude of what happened, and he has no idea who any of them are. They swerved around the scene and continued on their way.

By incredible coincidence, his wife drove by moments later, and she could tell it wasn't a typical traffic stop. "She called my cell and said, 'What's going on!?' I said, 'I'll tell you when I get home.'" But by the time he did, it was after 2 a.m., and the story had to wait till morning.

"My stepson was 4 or 5 at the time and just idolizes me for being a police officer," he said. "He doesn't think of the risks of the job. My own kids are 16 and 12, and they know it's dangerous and can go horribly wrong."

Leader of the pack

The most memorable few seconds -- "five seconds, tops," he says -- in his seven years as a sworn officer took place at 21:12 hours, as his official report expresses it, on Dec. 29. He was driving on County Road 2, the main highway leading to Elko New Market from Interstate 35W.

He remembers finding himself "almost leading a pack of cars," driving in the passing lane with the rest of them fairly close behind him.

Lost and past the limit

Headed toward them was Jason R. Reynolds, then 37, of Prior Lake. He was en route to a friend's house, and he was lost. But on a highway that had only recently gone from two to four lanes, he was not the first or last to get confused and go the wrong way.

Unlike most drivers, however, his blood alcohol reading was .243 -- way past the legal limit of .08. Malecka remembers the "overwhelming odor" of booze the moment the window opened.

The driver had pulled onto the highway from a crossroads, so at first he was going slowly.

"He started out an eighth of a mile away, a quarter mile tops, and I saw the headlights on the wrong side of the road. And I'm like, 'This don't look right. It's the old double take -- two looks: 'This can't be happening.'"

The warnings having failed, "I made a conscious decision to, instead of people behind me getting hit head on, angling the squad car in hopes the collision would deflect him into the ditch.

"I couldn't have dived out -- there wasn't enough time. The only thought in my mind was, 'Holiday season, all these families behind me, not knowing who they are or where they're going, but I get paid to put myself in the line of danger and they don't.'"

He has never had any subsequent contact with Rey-nolds, but does know he was still drinking despite being on medication for a liver disease. Reynolds eventually pleaded guilty to drunken driving and was sentenced to 30 days in jail plus a raft of other penalties, including forfeiture of the car.

Malecka's boss is the one, today, who happily recalls that "I made him explain two or three times how close this guy came to our brand-new squad car."

Brand new? How new? As a news photographer circled him at the spot on the highway where the whole thing happened, Malecka said:

"We had just picked it up."

David Peterson • 952-882-9023