Fourth down for 'can't-miss kid' Football: Bobby Sabelhaus went from McDonogh to the top quarterback college. He lost his confidencem his ability and his will. Three schools later

he's making a final pass at success.


Bobby Sabelhaus graduated from McDonogh School with a golden arm and all his dreams within reach. Considered one of the top three quarterbacks in the country, he was confident, charismatic, driven -- a cinch for stardom in college football.

The game plan went awry.

Three years later, Sabelhaus, 21, is scrambling to salvage a shred of that promising career. A junior, he has yet to take a snap from center. The Owings Mills resident has bounced from college to college, and from coast to coast -- from the University of Florida to a junior college in California to West Virginia University. Three weeks ago, Sabelhaus began classes at San Jose (Calif.) State University, his fourth and final stop, he says.

Along the way, the can't-miss kid misplaced his throwing motion, lost his confidence and caved under expectations, real or imagined. Sabelhaus labeled himself a failure. He quit football, returned and crashed a second time. Now he's back, with the help of a private coach hired by his parents to resurrect their All-American son.

"Bobby knows there's a lot of doubt in people's minds," said his father, Robert Sabelhaus Sr. "He doesn't want the last memory of Bobby Sabelhaus to be a negative one, the Kid who washed out."

Sabelhaus, who once had private jets fetching him for recruiting visits, finds himself at San Jose, where Spartans' crowds are, well, spartan (16,000 average). The quarterback who once thought Steve Spurrier would coach him to a Heisman Trophy at Florida now is happy just to throw a spiral. Spurrier's criticisms unnerved him, and Sabelhaus - who has dyslexia - failed to ask for help while struggling to learn Florida's offense.

"Was Florida the wrong choice?" Sabelhaus said. "You're telling a kid not to go to the best football school in the country? C'mon, I was 18 and invincible. What could stop me from being the best?"

The best? Now he's out to prove he's not a bust, say those who know him well.

"Bobby doesn't want to let his family down, particularly his father, his hero," said Roger Shaw, one of Sabelhaus' friends and former teachers. "His father has a dream for Bobby, a beautiful dream for him to take advantage of his beautiful body, to take the muscle tone and tingling nerve endings and become the finest football player in the world."

His silver spoon was ball

When his son was born, Robert Sabelhaus bought a football-shaped toy box for the nursery. It was only the beginning. "I am a college football fanatic," said the elder Sabelhaus, who had played briefly at Ohio University. "I never lost my love for the game. So when I had a son ... "

The toy box filled quickly - with balls. The child began throwing early, flinging his empty bottle across the room from the crib. "Good arm," his father liked to say.

One New Year's Day, Robert Sabelhaus sat his son on his lap, in front of three television sets, where they watched all the college bowl games. At 9 p.m., mom pulled the plug. It was past her 2-year-old's bedtime.

At 3, Bobby Sabelhaus received his first uniform, a replica of that worn by John Riggins, the Washington Redskins' star running back. He would put on No. 44, toddle outside the family's home in Arnold and race toward his dad to be tackled. "I hoped [the outfit] would tweak Bobby's interest in football, which was sporadic in those early years," his father said.

At 5, he attended his first college game at the Orange Bowl in Miami, where the family had moved. He became ill at halftime and left. "Dad and I listened on the radio," Sabelhaus recalled. "[Miami's] Bernie Kosar kept throwing passes, and I kept throwing up."

His folks relocated often, climbing career ladders; both Robert and Melanie Sabelhaus are corporate vice presidents, he with Legg Mason, she with Bridge Street Accommodations, which finds furnished homes for relocated executives.

Robert Sabelhaus always managed to keep his son's apprenticeship on track. He flew Bobby to college games at Notre Dame and Louisiana State, finagled him a job as waterboy at Princeton University and sent the strapping 12-year-old - already 6 feet 2 - to a summer football camp in Pennsylvania.

"Bobby liked football because it pleased me, but it also pleased him. That did excite me," he said.

At home, a five-acre estate in Owings Mills, they wore bare spots in the yard playing a two-man Super Bowl. The youngster pretended to be Miami quarterback Dan Marino, his idol. He'd take the snap and rifle the ball to his father, who'd spike it in triumph. Dolphins win at the gun. High-fives all around.

Father/son games were the rule. Sabelhaus was usually too big to play age-group football, but in other sports, he flourished. Soccer, hockey and baseball. Basketball, tennis and lacrosse. Of the 39 trophies on his bedroom dresser, only two are for football.

Basketball seemed his future. Sabelhaus could dunk by eighth grade, and his 56-point game in a Pikesville rec league contest broke the record set there by Mitch Kasoff, former Maryland guard.

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