"Sure, they told me I was nuts."

Who?

"Everybody. Even the alcoholics and the reefer heads sleeping in the park said I was crazy. I'd be out there at 7 a.m. in the winter with six inches of snow on the ground and I'd be playing football by myself eight hours a day."

Alone?

"Yeah, alone. For three years. In winter, I'd backpedal in my boots, run wind sprints, do agility drills. Go home, lift weights, have lunch, come back. Do it all again. I blocked winter out of my mind. I pictured summer . . .

"I carried a football with me 24 hours a day for one whole year, just to keep my mind in the right place . . . By the end, I think even my parents worried that I was living in a fantasy.

"But I was put on this earth for something . . .

"Those guys (in the park), I still appreciate 'em. They'd be trippin' out watching me pretend to cover receivers in the snow all by myself, wearing that 22-pound weight jacket. But they'd help me -- my ol' pardners -- keep me company, run some patterns, laugh at me.

"I still go back and talk to 'em.

"This winter, I'm going to tell them about playing in the Super Bowl."

In 1979, little 150-pound Robert Sowell had to drop out of Howard University after his freshman year to help support his family after his father had a stroke. He had to go back to Columbus, Ohio, and unload 300-pound bales all day and rust-proof the bellies of trucks to help make ends meet.

No more dream of a college degree.

Or hopes of playing in the NFL.

Just the memory of that one year at Howard when Sowell made second-team all-MEAC and he and a couple of defensive back buddies nicknamed themselves Dr. Death, Dr. Doom and Dr. Destruction.

Because he'd played a year of college ball, Sowell had to wait for his class to graduate in '83 before he was eligible to play in the NFL. Sowell was left in football limbo. Three years with only time on his hands.

That's how the story usually ends. Little man, big dream, harsh reality.

But Sowell -- pronounced "so well" as in "he played so well" -- wouldn't play by reality's rules.

He'd come back exhausted from work and then start his real training: upper body weights, lower body weights, sprints and a two-mile run.

The Canadian league and the USFL gave him the horselaugh. You played one year at Howard? When? You're how big?

Go away.

The semipro Twin City Cougars in Sacramento, Calif., took him for a year, then didn't even call back the next.

Sowell wrote to every NFL team in the summer of '83. The Colts wrote back and said, "We get 2,000 people each year who tell us they can play football."

In his letter, Sowell wrote why he played. "I said, 'Pro football is something I've been wanting to do since I've been living and it's something I'm going to do before I leave this world.' "

Four teams wrote back and said that if Sowell wanted to show up for a tryout, they'd put a stopwatch on him. The Miami Dolphins, fresh off the Super Bowl, wrote back and said they'd pay his way to a tryout.

Maybe Don Shula liked the letter.

In 1951, Shula was the only rookie to make the world champion Cleveland Browns' roster. One day in training camp, Shula knocked huge Marion Motley cold with a tackle. Legendarily stern Coach Paul Brown, mistaking Shula for another rookie, yelled, "Nice tackle, Taseff."

"The name is Shula," said Shula.

The practice field fell silent.

Brown, who almost never smiled, smiled. "I'll try to remember," he said.

On Shula's office wall today is a photo of Brown, Shula and current Shula assistant Carl Taseff that's inscribed, "Nice tackle, Taseff, (signed) Paul Brown."

At the Dolphins' tryout camp in 1983, Sowell, 5-10 and 180 pounds, told himself, "One fair shot. That's all I ask." He remembers that, "I got funny looks, stares. A no-name guy. No school . . . Duriel Harris beat me deep and laughed at me."

Sowell whispered to Harris, "I'm gonna get ya."

A few minutes later, Harris was flat on his back. Sowell had no polish, no technique, despite three years of watching every TV game imaginable. But he could knock the hats off men 70 pounds bigger than he was. Frequently.

Soon, Miami vets nicknamed Sowell "Kroeter" after that scruffy unknown rookie in the TV beer commercial who has his name taped on his helmet and earns everybody's respect with his grit.

"Duriel named me," says Sowell.

Before the last cut, Miami played the Redskins in an exhibition in Washington. Sowell knew "that was the day I had to get Shula's head turned."

The Redskins put 250-pound Dexter Manley on Sowell on special teams and Sowell smoked him, leading his team in tackles with six -- all solos and all on spectacular open-field special teams hits.

"Best game I've ever seen a player have on special teams," said Shula.

The rest, as they always say, is history. In '83, Sowell was Miami's special teams player of the year. He had 20 tackles; he sped downfield and caught three punts on the fly inside the five.

This year, he's better. Sowell gets double- and even triple-teamed on special teams, but still has 19 solo tackles. The Cardinals put three men on him -- two linebackers and a tackle -- and, according to the Dolphins, "Sowell knocked all three of them down."

Against the Eagles, Sowell knocked himself unconscious with a hit. "It's a moment I cherish." Why? "Because," says Sowell, "on the films, Shula told the team, 'That's the way you hit.' "

Now, Sowell (No. 45) is just one Miami victory away from his ultimate dream: the Super Bowl.

"The money's gonna spend, but the ring you can show your grandchildren," says Sowell. "O.J. doesn't have a ring. Neither does Payton. They're rich, but they don't have that feeling of being part of a world champion. I want it."

How does Sowell explain his fantastic journey?

"When things were bad, I looked inside myself," he says, "and found out I had my own little individual mind."