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
Posted: Tuesday September 25, 2007 10:50AM; Updated: Tuesday September 25, 2007 10:50AM
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.