CLEVELAND -- Dr. Thomas M. Grunder, 41, quit wondering if athletes today are any different than 20 years ago. He found out.

He masqueraded as a wide receiver at Eastern Michigan University's spring drills to gather material for a book. He wanted to answer some technical, medical, psychological and educational questions in that book.

He is an assistant professor of Family Medicine at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland. But in the mid-1960s, he was a four-year starter for Eastern Michigan. One year he caught 59 passes for 1,014 yards. One game he caught nine, a school record. But recently he began wondering about that 20-year gap.

So what better way to study college athletes than to play again?

"I got the idea when I was watching the Ohio State-Michigan game," he said, "and I saw a bunch of passes dropped which I thought were catchable. I began fuming about it.

"Afterward, my words kept coming back to me. Was I right? You know how we old-timers are -- we thought we were the best. We had more desire, we were more hungry.

"Anyhow, that's how the idea was born, to go through an entire spring training session with the football team and then write about the experiences."

First things first, however.

As a collegian, he was 6 feet 4 and 235 pounds.

He still is 6-4, but the similarity between Tom Grunder, football player, and Dr. Thomas M. Grunder, holder of four college degrees, ends with his height. His weight had ballooned to 275 pounds and he was smoking up to two packs of cigarettes a day.

First, he quit smoking. Then he began daily workouts and dieted away more than 40 pounds. He then approached EMU sports information director Jim Streeter with the idea. Streeter thought it had merit, but the man who had to be convinced was Hurons Coach Jim Harkema.

Harkema shrugged it off as being detrimental to spring workouts.

"At first, I disregarded the idea," Harkema said. "But Streeter and Grunder persisted and Jim kept bugging me.

"Finally, Grunder came up to see me personally. He had lost all that weight and had quit smoking and I could see how serious he really was. This guy was no crackpot. So, I agreed."

Grunder still had to convince the NCAA. That august organization declared he could participate in spring practice, though it allowed him just four plays in the spring game.

But Grunder was in, and he was ready -- or so he imagined.

"I thought I was in decent shape," he said. "I had lost the weight, quit smoking and had passed my stress tests before practice started.

"I didn't want to have that much contact in practice, just to get a taste of it. But on the first day of practice, I blew both hamstrings. I spent a lot of time in the training room."

Finally, the big day came -- the spring game.

And just like 20 years ago, he had his strategy all figured out.

He would use his same, old pass pattern, the sequence that allowed him to become Eastern Michigan's first 1,000-yard pass receiver and make its second-longest scoring reception (73 yards).

The ritual was simple enough. A 2-play sequence in which Grunder had to do a little acting.

Run at half-speed the first time downfield. After lulling the defensive back into a false sense of security, blow by him like the second time, then look up and catch the ball.

On this particular day, however, his body lied to him. His sequence play, and even a third-down pass, all fell incomplete.

"It was a typical Michigan day in March. Chilly and windy and the ball was doing some funny things," he said. "But when the quarterback overthrew me, he probably saved my life.

"When I couldn't reach that third-down pass, I looked at that defensive back and he had cross-hairs in his eyeballs."

"The mind was willing, but the legs were gone," said Harkema, "but he and the kids got along extremely well. His presence helped to alleviate some of the doldrums of spring training. It turned out to be an upbeat thing."

Even though Grunder walked away without a reception, he had what he came for.

"You know what I discovered? Athletes today are bigger, stronger, faster and smarter. I thought I was big until I stood beside some of those linemen on the field. However, the same kind of values we believed in 20 years ago are prevalent out there to be learned today.

"Sports do build character. There's no shortcut to success, no half way to get where you're going, and sports teaches you that. You work for what you get. My sports background has helped me through every phase of my profession.

Halfway through his book, he already has a title: "Fourth and Forty."