"Maybe," said Maryland running back Steve Atkins, "I'm just weird."
The line is well-rehearsed. Ever since Atkins was sidelined last October with a knee injury, the promising ball carrier has been showered with questions.
The teen-agers from his hometown Spotsylvania-Fredericksburg area wander up to his familiar car at the drive-in and want to know the same things that the coaches in College Park and reporters in Washington do.
What stirs inside this bulging, 215-pound body, that bulldozes through a ton of humanity one day and breaks like peanut brittle the next?
What of this would-be star who doesn't drink, smoke, or even dance? Who drifts away from his teammates. Who says, "I don't rank myself. There's nobody I look up to. I just watch 'em and learn. Maybe I'm just weird."
The approaching season could provide some answers. Atkins, who will be a junior, is expected to emerge as one of the top running backs in college football. He could be a Heisman Trophy candidate in 1978.
Atkins pondered the critical 1977 season last year while inching around campus on crutches, slipping on the ice of the hardest winter Steve Atkins may ever know.
In four 1976 games played on healthy knees he had been a terror - rushing an average of 124 yards a game, 5.8 yards per carry. In the fifth game, a North Carolina State defensive back used what Atkins calls "some barnyard stuff" and tackled him hard around the knees.
There was damage to cartilage, ligaments and, foremost, to Atkins' reputation. It was another in a monotonous string of injuries, and some wondered if he actually might be ailing in the intestinal region, or perhaps the head.
"I've been going through a lot of different changes. Everyone's been pressuring me, acting like the injuries are my fault," said Atkins. He was in his sister's living room, where his troubles and some ornate candelabra draw attention away from the couches covered with Enens.
"I know most everybody in this town, and everyone has been asking me how my knees are doing.They're trying to make me believe I'm accident prone.
"I want to prove to myself and to people that I'm not accident prone, that I can get out and play football. It's been constantly on my mind.
"I know I'm tough enough. Anybody can get hurt. I'm just unlucky."
Perhaps Atkins' toughness is suspect because of his sensitive nature. As a freshman he was socially timid, afraid to talk to his teammates. He missed a handful of practices to go home.
"I never was used to being away from home," he says. "I was all mixed up."
Because there were four rooms and six people in the Atkins house, Steve would often stay in a nearby motel or at his sister's place.
There was love in the home, but also more problems.Atkins is still confused by his parents' lack of interest in his football career. They have seen him play only once, last year on television when he ran one play as a decoy in the Cotton Bowl. They have never seen him carry a football, which is something Atkins does exceptionally well.
"It's really hard. I've been playing football since the eight grade and they're only seen me play once. My little brother's never seen me play," said Atkins. "They really don't understand. When I was hurt they didn't ask me about my injury or nothing. I felt like going and jumping in a hole."
But Atkins has come to understant. There were difficult circumstances. "My mother has heart trouble", he said.
The troubles have affected him in some positive ways. He never takes a drink, for instance.
"I just figure it messes up a lot of bodies," he said. "God gave you a body and I don't drinking and do all that wild stuff."
For every doubt thrust at Atkins, he had one to hand back. His coach, Jerry Claiborne, seemed strange to him.
"He's hard to understand. He has so many ways," said Atkins who gets the most out of the slang of the day. "He gets upset if you're 30 seconds late. You have to be in at a speed time every night and you can't have girls in your room or even on your (dormitory) floor. When I heard that, I was really to pack my bags and leave. I almost flipped out."
He didn't, because he realized that even if he couldn't always understand or agree with Claiborne, the coach has something to give him. "I really respect the man," said Atkins. "I just couldn't figure him out at first."
The restraints on female companionship upset Atkins because he is a young man of few pleasures, and females are high on the short list.
He also thrives on big-time football at Maryland and pickup basketball in the playgrounds.
The basketball players remeber Atkins as the high school football star who celebrated a championship by devouring 11 pizzas and an untabulated number of Pepsis. In many ways, he is still that likable, quiet youngster who works hard and hurts easily. He recently stopped visiting his cousin in the Carolina County Jail because it bothered him too much.
"He's been in there six months for petty larceny - stole a tape player or a TV or something," said Atkins. "He's the nicest guy you ever met. First time he tried, he got caught. I stopped going to see him because I just couldn't stand it. I'm kind of weak inside."
Atkins says his weak insides, along with most of his daily identity, vanish when he runs on a football field, though some still question that.
"I am a different person when I play. A little meaner," Atkins said. "Sometimes I wonder how I take all the punishment. Sometimes I get hit and I see stars and can't hear what they call in the huddie.I'm out of it until they snap the ball. Then I get the ball and it just happens.
"When I have a football in my hands, it seems like a funny feeling just comes. I don't know what time it is or what's going on. I just know I gotta do something. I'm looking for daylight. I don't see numbers. Just seems like I was made for something like that. I just works perfect.
"Wouldn't anybody know how I feel unless you're a running back. Unless you carry the ball. It's a funny feeling. I like that feeling."
Atkins has no specific goals for yardage, touchdowns, all-star honors or becoming Maryland's first Heisman winner. "I never thought about that stuff," said Atkins. "I know things like that will come if I play the game.
Right now, football is the most important thing in my life. It's been good to me. I don't have to play football. I'm determined to get what I want some other way if I have to . All I want in life anyhow is a house of my own.
"It just seems like God gave me the talent to play football. Seems like I'm supposed to be doing it."