No Neon, L. Sanders is still a bright spot

Quiet UM cornerback makes noise on field

September 17, 1999|By Bill Free | Bill Free,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- Maryland cornerback Lewis Sanders shares a name and position with NFL star Deion Sanders.

But there is no "Neon" in Maryland's Sanders.

"I've never been like that, even in high school," said Sanders this week as he prepared to face West Virginia's preseason All-America quarterback Marc Bulger at Byrd Stadium at noon tomorrow. "I just play football. When I was younger, I was always quiet. Even when I came to college."

Sanders, who is no relation to the Cowboys All-Pro, said he never even tried to imitate Deion Sanders.

"He's just an exciting player to watch, but I don't do any of those flashy things," said Sanders. "I like to see him go into that touchdown trot, and it's fun to see him looking back and talking. But that's not me."

The Terps' Sanders has shown some flash on the field, however. He has the size (6 feet 1, 200 pounds), speed (4.27 seconds in the 40-yard dash) and nose for the ball to cover big-time receivers, and he has two long (90 and 98 yards) kickoff returns for touchdowns during his career.

But Sanders, a junior, was so laid back as a youngster that he "just never got around" to going out for the Staten Island, N.Y., peewee league football teams.

"I played street football in front of my house, but never signed up for a league," he said. "I never played any organized sport until I went to high school and they were just starting a football program."

But he could run, and Maryland, Indiana and Wisconsin recruited him for football. He chose Maryland because it was closest to his Staten Island home.

Sanders was good enough as a freshman in 1996 to play in all 11 games in the secondary, and he moved into a starting role as a safety his sophomore year. His career began to take off that season.

He intercepted four passes to tie for third in the Atlantic Coast Conference, had 74 tackles (third on the team), finished fifth in the ACC in kickoff-return average (24.2) and was responsible for seven take-aways.

However, in the final game of the 1997 season against Georgia Tech, Sanders took a helmet into his shoulder while making a tackle, and it changed his outlook on the game.

"Before I was injured, I thought about the NFL and this and that," he said. "But now I don't think about the NFL that much. I'd love to go to the league, but just playing is enough."

The hit caused severe nerve damage to the right shoulder, and it started to degenerate badly, with something similar to a small hole developing.

Two of three specialists recommended nerve graft surgery from the calf to shoulder that could have ended his career.

"A couple of doctors said the chances of me playing again were very slim, but that never entered my mind," Sanders said.

Sanders wanted no part of the surgery and went to New Orleans in spring 1998 for a fourth opinion.

This time, the Terps speedster received the answer he wanted. He was told to wait a couple of months before doing anything, and when he returned to New Orleans, the nerve was beginning to regenerate on its own.

After the nerve regenerated that summer, Sanders underwent a less severe surgery to "tighten up the shoulder" right before the start of the season.

He was still forced to sit out all of the 1998 season, but he rehabilitated the shoulder in time to return for the 1999 opener against Temple Sept. 2.

"Just stepping on the field against Temple was the biggest thrill of my career here," said Sanders, who now primarily plays cornerback along with some safety. "I realized how much I loved the game when I couldn't play last year."

When asked what was going through his mind as he set foot on the Franklin Field turf in Philadelphia, he said, "Just not to mess up."

There wasn't even a hint of a "mess-up" for Sanders that night -- he intercepted a pass, recovered a fumble and knocked down a pass.

The only thing that went wrong for him occurred in the third quarter, when he went to pick up the fumble.

"Someone jumped on my head, and their helmet landed on my helmet," said Sanders, who had to leave the game with a slight concussion.

But he returned to practice the Monday after the Temple game and had another outstanding effort against Western Carolina.

He bolted 98 yards for a touchdown on a kickoff return, intercepted a pass, broke up another and had four tackles. Sanders now leads NCAA Division I-A in kickoff return average (48.7) and has two interceptions.

"Lewis is the kind of big-play weapon we were missing last year," said coach Ron Vanderlinden. "His comeback story is the kind that always makes you feel good about this game."

NOTE: Backup tailback Mookie Sikyala (sprained ankle) passed his final test yesterday during an indoor workout and will play tomorrow against West Virginia. Scooter Monroe (John Carroll) has received more reps this week than usual and may start at wide receiver.

Next for Maryland

Opponent: West Virginia

Site: Byrd Stadium, College Park

When: Tomorrow, noon

TV: ESPN2

Pub Date: 9/17/99

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