Bob Sanders is a human hand grenade. Set the 5-8 safety loose against enemy offenses, and he will take out the ball carrier and leave bodies strewn about the field. Thanks to his explosive ability, Bob proves that size doesn't matter in the NFL. That's particularly true when you have sprinter‘s speed, a high-jumper’s spring and the mentality of a middle linebacker. The Indianapolis Pro Bowler may give away a few inches to opponents, but he takes them back threefold in the problems he causes. When the Colts need to blow up a play, Bob is their man. This is his story…

GROWING UP

Demond Sanders was born February 24, 1981 in Erie, Pennsylvania. (Click here for a complete listing of today's sports birthdays.) He was the seventh of eight children. His first name was rarely used. His mother, Jean, called him "Boy-Boy" as a toddler. She eventually shortened it to "Bob" by the time he went to grade school. The Sanders family was serious and hardworking. Jean gave her son all the support he needed, and Bob's father, Marion, laid down the rules.

Marion had been an aspiring prizefighter. Once his kids came along, he found work in a foundry. One day, Marion took the family’s camcorder to work and had a coworker  tape him. He played the tape for his kids so they knew how hard he worked for them—and understood the kind of work that lay ahead for them if they did not do their best in school.

Those who remember Bob as a child talk about how he loved to do flips. He started around the age of seven. He would climb on top of a box or bench or shed or garage, and flip onto the ground. Bob could run up a wall—a la Jackie Chan—and back flip onto his feet. It was his version of Pennsylvania parkour.


 

 


As in most towns in Western Pennsylvania, football was the number-one sport. Erie’s most famous gridiron product was Fred Biletnikoff. The Hall of Fame receiver of the Oakland Raiders attended Technical Memorial High School before his family relocated to Florida.

Bob had no illusions of following in Biletnikoff's footsteps. He was built differently and played the game differently. Short and undersized, Bob was strong and had boundless energy. When he carried the football in Pop Warner games, he was impossible to tackle. When he was tackling, he took the other boys’ breath away.

Bob first gained attention for football skills as a sixth grader. A backup running back to a on the McKinley Middle School team, he tackled the starter so hard in practice that he could not play for two weeks. Bob was handed the starting job. In those days, he sent a lot of kids off the field crying.

Bob enrolled at Cathedral Prep in the fall of 1997. He hoped to one day add his name to the school’s pro football alumni, an impressive list that included Mike McCoy, a Pro Bowl lineman for the Packers in the 1970s, and Mark Stepnoski, who won two Super Bowls with the Cowboys in the 1990s. Former Homeland Security boss Tom Ridge also graduated from Cathedral Prep.

Bob made the varsity as a freshman for the Ramblers in the fall of 1996. He saw time at running back and in the defensive backfield. Bob became a more important part of the team as a sophomore, but it wasn't until his junior year that he truly began to blossom. That season, he starred at running back and was honored as a third-team All-State selection.

Bob captained the Ramblers in 1999 as a senior. He ran for 1,100 yards and 15 touchdowns, and drew oohs and aahs with his big hits on defense. Bob was first-team All-State, and Cathedral Prep made it all the way to the state finals before losing.


Fred Biletnikoff, 1971 Topps
 


Since his early days on the football field, Bob had patterned himself after Barry Sanders. (He claims it had nothing to do with the last name.) He naturally identified with the All-Pro scat back for the Detroit Lions. Bob absolutely loved watching a little man dominate NFL games on Sundays.

Bob, however, was not viewed by college coaches as the same type of prospect as his hero. Because of his diminutive size, he was not heavily recruited as a senior. His most ardent pursuer was probably Ohio University, not to be confused with Ohio State.

Like most talented young players in the region, Bob dreamed of going to a Big Ten school. When he received a scholarship offer from the University of Iowa, he grabbed it. The Hawkeyes told him that he would be a defensive player exclusively. Despite standing just 5-8 and weighing around 175 pounds, Bob promised his high school teammates he would start as a freshman and be named to an All-America team.

ON THE RISE

Bob did indeed make head coach Kirk Ferentz’s starting squad, in the season’s final month of his first year. He played strong safety for the Hawkeyes, a position he would man throughout his college career. In his first start, against Wisconsin, Bob was in on a dozen tackles. He played well enough as a frosh to earn honorable mention on the All-Big Ten list.

In 2001, Bob came into his own. He specialized in making bone-crunching tackles and seemed to be everywhere at once. Bob made first-team All-Big Ten at safety and was named the Most Valuable Player of Iowa's defensive unit. His best game was a 25-tackle effort against Antwaan Randle El and the Indiana Hoosiers.

Bob was quickly developing a reputation as an impact player on defense. When he hit people, it made a different sound. He also provided the intangibles, inspiring his teammates to play at a higher level. Bob not only topped the Hawkeyes in tackles and interceptions for the '01 season, he became one of the team's leaders on the field and in the locker room.

Iowa was a program on the rise, as well. Since taking over for Hayden Frye, Ferentz had led the Hawkeyes to a resurgence in the Big Ten. The team went 7-5 in '01 and made its first postseason appearance since 1997. Iowa faced Texas Tech in the Alamo Bowl, beating the Red Raiders 19-16. Bob picked off a pass in the end zone on the game's last play to secure the victory.


Barry Sanders, 1991 Pro Set
 


In 2002, it was the Iowa offense that drew most of the attention. Quarterback Brad Banks had a monster year, finishing as runner-up in the Heisman Trophy voting. His go-to guy was Dallas Clark, who made All-America at tight end. He would later become an NFL teammate of Bob’s. The Hawkeyes’ enforcer was guard Eric Steinbach, the best at his position in the nation.

Iowa tore through its Big Ten schedule without a loss for the first time in 80 years. The Hawkeyes shared the conference title with Ohio State, which also went undefeated. The only blemish on Iowa’s regular season was a loss to Iowa State. That might have cost the team a berth in the BCS championship game. As it was, the Hawkeyes played USC in the Orange Bowl that January and got whipped. They finished the year ranked #8.

Bob earned fourth-team All-American honors, and was first-team All Big Ten for the second year in a row. Again, he was always in the middle of things on the Iowa defense. Bob was a stopper in the team’s fifth-ranked rushing defense, a ball hawk in the passing game and also a difference-maker on special teams.

In 2003, Bob—now the captain of the defense—recovered from an early-season injury and was named first-team All Big Ten again. He was also voted a second-team All-American as the Hawkeyes turned in an excellent 10–3 season. In addition, Bob was honored as the team MVP.

In his final home game, against Minnesota, Bob racked up 16 tackles and forced three fumbles. At season’s end, Iowa took on Florida in the Outback Bowl and won 37–17. It was a satisfying victory for Bob, who next set his sights on the NFL.

Bob had all the skills the pros were looking for in a safety. He read plays quickly and was extremely difficult to block. His nickname at Iowa—“Hitman”—said it all in terms of his tackling. An ultra-aggressive defensive player, he boasted 4.3 speed in the 40 and a vertical leap of better than 40 inches. Some teams questioned his size, but the Colts weren’t worried. They took Bob in the second round.

Bob joined a team known for its high-powered offense. Indy’s coach, Tony Dungy, was trying to build a first-class defense. Bob was hampered early in his rookie year by a sore knee and foot. In limited action, he opened a lot of eyes with his play as a reserve defensive back and on special teams.


Dallas Clark, 2006 Leaf
 


By November, Bob had worked himself into the regular lineup. His best game of the regular season came against the Houston Texans, when he made nine solo tackles. Come the playoffs, Bob had a great game in a victory over the Denver Broncos, making eight solo tackles, plus four special teams stops. He also played well against the Patriots in the AFC title game, recording nine tackles. Indianapolis, however, fell short of the Super Bowl, losing 20–3 in a New England snowstorm.

MAKING HIS MARK

Bob was healthy in 2005—and a big reason the Colts won their first 13 games. Anyone who missed his rookie flashes got a whole year’s worth of big hits. He had 118 tackles—good for second on the club—including 20 in a December game against the San Diego Chargers.

As the season evolved, Bob’s value to the club became obvious. Most team’s tried to run the football against the Colts, ever eager to keep Peyton Manning off the field. In those situations, Bob became an extra linebacker, hitting runners like a little pickup truck. His play gave the Indy defense a dimension it didn't have before. With fellow safety Mike Doss—another heavy hitter from the Big Ten—the pair gave runners something to think about once they crossed the line of scrimmage.

Heading into the postseason, he Colts were prohibitive favorites to make their first Super Bowl of the Manning era. Unfortunately, the wheels came off against the Cinderella Steelers. The Colts made a goal-line stand at the end of the game and forced a fumble that Nick Harper nearly returned for the game-saving touchdown. However, Ben Roethlisberger tripped him up and Pittsburgh won. Had Bob scooped up the loose ball the outcome might have been different—Harper was nursing a sore leg, and Bob was the fastest player on the field. His nine tackles against the Steelers were wasted on this disappointing day.

For Bob, there was a silver lining when he made All-Pro and was named to the Pro Bowl team. That meant that his teammates weren't the only ones noticing his sparkling play. The Colts had grown accustomed to calling him the “Eraser” for his ability to erase their mistakes with crushing tackles.

Bob's physical style of play caught up with him early in the 2006 season, when he injured his knee. Indy's pass defense held its own without him, but the Colts were atrocious against the run. Short gains routinely broke for long runs. Though the team's high-powered offense continued to put points on the board and win games, no one took Indianapolis seriously as a postseason factor.

Bob rehabbed his injury and worked his way back into the lineup in the final weeks of year. With the Eraser back, the defense tightened up. The Colts began playing with zest and abandon, and suddenly they were proving the experts wrong. No one could run against Indianapolis in the playoffs.

In the opening round, the Colts suffocated the Chiefs. Larry Johnson gained a paltry 32 yards. Kansas City didn’t do much better passing, and Indy won 23–8. Bob got his first postseason pick in the game.

The Ravens were up next, and to no one’s surprise it was an intense defensive battle. The Colts booted five field goals against Baltimore in a 15–6 win. Bob recorded 10 tackles and batted down one pass.


Bob Sanders, 2004 Prestige
 


The AFC Championship Game matched the Colts against the Patriots. The contest turned into a shootout after Indy fell behind 21–3 in the first half. Manning & Co. dominated the New England defense in the second half to pull out a 38–34 win. Bob and his teammates in the secondary looked lost at times, but they managed to contain Tom Brady when it counted. he made six tackles in the game.

Super Bowl XLI found the Colts favored against the NFC champion Chicago Bears. Devin Hester changed the game , when he ran back the opening kickoff for a touchdown. Things looked even dicier for Indy when Manning threw an interception on his first series. He made up for it with a 53-yard TD pass to Reggie Wayne later in the first quarter.

Chicago scored again to take a 14–6 lead, but then the Colts clamped down. They scored 10 points in the second quarter and went into halftime up 16-14. In the second half, it was all Indianapolis. Bob sparked the surge by intercepting a Rex Grossman pass and returning it 38 yards across midfield. The Bears never got close to another score, and the Colts won 29–17. Bob, one of many defensive standouts in the game, received much of the credit for the defensive turnaround that gave the Colts their first Super Bowl victory since the early 1970s.

Indy entered 2007 as a favorite to repeat as champions, but the Patriots had been busy during the offseason. They plugged their holes at receiver with Randy Moss and Wes Welker, and Brady ended up surpassing Manning’s single-season record of 49 touchdown passes. It soon became clear that the Pats had the AFC’s dominant team—a point driven home when they defeated the Colts 24-20 in Indianapolis.

The anticipated rematch between these powers in the AFC Championship Game did not materialize. New England held up it end, but Indianapolis fell to the pumped-up San Diego Chargers in the playoffs. The Colts' defense was uncharacteristically porous in the game. Bob suffered an injury on a hard tackle that may have affected his play down the stretch.

Until that loss, however, Bob was having a season for the ages. He began making headlines in the second week against the division-rival Tennessee Titans. He made 11 tackles and was in on three sacks of Vince Young. In the final moments of the 22–20 win, Young had one eye on his receivers and the other on Bob. Later in the year, Bob racked up 21 tackles in back-to-back games against the Jacksonville Jaguars and Ravens.

Week in, week out, Bob was the difference-maker on defense. He read plays like he was in the offensive huddle and excelled at ever facet of the safety position. When teams ran away from Bob, it didn't matter —he flashed across the field, impossible to block, and still was in on plays. When Dwight Freeney went down with a season-ending injury, Bob stepped up, literally, and played closer to the line—almost as an extra linebacker.

At the end of the season, the Colts tore up Bob’s contract and wrote him a new one for $37.5 million that runs through 2012. A couple of weeks later he was named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year—the first player in Colt history to take home that hardware.


Peyton Manning,
2007 The Sporting News
 


Bob has ascended to rarified status. In a league where bigger is usually assumed to be better, he has demonstrated exactly the opposite. Bob may be small by NFL standards, but no longer is he overlooked.

BOB THE PLAYER

Bob is a perfect fit for a defense that relies more on speed than size. He also epitomizes smash-mouth football in the 21st century. Bob loves to make hits that leave ball-carriers gasping for air or staggering back toward the huddle. His low center of gravity gives him leverage on tackles that larger players do not have. The first thing kids hear when they begin playing football is, “Stay low!” Bob has never forgotten this advice.

Bob’s unpredictability makes it difficult for opponents to design plays against the Colts. The Xs and 0s don't work if he is not where he is supposed to be. There is no part of the strong safety position at which he does not excel.

Bob’s leadership skills became evident in his first full year as a starter. The following year, he pulled Indy’s defense together at playoff time. He and Peyton Manning are now the men the Colts look to when games are on the line.


Bob Sanders, 2006 Heritage

 

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