ANDERSON, Ind. -- Banged-up Bob.
Who wants to be called that? But it certainly fits for Indianapolis Colts safety Bob Sanders, who has missed more games in his career than he has started, a variety of injuries limiting the 2007 NFL Defensive Player of the Year for most of his six years in the league.
You know things are bad on the injury front when a summer report hit NFL.com that said Sanders might be forced to retire, which was big news to Sanders.
"That was like something from the tabloids," Sanders said. "It was all laughable. It was kind of funny. I just shrugged it off and kept going."
That report sure looked erroneous Monday when Sanders took part in the Colts' first practice of training camp. For Sanders, getting out on the field for the first day of camp was something he hasn't done since 2007, making the reports of his demise all the more wrong. Sanders had opened on the PUP (physically unable to perform) list three of the past four years.
The truth is, Sanders said he barely paid attention to the report, but said he got calls from friends, family and teammates wondering if it was true, all with the same question: Was his career really over after six years?
"You can come up with any type of stuff, speculation about how guys are doing," Sanders said. "The only thing that is important is that I was here today and I'm ready. I'm as healthy as I've been in a long time. It's kind of weird they said my career was over."
When Sanders has been on the field during his six seasons, he has been one of the best safeties in the NFL, and some say the heart of the Indianapolis defense. But it's hard to make plays from outside the lines.
That has led him to become the new "but" man on the Colts roster. Peyton Manning used to be that guy, but he won a Super Bowl to erase that.
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Now it's Sanders. He's one of the best defensive players in the league, but ... he can't stay healthy.
Sanders started 45 of a possible 96 games in his career. Last season, he started two but a sore knee limited him early and a torn biceps tendon ended his season in early November. Only twice in his career, in 2005 and 2007, has Sanders started more than 10 games. Both times, he went to the Pro Bowl. He has eight starts total in the past two seasons.
It's no wonder he seemed a bit testy when I asked him about some of the injury woes. Sanders is really a likeable guy, a pro's pro who gets it, but you can tell the constant talk of missing time is wearing on him, even if he said it isn't.
"I'm just going to worry about the things I can control," Sanders said. "I can't worry myself crazy if I say I'm this type of player, while everybody else is saying this about me. It can't be: Why did I miss so many games. Why me? Why me? Why me? I know everything happens for a reason. I just have to continue to grow as a player."
His teammates rave about the guy. They love his work ethic, his passion, his heart and his big-hitting ability.
"He brings an energy level that is a bit unusual," Colts coach Jim Caldwell said. "He packs a punch. He creates a lot of excitement. Guys seem to rally around him."
Melvin Bullitt filled in for Sanders last season and played well as the Colts made it to the Super Bowl, where they lost to the Saints. Bullit isn't as good as Sanders, which is why getting Sanders back is like adding a star free agent to the roster.
It's also why the Colts are so excited about their defense, and especially the secondary. If Sanders can stay on the field, he will team with free safety Antoine Bethea, who has gone to the Pro Bowl each of the past two seasons. And Bullitt is more than a capable backup. Add in a quality corner duo of Kelvin Hayden and Jerraud Powers, and the Colts have a secondary that might be one of the best in the NFL.
At 5-8, 206 pounds, Sanders is a fierce tackler who doesn't shy away from contact. He is good at meeting runners head-on in the hole, usually winning those battles. As a smallish safety -- at least from a height standpoint -- there is speculation he has been banged up because of his style.
He's a smaller man who plays with a big heart and packs a big punch, which could help explain the injuries. Just don't expect him to change his style. That's not Sanders' way. As long as he's on the field, he will bring it.
|It's not too much of a stretch to say that the Colts defense isn't the same without Bob Sanders on the field. (AP)|
Asked if the injuries might have come from the way he played, Sanders shrugged.
"I can't point to anything like that," Sanders said. "The doctors and myself don't know. It could be the way I play. I don't know. Some people say my bones are weak. You can say all different things. I don't have an answer."
How about jinx?
"I don't believe in that stuff," he said. "Whatever."
The interesting thing about his missed time is that before his biceps tear last year, he never really had major injuries. It has been a bunch of little things that have kept him out, but no torn ACL or neck or back injuries.
I asked Sanders how he tore the biceps muscle. Maybe it's just one of many injuries, and they all run together, but he didn't know.
"You tell me," he said. "I'm sure you watched the play."
"I can't remember," I said.
"Me neither," Sanders said. "I'm moving forward. It's a new year. I'm healthy. This is the best I've felt in a long time."
The skeptics will say it won't last. Some cruel people might even have a pool to pick which game he goes down.
No wonder Sanders is frustrated with the talk. It's why he retreated some last season. The often-quoted player became invisible, lost in the glare of a special team that went to the Super Bowl.
Wouldn't you hide if your reputation were that of Banged-up Bob?