High-Impact Hawkeye

July 28, 2003

The following first appeared in the July 28, 2003 editions of the Iowa Press Citizen.

CHICAGO – He tried on one sports coat after another for the Big Ten Football Kickoff Luncheon last week, until finally, Bob Sanders gave up.

There wasn’t a jacket around the Iowa football complex that would fit the Hawkeyes’ all-conference safety.

Either the sleeves were too long, the chest too snug or the shoulders too tight. Nothing in the Iowa wardrobe suited Sanders’ chiseled 5-foot-81/2, 205-pound frame. That in itself is a little odd, because since he first set foot on campus three years ago, Sanders and the Hawkeyes have seemingly been the perfect fit.

Sanders enters his senior season considered by many to be the Big Ten’s most vicious hitter; considered by some to be the best strong safety in the country; considered by Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz to be one of the biggest reasons the Hawkeyes are back on the college football map.

“His impact on our team,” Ferentz said, “has probably been as significant as any one player we’ve had.”

Sanders has helped transform the Hawkeyes into a physical and aggressive team. He’s given an attitude to a group in search of an identity when he arrived.

Only seven players in Iowa’s 114-year football history have earned first-team all-Big Ten honors in three consecutive seasons. Sanders – virtually ignored by college coaches coming out of Erie (Pa.) Cathedral Prep High School – could become the eighth.

Sanders was once considered too short, too small and too slow to play Division I football. Besides Iowa, Ohio University was the only other major college program that showed interest in him.

But tape measures, scales and stopwatches couldn’t measure the chip on Sanders’ shoulder.

“People don’t know what I can do,” he said. “It excites me to be able to go out and have people say, ‘Wow.’ Because no one had faith in me. I really appreciate coach Ferentz giving me a chance.”

Ferentz took the advice of his high school coach Joe Moore, the Cathedral Prep defensive coordinator when Sanders was a senior, and offered a scholarship to Sanders, who weighed 175 pounds and ran the 40 in 4.65 seconds at the time.

Moore, who passed away July 3 after a bout with cancer, told Ferentz that Sanders, if nothing else, would make Iowa’s special teams better. He’d make the Hawkeyes tougher.

“If (Ferentz) didn’t offer a scholarship, I was going to walk on,” Sanders said. “(Coach Moore) was going to make me walk on. He said, ‘You’re not going anywhere but Iowa. You’re not going to a Division II or Division III school. You’re better than that, but no one knows it.'”

They know now.

Sanders sat at a table in the ballroom of a downtown Chicago hotel Thursday answering questions from reporters who inquired about things such as his vicious hits, how he ended up at Iowa and how he dropped his time in the 40 from 4.65 to the blazing electronically timed 4.38 seconds he ran this spring in front of pro scouts in Iowa City.

Across the room, Michigan quarterback John Navarre was asked about three of the top defensive backs in the Big Ten – his teammate Marlin Jackson, Ohio State’s Chris Gamble and Sanders. Navarre’s attention went directly to Sanders.

“He’s a brick house and he can run,” Navarre said. “When you go into a game, you tell your offense, ‘We have to account for this guy.’ That tells you that guy is good. Bob Sanders is definitely a guy we have to account for each game.”

Sanders enters his senior season ranked 14th on Iowa’s career tackle list with 276. More than just a few have de-cleated opposing ballcarriers and ended up on highlight reels.

“Scary. That man can hit,” Minnesota tight end Ben Utecht said. “There’s never a play he’s not going 100 percent on. You can see sometimes players that take plays off. I’ve never seen Bob Sanders take a play off.”

Sanders wants to make one thing clear, though.

“I don’t just want to be a hitter,” he said. “I don’t want people to just see me as being a hitter. I want people to say, ‘This guy can cover. He can hit people. He can come up. He can blitz. He can do everything.'”

Sanders has been named to preseason watch lists for the Jim Thorpe Defensive Back of the Year award and Bronko Nagurski Trophy, given annually to college football’s top defensive player.

The chip still resides on his shoulder.

“I’ve dealt with being the smallest guy all my life and it got to the point where I was like, I’m going to show everybody that whatever I do, I can be the best no matter how big I am,” he said. “If I was 6-2, that would’ve never crossed my mind. The motivation wouldn’t have been there because they wouldn’t have talked about me being small.”

Sanders still remembers the time a Michigan assistant coach showed up at Cathedral Prep and wanted to talk with some of his teammates, but not him. He remembered that last year leaving Michigan Stadium after forcing a fumble that turned the tide in Iowa’s 34-9 victory.

He knows that no matter how many passes he intercepts or how many tackles he accumulates, his height will still be an issue with NFL scouts.

“I’m tired of it,” Sanders said. “It’s like when are they ever going to learn it doesn’t matter how big you are? They’ll never learn. It’ll be the same thing until I die. They won’t learn. They’ll keep saying, ‘He’s too small.'”

Sanders said he hopes his height is the only issue pro scouts will have with his potential. Ask the Hawkeyes and they’ll tell you Sanders will fit just fine in the NFL.

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