When he was healthy, Steve Atkins was as good a running back as anyone at the University of Maryland had ever seen, one of the best in the country in fact.
He had the qualities that set great backs apart from good backs -- size combined with speed; the ability to get into a hole quickly and, most of all, explosiveness, the kind that puts a man past three tacklers when he looks as if he is going nowhere.
Atkins' statistics were always excellent -- almost five yards to carry for his career, 1,261 yards and 10 touchdowns as a senior.
But for four years, nothing Steve Atkins did, or so it seemed to him, was good enough. It wasn't good enough for Coach Jerry Claiborne, it wasn't good enough for the local press and fans and it wasn't good enough for many of Atkins' friends at home in Spotsylvania, Va.
Last week, as he prepared to leave College Park for his first professional training camp with the Green Bay Packers, Atkins could not hide some of the resentment he still feels as he talked about his Maryland career.
"i'm never one to say much," he said "but a lot of things people said really hurt me. It was like they couldn't understand that I was really hurt. There were a lot of times, especially senior year, when I was hurt and I played anyway. A running back always plays with bumps and bruises. But when you hurt a knee, it's not like you can just turn around and go back and play." the turning point for Atkins, he says, came in the fifth game of the 1976 season, his sophomore year. The Terrapins were in the process of routing North Carolina State when Atkins started wide on a sweep.
"i saw the guy coming out of the corner of my eye and I could see that he was diving straight for the knee," Atkins said, wincing slightly at the memory. "i remember thinking, 'oh no this is it,' and then he hit. My whole career flashed before me. The pain was unreal."
Atkins was out for the remainder of that season except for running one play in the Cotton Bowl as a decoy. There were some who thought Atkins could have -- and should have -- played in that game.
"there was a lot of pressure on me to play, and around," Atkins said, also insisting specifically that it did not come from Claiborne, but rather from others on and off the team.
"i'm proud of the fact that I stuck to my guns and didn't knuckle under to the pressure. I knew I could hurt myself seriously and never play again if I tried to come back too soon. I was determined not to do that. I'm really glad I didn't play."
Atkins' relationship with Claiborne was a mixture of love and hate. Today, Claiborne looks back and admits he has regrets about Atkins' career.
"i guess the thing was that everyone saw a guy with as much talent as Steve and it just frustrated them that he was hurt a lot," Claiborn said. "It was . . . not anything Steve could prevent, no one tries to get hurt, and his injuries were real ones. He was definitely hurt. But we all would have liked to have seen him have a full-year career."
Ironically, the person who benefited most from Atkins' injuries was his best friend and roommate, Alvin (Preacher) Maddox. As Atkins' backup for four years, Maddox played only when his friend was injured.
"steve has always been a quiet type," said Maddox, lately given a tryout by the Baltimore Colts. "We were friends even in high school so we could talk about things. I knew it upset him when people criticized him for his injuries. But he wouldn't say anything to them about it. That just wasn't his style."
Atkins says his style has changed since he first arrived at Maryland in August 1975 as a supershy freshman, so shy in fact that he didn't talk to many of his teammates his first year.
"i was afraid to talk to a lot of the linemen," he said. "i thought of them as big stars. I felt like a little kid out there most of the time. I just took the ball and ran."
Atkins ran the ball for 491 yards in seven games that season and gained antoher 127 in the Gator Bowl, a 13-0 Maryland win over Florida.
When he started the 1978 season by rushing for 556 yards the first four games, the words "Heisman Trophy," started to be whispered on the Maryland campus.
"i tried not to listen to all that stuff people said," Atkins recalled. "One way I was lucky was that I never took it that seriously in the beginning when people were always writing good things about me. Later, when all they did was criticize no matter how good I played, that didn't really bother me either."
Although Claiborne insists that "Steve could always honest with me and that's very important. But I think he didn't understand me. Or maybe I didn't understand him. It just seemed like we were on different levels a lot of the time."
Atkins will not talk about it but friends say he was particularly upset last January when Claiborne coaching the East team, had Michigan's Russell Davis carry the ball 29 times (for a game-record 199 yards while Atkins lugged the ball only six times.
"the holes were awfully big when I was in there," is all Atkins will say.
Atkins and Claiborne did not part on the best of terms this spring. First, Atkins was upset when Clairborne failed to call him after he was drafted on the second round by the Packers. "It didn't surprise me," Atkins said, "but it disappointed me."
Then, in late May, Atkins was quoted in a Sports Illustrated article as saying he had signed an "offer sheet," with agent Michael Lance Trope and accepted a loan from a Trope representative while still playing for Maryland.
Trope threatened to sue Atkins and other draftees for breach of contract after they signed with other teams. Atkins denies signing anything for Trope but will not discuss the incident -- or the loan -- any further.
He will say that one of the most upsetting things about the whole incident was Claiborne's reaction to it. "He called me up and I went into the office," Atkins said. "I told him I didn't think I had done anything wrong and I certainly wouldn't do anything to hurt Maryland. It seemed to me like his only concern was Maryland, that was it."
Overall though, Atkins says his experience at Maryland was a good one. "i talked to other people who told me that places they went to were a lot worse," he said. "i'm glad I went to Maryland. I learned a lot about life and about people. I'm a lot more mature now than before because of what I went through.
"when you're healthy and everything's going great you have a million friends.But when you're hobbling around on a bad knee and you don't know if your're ever going to play again, you find out who your friends are."
"i've learned to expect bad things from people."
But as he sat in the loving room of his girlfriend's apartment, Donna Summer singing in the background, Atkins was more interested in talking about his future in Green Bay than reflecting his past at Maryland.
"i'm in good shape, right at 218, which is my playing weight," he said. "right now my only goal is to make the team and making it through Coach (Bart) Starr's training camp.
"in some ways I don't think I have anything to prove. I think I proved a lot my senior year and if I quit today, people would have to say Steve Atkins was a good player.
"but I know a lot of people still whisper about me. I'd like to prove to them that they got nothing to say."
Atkins' injuries (knee and back) and the nagging worry about his ability to get tough yards inside prevented him from being a first-round draft pick.
So now, one week into a training camp in wich he says his knee has not bothered him, Steve Atkins still has the "can-be-great" label on him.
The same as at Maryland.
"i still have mixed feelings about that place, I guess I always will," Atkins said, asked to sum up his feelings on the school. "I guess I'll go back to see some friends and to get my degree (he is six hours short) but I don't think I'll miss it a lot.
"but in a way, I understand how people feel. Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like if I had played a full fours years. I'll always wonder. I guess a lot of other people will wonder too.
"most of all I wonder what all those people would say about Steve Atkins if I hadn't been injured. It would probably be a lot of different. All the questions people are asking about me now would already have been answered." CAPTION: Picture, Steve Atkins "felt like a little kid" when he first arrived at Maryland, but says his style has changed. By Richard Darcey -- The Washington Post