Something special about this returner

January 30, 1999|By JOHN EISENBERG

MIAMI -- What if Tim Dwight catches the opening kickoff of the Super Bowl 5 yards deep in the end zone?

"I'm bringing it out," said Dwight, the Atlanta Falcons' return specialist.

Seven yards deep?

"I'm still coming," he said, "if I can get up a head of steam."

From where, if anywhere, would he settle for the touchback?

"Only if the ball is [kicked] out of the end zone," Dwight said with a shrug, as if that were obvious, and as if every NFL return specialist were such a kamikaze.

But of course, no return specialist is like this one.

If you caught Dwight's daredevil act during the NFC playoffs, you know what we're talking about. If you're unfamiliar, let's just say Dwight is the only player in tomorrow's Super Bowl who deserves a warning tag: Please don't try any of this at home, fool.

"He's a lot of fun to watch, no question," Atlanta coach Dan Reeves said.

A 5-foot-8, 184-pound rookie from the University of Iowa, Dwight plays with a stunning disregard for his body, a reckless abandon seldom seen.

Waiting under kickoffs and punts, he backs up several yards, starts running before the ball comes down and catches it on the dead run, then sprints straight into the heart of the coverage team and often hurls his body at tacklers.

It's an electrifying style that has already resulted in one knee injury this season and could easily lead to more. But Dwight, 23, is undeterred.

"It's how I play football," he said. "If you want to call it fearless, that's great. But it's how I've always played. As if every play were my last."

He has a thick chest, a buzz of red-blond hair and piercing blue eyes, giving him the air of a fighter pilot. He plans to return to Iowa this spring to complete the eight hours of classwork he needs to graduate. He'll also run track, concentrating on sprints.

"I have a year of [track] eligibility left, so why not?" he said.

Given his thirst for speed and challenges, it's no surprise he's a thrill-seeker in his free time, too. He has tried bungee-jumping, cliff diving and off-road driving, and he started his Super Bowl week with a ride on a Jet Ski.

"You know those Mountain Dew commercials where all the girls fly through the air doing all crazy stuff?" he said. "I try to grab some ideas from them."

Say hello to the first Super Bowler who'd almost rather be participating in the X Games.

"That would be cool," he said of the X Games. "Once you're not afraid, you can do all sorts of things."

Like the time he was running late for a bus in college and just jumped out of his dorm window on the third floor instead of running down the stairs. Landed in the snow, no problem.

On the field in college, he totaled almost three miles of all-purpose yards (returns, rushing and receiving) in four seasons, led the nation in punt returns as a senior and finished seventh in the Heisman Trophy balloting. Iowa coach Hayden Fry called him "the greatest competitor I've had in 45 years of coaching."

His lack of size kept him on the draft board last April until the Falcons took him in the fourth round. He has proved everyone wrong in a hurry, totaling 1,349 all-purpose yards.

The Atlanta coaches asked him not to catch kicks on the run during the season, fearing he'd get hurt. But they have let him have his way in the playoffs, thinking his all-out approach would set a good tone.

Dwight responded with almost 300 all-purpose yards in the Falcons' victories over the 49ers and Vikings.

"It's all about attitude," Dwight said. "Being aggressive like I am sends a message to the other team, that we're here to play hard, that we're not going to back down physically or, really, in any way. I think you have to have that kind of attitude in this game."

He was particularly effective against the Vikings, totaling 173 all-purpose yards. The Vikings were stunned to see Dwight returning kicks from the end zone and fielding one punt at the 1-yard line. He almost broke that one for a 99-yard touchdown.

"We really attacked them on our returns, and that set the tone for the rest of the game," Dwight said.

He plans to do the same against the Broncos.

"He's fearless, obviously," Broncos punter Tom Rouen said. "He's going to bring [the ball] back as hard as he can every time."

That's for sure. Dwight knows no other way to play.

"I think athletes get a bad rap sometimes for making a lot of money and not caring about the game," he said. "But I love it. I play football at 100 mph because that's what I'm paid to do. I think people like that."

He's right, they do. But doesn't he get scared of the punishment he's bound to take?

"Sure, you get scared," he said, "but there's an excitement about it. There's nothing like being a little afraid to get you jacked up. Like, I know I might catch the opening kick of the Super Bowl, which is pretty amazing and scary in a way. But it's great. I'm going to be jacked up like crazy."

Look out.

Pub Date: 1/30/99

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