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Fortunately, Thelma recognized this quality in her son early on and geared his sports participation accordingly. When Terry was six, she signed him up for soccer but yanked him out of the league when she realized how little contact there was in the sport. "That was not for him," she says today.
Terry agrees. Even at that age he was dying to carry the ball, to catch it, to tuck it away and run over somebody. Football was the sport for him. As a senior at Tabb High, Kirby was named Parade magazine's 1988 High School Player of the Year and USA Today's High School Offensive Player of the Year. He became the focus of recruiting mayhem, but he never lost his head. "I told all the recruiters, 'The more you call me, the less your chances,' " he says.
What was the most outrageous offer he received from a school? "Anything," he says. "Anything!" Meaning what? "I don't know," he replies, shaking his head. "Anything. What would that be? Cars, money. Anything."
He chose Virginia because it was strong academically and not far from home. He says he took none of the bribes because "it all felt dirty." Instead, while in Charlottesville he tried to act like a regular student. As a junior and senior he tutored children with reading difficulties as part of his course work. "Tutoring a second year wasn't a requirement," says Connie Juel, who supervises the tutoring program. "But he was so outstanding [as a junior], so kind and gentle, and so good at coming up with fun activities, that I asked him to help me again."
Oddly, nobody helped Kirby last spring when a rumor spread among NFL teams that his vision was seriously impaired. A newspaper had reported that Kirby was legally blind in his right eye, making it hard for him to catch passes over his right shoulder. "You have got to be kidding," Ken Mack, Kirby's position coach at Virginia, would say later, noting that Kirby had grabbed 105 passes in college, over both shoulders.
In fact, Kirby has 20-40 vision in his right eye and doesn't even need glasses. "I see fine," he says. "I have a brown spot on my eye, but that's just a mole."
But the damage was done. Kirby watched nine other running backs get selected before he was taken by Miami in the third round, the 78th pick in the draft. A runner had not been the Dolphins' primary need, so on draft day they were not aware of the gossip about Kirby's eyesight. When coach Don Shula announced the choice to reporters, one of them asked him if he knew about Kirby's vision problem. Stunned, Shula went back into the draft room and yelled at his assistants, "Did we draft a blind guy?"
They had not, and Kirby's ability to run inside as well as to get open on pass routes, particularly on third down, has made him a bargain. "He's the big back inside, and he runs good patterns against nickel coverages," says Shula. "When he catches, he plucks the ball like great receivers do. You can scarcely hear it."
After a recent practice, Kirby ate dinner at a restaurant with his buddy and mentor, linebacker David Griggs, a former Virginia player who has been with the Dolphins for five years. The two first met when Kirby was on his recruiting visit to Virginia. Griggs liked him immediately. "He had a big smile. He was cordial," Griggs recalled. "He wasn't like some highly recruited guys—he was humble."
Griggs is helping ease Kirby's transition into the NFL, trying to keep him fired up, even though Kirby felt his body hitting the wall after the eighth regular-season game. "Add four preseason games to that, and that's my college season," said Kirby, who had his toughest day as a pro on Thanksgiving Day, fumbling twice against the Dallas Cowboys.