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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."