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Original Issue

The Little Big Hitter Of Indy

At 5'8", Colts safety Bob Sanders plays with a ferocious physicality that belies his size. The NFL's most indispensable defender knows it's a risk—and he won't back down

THE VIDEOTAPE is a half hour long, a recording of a man standing among flames. He is sweating in his hard hat, his clothes covered in soot, his body pockmarked with burns. Marion Sanders had wanted to be a prizefighter like Joe Louis, but the work at Erie Malleable Iron was steadier. He clocked in at 24, helped raise eight children and didn't clock out until he was gray. ¶ Marion wanted his children to see what he did, so he would sit them down in the living room and show them the tape he'd made. "They didn't believe it was me," he says. "The place was so dirty. I told them, 'That's your daddy right there. Each one of y'all make sure you get a good education. There are better jobs you can do, better opportunities up the road.'" ¶ Bob Sanders was 10 years old the first time he watched the tape, and he has never shaken the intensity of the images. While that video remains at his parents' home in Erie, Pa., its inspiration is on display whenever Sanders lines up in the Colts' defense. Every time the fourth-year free safety collides with the Chiefs' Larry Johnson or brings down the Titans' Vince Young for a loss, it is a small tribute to a father who might have been the first athlete in the family if not for more than three decades in an iron foundry. Through those percussive tackles and with his blazing speed, Sanders has offset his 5'8" frame to become one of the most indispensable players in the league, a defender who can bottle up receivers, rush the quarterback and fill gaps in a run defense. Ask Sanders about his toughness, though, and he'll insist that his father, who was driving a logging truck in Pachuta, Miss., at 14, is tougher.

Marion could bend hot steel with the swing of a 20-pound sledgehammer. He worked the third shift, punching in before midnight, punching out after the sun was up and returning home to fall asleep. Bob was his alarm clock.

"I always had to be home at 10 p.m. to wake him up," Sanders says. "I would run home if I was down the street, run up the stairs, knock on my father's door, and he'd answer, 'I'm up.' I'd sit on the top of the stairs. If the light didn't come on, he wasn't up. I'd knock again, 'Daddy, get up!' And when I saw that the light was on, I'd take off."

One day after work, Marion came home with his left thumb bandaged. The 20-pound sledgehammer had missed its target. The thumb never healed right, and Bob had another bit of motivation pushing him to do his best in school and sports.

"'I want y'all to do better than me'—that was his favorite line," Sanders, 26, says. "'You don't want to work where it's hot and dark, welding steel. You want to do more.' My father never graduated from high school. He never went to college. He always had dreams of doing that. That's what always drove me and pushed me to do more—to do it so he could enjoy it."

THE INDIANAPOLIS defense can barely function without Sanders. Last season he suffered a right knee injury in Week 2 and missed 12 games. In his absence teams ran all over the Colts. The Jaguars rushed for 375 yards in a 44--17 victory in Week 14. Two weeks later Ron Dayne of the Texans ran for 153 yards in a 27--24 Houston win. Just in time for the playoffs, Sanders returned, and the holes closed up. Indy, which gave up an NFL-worst 173.0 rushing yards per game in the regular season, yielded an average of only 82.8 in four postseason games.

The question is, can Sanders stay on the field? Injuries have plagued him for years. As a high school senior at Cathedral Prep in Erie, he missed a month with a broken left foot. During his senior year at Iowa he lost three games to a stress fracture in his right foot and played the other nine with a pin in it. Foot and knee injuries limited him to six games as a Colts rookie in 2004. Last season there was the bad knee. This year he missed most of the preseason after having surgery on his left shoulder in March. These are the consequences of football played at full speed, in a small body. But the motor has made him who he is.

At Iowa, Sanders earned the nickname Hitman, but Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy calls him Eraser for his ability to mask the mistakes of others. If most NFL safeties are better at either run support or pass defense, Dungy puts Sanders alongside Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu and Baltimore's Ed Reed as players who excel at both. Last week, before the Colts' game against the Texans, Houston coach Gary Kubiak elevated Sanders even higher. "I think he's the best safety in football," said Kubiak, "and there are some great ones out there in this league."

Like all great ones, Sanders is constantly around the ball. He had four tackles in Indianapolis' tight 30--24 victory in Houston on Sunday, but another AFC South matchup a week earlier, Indy's 22--20 victory over Tennessee, was more indicative of his impact. Sanders had four tackles and an assist on the Titans' first seven offensive plays and finished with 11 tackles, three quarterback hurries and 2 1/2 sacks of Young. On a fourth-quarter blitz, Sanders bounced off a block at the line of scrimmage and dragged down the 6'5" quarterback for a seven-yard loss. On Tennessee's final play, with Young scrambling and looking for daylight, Sanders wrapped up the quarterback as he tossed a harmless lateral to his left guard.

"Everybody looks at his physical attributes, the way he tackles and disrupts your offense, but you can tell he studies the game," Eric Moulds, the veteran Titans receiver, says of Sanders. "In certain formations he was calling out plays. He knows exactly what you're running, exactly what your tendencies are, and that's the sign of a great safety." At one point the Titans lined up in a formation that called for play action. Across the line, Moulds watched as Sanders appeared to recognize the play and signaled for the other defensive backs to adjust. "He put those guys in the secondary in the right situation," Moulds says. "He ran exactly where the route was going to go. That's a lot of preparation and knowing the game."

Though playing among giants, Sanders says he dreams of smashing his 206 pounds into ballcarriers, separating the football from them, sending their arms and their cleats flying. In only 25 NFL starts he has developed a leaguewide reputation for hard contact. "He packs a pretty big hit in a small package," says Fred Taylor, the Jaguars running back. Steelers receiver Hines Ward says a week of game-planning against the Colts' defense is a week of circling Sanders's name on a grease board. "He's so small and elusive, but so explosive," Ward says. "He's good at filling the hole, he's a great tackler, he's great with his eyes, he can catch almost anything like a receiver."

Since returning to the lineup for the playoffs last season, Sanders has solidified the run defense and helped change the reputation of a team once viewed as soft. He says he thrives on trying to intimidate opponents, and he searches for clues on the field and while watching film to see how his hits are registering. Sanders has seen offensive players run tall and hard in the opening moments of a game, only to shorten their strides and shift their eyes after a few choice hits.

"You laugh about it," Sanders says. "The first play, guys are running their routes crisp, they're reaching out and catching the ball, and then you go ahead and put one on him." Sanders punches his left palm for emphasis. "Then you start seeing alligator arms," he says. "They're reaching out and ducking and not concentrating. They're not running downhill, they're going from side to side."

Says Dallas Clark, the Colts' tight end who was Sanders's teammate at Iowa, "He's always on high gear. People are like, 'Man, I wish you would take it easy and maybe stay healthy longer,' but he doesn't know how to play like that, right, wrong or indifferent. When he gets on the field and puts on that helmet, he only knows one speed. Facing him would be miserable."

MIKE MISCHLER still remembers the Cathedral Prep player who got in hot water for doing backflips at a senior retreat while nursing a broken left foot. Sanders insisted to Mischler and the rest of his coaches that they were one-legged backflips, and that he could land on his right foot. "We went outside to the practice field, Bob put his crutches down, and he stuck it like Mary Lou Retton," Mischler says. The coach became a believer. Sanders told him he would start as a freshman at Iowa, become an All-America, get selected within the first two rounds of the NFL draft, win a Super Bowl and make All-Pro. Mischler said, "Yeah, Bob," every time. "If he told me he could win the Power Ball, I'd just say, 'Give me the numbers,'" Mischler says.

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz isn't sure he's ever seen another player with Sanders's energy. He looks back on Sanders's career as a series of what he calls "Bob moments"—a crushing hit on kickoff coverage against Michigan State, the timely forced fumble against Minnesota. Sanders practiced so hard that one of Ferentz's offensive coaches asked if he could hold him out of a drill so he wouldn't hurt anyone. Ferentz said not to worry about it. "That same day," Ferentz says, "he knocked [running back] Fred Russell's shoulder out. That was when we had to hold him out of certain drills. Bob just doesn't know how to down-tempo. That's how he's built. It's part of the package."

If not for his lack of size and the foot injury in his senior season, Sanders might not have fallen to the second round of the 2004 draft, where Indy took him at No. 44. The Colts' doctors pronounced him fit before the draft, and Dungy needed a force in his secondary. But Dungy, too, has started holding Sanders out of contact drills on Thursdays, to keep him fresh. "We had to learn that," Dungy says. "He is a small body that does play hard. All we can do is try to be smart in training camp and the week in practice."

Sanders's teammates appreciate the difference he makes when he's in the huddle, rather than on the sideline. "When he's out there, he's one of the guys who can finish plays," says linebacker Gary Brackett. "A lot of guys can be in position to make plays, but then they miss a tackle or they could have made an interception but they just don't finish it. He's one of those guys who finishes a lot of those plays and turns them into positive plays for us. He creates that momentum. It makes you want to get on his level."

And Sanders intends to stay at that level. He's not about to tone things down. "If I take it easy and change my game, I'm not being me," he says. "There is no way I'm going to stop being me. My style of play is what got me to college. My style of playing is what got me to the league. I'm not going to change that now because people say, 'Oh, he gets hurt too much.' Sure, I have to be smart. If there's a pile coming, I don't need to hit the pile. But if I have a chance to make a hit, that's what I'm going to do. That's what the Colts drafted me for. I've just got to keep doing what I'm doing."

BOB ISN'T EVEN his real name, though it comes up so often on the stats sheet and in television play-by-play: Another tackle by Bob Sanders.

He was born Demond Sanders, but his mother, Jean, had so many nicknames for her youngest son that one was bound to stick: Baby Boy, Boy Boy, Bobba-Bear, Bob. Sanders laughs, recalling them all. He says his mother sometimes still sees him as the child on the stairs, waking up his father with a shout and a rap on the door. His parents still live in the house where Sanders grew up, where he first watched that videotape and learned about tough jobs.

Jean Sanders still works twice a week at a Wal-Mart in Erie, staying active at 58. Marion, 63, has retired, but that doesn't mean his work is done. Mangled left thumb and all, he cuts the lawn, washes the car and insists on waxing the church's big van. And with nine strong fingers, Bob Sanders's father also cheers for his son. Says Marion, "He gets his toughness from me."

Filling the Gap

What does free safety Bob Sanders mean to the Colts? A much stouter run defense, for one. Here are Indy's run D stats since Sanders became a full-time starter in 2005, comparing yards allowed when he's played and when he's sat (including the postseason).