Early out early plan for Terp

Sanders' NFL strategy in place before season

January 15, 2000|By Bill Free | Bill Free,SUN STAFF

Maryland cornerback Lewis Sanders' recent decision to enter his name in April's NFL draft was the culmination of a secret plan that began four months ago, before the athlete stepped on the field for the first game of his junior season.

"I said back then, if I had a good year with no injuries and had a chance to make it in the NFL, I was going to go for the draft," Sanders said Thursday night from Beverly Hills, Calif., where he is visiting a cousin. "If someone had said to me there was no way I was going to make it, I would have come back to Maryland. But no one told me that."

Instead, the defensive back and kickoff returner from Staten Island, N.Y., has seen his name bandied about from the first to the third round by various publications on their prospective draft lists.

The NFL Digest lists Sanders as a potential 23rd first-round selection by the Carolina Panthers.

That's nice, said Sanders, but misses the point.

"No one seems to understand, my life-long dream has been to play in the NFL," Sanders said. "I just wanted a chance, even if it was as a free agent.

"I'd be happy just playing for the league minimum of $200,000. That would be a lot more than I have now, not that I'm in serious need of money. My mom and dad [Vanessa and Lewis] have always given me everything I've needed. I have two cars and a Jeep Cherokee, and I'm 21 years old." The 6-foot-2, 200-pounder, who runs the 40 in 4.27 seconds, told the Maryland football coaching staff of his NFL intentions on Nov. 29, but Sanders said he weighed the options before making it official.

In the end, Sanders said the two main factors that prompted him to give up his senior year were the possibility of a second career-threatening injury and the devastating four-game losing streak that ended the Terps' season, costing them a bowl bid.

"My No. 1 goal in college always was to play in a bowl game," he said.

"My parents didn't even go to Florida State, so they could save money for a trip to Hawaii [for the Aloha Bowl, which the Terps thought was likely before a late-season swoon]. When we didn't make it to a bowl, I realized again that nothing is for certain."

The first taste of uncertainty and a possible shattered dream for Sanders occurred during the 1998 Maryland season, when he was forced to sit out the entire season with severe nerve damage in a shoulder.

Many doctors recommended a surgical procedure, grafting a leg nerve to his shoulder to repair the injury. But Sanders and his parents balked at the career-threatening operation.

They opted to take the advice of Sanders' aunt, Dr. Patricia Sanders, who recommended a New Orleans specialist, Dr. David Klein.

Klein said he could see the nerve was regenerating on its own, making surgery unnecessary.

"My aunt saved my career," said the player who came back last fall to make first-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference with six interceptions, three fumble recoveries, 18 kickoff returns for an average of 26.8 yards, and 60 tackles. He returned one kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown and returned a fumble 28 yards for a score.

Sanders said the Maryland coaches pulled out the stops in trying to persuadehim to stay for his senior year.

"They all told me I would make millions in the NFL draft if I stayed another year and [that] I would be an All-America candidate and up for a lot of other awards," Sanders said. "But I don't care about all those awards. I only wanted to go to a bowl game, and it didn't happen.

"Even if I came back next year and had a great season, there are no guarantees in the draft or that I would make millions."

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