Among the feel-good scripts so far this season in college football, consider the one submitted by Maryland cornerback Lewis Sanders. It's about patience and trust, a year on the sideline after shoulder surgery and his newfound love for the game.
Sanders leads the nation in kickoff returns with a 44.5 yards per game average, padded by a 98-yard touchdown against Western Carolina. He also has intercepted a pass in each of Maryland's first three games which ties him for fifth in the nation, broken up a total of five passes, made 12 tackles, forced a fumble and returned a fumble recovery 28 yards for a touchdown.
Sanders was named Atlantic Coast Conference special teams player of the week after his performance against Western Carolina. After six tackles, an interception, two pass breakups and that touchdown on a fumble recovery against West Virginia last Saturday, Sanders was named the ACC's defensive back of the week. Not since running back Leon Johnson of North Carolina five years ago has a player won special teams honors and the award for an offensive or defensive position in consecutive weeks.
"I've been blessed," he said.
Coming out of high school in Staten Island, N.Y., Sanders was lightly regarded by most colleges and says of home-state school Syracuse: "Didn't even write a letter. Nothing. Maryland was the closest school that recruited me."
Sanders admitted his work habits were poor, even early on at Maryland, where he played in all 11 games as a true freshman and started 10 at free safety as a sophomore. That second season, he had three interceptions against Temple, finished third on the team in tackles with 74 and returned a kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown against North Carolina.
In the final game of the 1997 season, against Georgia Tech, Sanders suffered a serious shoulder injury. One doctor told him he needed an operation almost immediately, which would require taking a nerve from his calf and grafting it into his shoulder. Such surgery, he was told, might keep him inactive for two seasons.
Sanders's aunt is a doctor in Alabama and she suggested a second opinion from a surgeon in New Orleans who had written a book about injuries similar to his. The surgeon said the recommended surgery would end Sanders's football career, because the nerve from his leg would never be strong enough to withstand the hard tackles defensive backs must make.
But he also told Sanders that the nerve in his shoulder might regenerate on its own and advised him to wait on the operation. Within five months of the injury, Sanders could detect improvement. After waiting another four months, Sanders still needed season-ending surgery, but only to tighten the shoulder.
The season away from football allowed the shoulder to mend, and also caused Sanders to realize how much he missed the sport. He started studying the game and that, along with speed he says is 4.27 seconds over 40 yards, helped make his comeback so special.
"It was a wake-up call maybe," said Maryland defensive backs coach Doug Mallory. "What sets him apart now is his work ethic."
Attention to detail helped Sanders make one of the key plays for Maryland during its 33-0 victory over West Virginia. Late in the second quarter, with the game scoreless, the Mountaineers tried a fake punt on fourth and seven from the Maryland 34. They had their regular personnel on the field, including defensive back Jerry Porter on the outside. Freshman punter Mike Fazzolari lofted the ball down the right sideline, trying for a completion or a pass-interference call on Sanders.
But Sanders broke up the pass cleanly, Maryland took over and moved quickly for a 7-0 lead it never relinquished.
Sanders's success at corner has come more quickly than nearly everyone expected because he is so new to the position. He played free safety in high school and was planted there as a freshman at Maryland after a brief try at corner.
"Spring ball was hard, real hard, because I had to change almost my whole mentality," he said. "A safety's mind-set is more run. A corner thinks more about the pass. Even back pedaling was difficult to adjust to."
Only three other players at Maryland have returned kickoffs for touchdowns and Sanders has more than a season and a half to tie the career record (two) himself. He also knows how dangerous football can be. In addition to the shoulder injury, he has had three concussions: one in high school, another in spring ball as a Maryland freshman and the most recent late in the third quarter of the season opener against Temple about three weeks ago.
"I don't worry about any of that," he said. "I never actually had any doubt that I'd come back from the shoulder injury. But I never imagined anything like this happening."
CAPTION: Lewis Sanders earned ACC defensive back of the week honors after returning a fumble recovery for a touchdown against West Virginia last Saturday.