INDIANAPOLIS -- Bob Sanders was on the verge of accomplishing the impossible. The 5-year-old boy's Big Wheel was flying down the steep, gravel-covered hill, and he was about to catch up to his bicycle-riding 10-year-old friend.
But just before they reached the bottom of the hill, the kids collided. Sanders flew through the air and landed face-first on a gravel road. When the teary-eyed boy returned home, his mother panicked. Hundreds of tiny pebbles had embedded themselves in Bob's face and the top layer of skin had begun to peel away.
"She didn't know what to do," Sanders says. "She was worried it was going to get infected. She kept yelling at my dad, 'We've got to take him to the hospital. There's no way my son is going to sit here with rocks stuck in his face.'"
But Marion Sanders told his wife to relax. Everything would be fine. Working in an iron foundry, he had seen some horrific accidents. So he picked up his son, took him into the other room and, piece by piece, peeled the excess skin off his face while pulling out all the pebbles. When he finished, Jean changed her son's clothes, covered his face in ointment and told him to stay put. But Bob didn't listen.
"He walked out the door, grabbed his Big Wheel and headed right back for that hill," Marion Sanders says. "He was just so determined. I told my wife to just let him go. It was something he needed to do."
And so the legend of Bob Sanders was born. By age 5, his dad was pulling rocks out of his face and the kid never cried during that. Some 21 years later, the former tough-as-nails toddler is building a reputation as one of the toughest, hardest-hitting defenders in football. He plays without fear, crossing the field from sideline to sideline, flattening any ball carrier or vulnerable receiver who dares to cross his path.
"If you hit somebody hard enough, they will give up," Bob Sanders says. "You can feel their body go limp and they'll just surrender. So every time I hit somebody, the goal is to knock myself out. I know that if I hit somebody hard enough that I can feel it, it's hurting them 10 times worse."
Sunday, when the Colts host the New England Patriots in a matchup of NFL unbeatens, the 5-foot-8 safety will be the shortest player on the field. Yet he'll play like the biggest.
Along with Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu and Baltimore's Ed Reed, Sanders is a game changer, a safety who can hit like a linebacker and cover like a corner. While several NFL coaches such as Tony Dungy and Gary Kubiak think he's the best safety in the NFL, the announcers in the "Monday Night Football" booth can't decide whether he reminds them more of Jack Bauer or Chuck Norris.
On the Internet, there's a list of jokes once saved only for Norris and Bauer that now includes the Colts' safety.
• When Bob Sanders executes a push-up, he does not push himself up. He pushes the earth down.
• There is no theory of evolution, just a list of creatures Bob Sanders allows to live.
• Superman wears Bob Sanders underwear.
Imagine if they knew that, after falling off the top of a slide and landing on a concrete slab at age 3, Sanders walked away with just a bump on his head. Or that later that same year, after falling off a bar stool and landing face-first on a concrete patio, he suffered only a bruise.
Sanders shrugs off most of the praise he now receives, giving credit for his toughness to his dad, who gave up his dreams of becoming a prizefighter so he could spend 32½ years working 17-hour shifts to support his wife and eight children.
That, Bob Sanders says, is where his work ethic and tenacity come from. That's why he never slows down on any play in any practice or any game. That's the reason he willingly throws his body all over the field, sacrificing his own well-being for the good of his football team.
Sanders knows only one speed: warp. And he accepts only one result: victory. It's the reason he was able to help rebuild the Iowa football program and help restore the Colts' defense. In many ways, it's the reason he headed back to that gravel hill to hop back on that Big Wheel as a 5-year-old.
"That's just the way I am. It's the way I've always been," he says. "As a kid, I would play until I passed out. I would run to the store, I would run to my friend's house. My mom would tell me to slow down but I couldn't. I didn't know how. That's just me."
Bringing the heat
Bob Sanders was just trying to improve, doing everything he could to maximize the opportunity the Iowa coaches gave him that fall day. So when the coaches blew the whistle on the new tackling drill, Sanders acted like himself, flattening his teammates as hard as he possibly could. Only they weren't used to this new kid. And not all of them approved.
"The older guys couldn't stand it," Sanders says. "I would come up in line and you would see the guys on the other side shifting around and moving to the back of the line. They didn't want to go against me."
As the drill went on, so did the shifting in line, until it finally got to the point where no one would step forward to challenge the freshman.
"The coaches were looking at everybody like, 'What the hell is going on?'" he says. "But everybody just stood there. Nobody would come forward and try to hit me."
While Sanders' personality was just the shot of intensity Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz craved, it also was a danger to his teammates. Sanders once separated running back Fred Russell's shoulder during a drill, prompting Ferentz to instruct the defensive coaches to hold Sanders out of several full-contact drills -- for his safety and the team's.
"I'd like to say we instilled that in him, but that's the way Bob showed up," Ferentz says. "That's just Bob. And even though some of those guys getting hit weren't thrilled by it, boy were we glad to see him. He brought a toughness that our team needed."
Sanders has brought the exact same lunch-pail mentality to Indianapolis, where he arrived four years ago to join Dwight Freeney as the cornerstones of a hard-hitting, physical defense the Colts desperately needed to complement the Peyton Manning-led high-scoring offense.
And to even the most novice football fan, the results have been obvious. In the 12 games Sanders missed with a knee injury last season, the Colts surrendered an NFL-worst 173 rushing yards per game. In the four playoff games with Sanders, the average dropped to 83 yards. He had a key pass deflection in the AFC Championship Game and a crucial interception in the Super Bowl. This year, with Sanders missing just one of the Colts' seven victories, Indianapolis has surrendered the fourth-fewest yards (272.9) and the second-fewest points (14.6) in the NFL.
"He simply doesn't accept someone not being physical," says Ed Hinkel, who played with Sanders in high school, college and briefly with the Colts. "If you don't make the tackle or hit the other team hard enough, Bob is going to get mad. He wants everyone on the field to know that he is there and his team is there."
But playing football the Sanders way takes its toll. He missed 11 games his rookie year with the Colts for various injuries and then the 12 games last year with a balky knee. Yet tell Sanders to slow down and think about his future and he shakes his head.
"This is how I play," he says. "If I was to change the way I played, I wouldn't be Bob Sanders. And then those same people who want me to change would be asking me why I didn't give the extra effort to make a play.
"The people who know me, the people who respect the way I play, they know that I'm pushing myself to get better on every single play. I never want to get to the point where I feel like I've arrived and I'm at a standstill. Because once you're there, the only way to go is down."
The man behind the motivation
The thumb is mangled, bent and twisted in awkward directions. For Marion Sanders, it is a reminder of the worst day in his three decades as a laborer.
That night, Marion Sanders accidentally slammed a 20-pound sledgehammer onto his left thumb. But instead of screaming or dashing to the hospital, he shook off the pain and continued to work. With a wife and eight kids to support, he felt he had no choice.
"It was throbbing, it was awful," he says. "But I couldn't afford to leave. So I kept on like nothing happened. A little pain wasn't going to get in the way."
The next morning, when Sanders' wife saw her husband's twisted and swollen thumb and ordered him to the emergency room, he ignored her. Instead, he went away from his children and stuck a knife into the thumb, easing the swelling and pressure on his own by draining some of the excess blood and puss.
Bob Sanders didn't watch his father cut his thumb. He didn't need to. He could see it was awkwardly crooked. He could see the pain on his dad's face. And for all the talk he had heard about toughness, about giving 110 percent and about making something of himself, the sight of that thumb spoke louder than any lecture.
So now, Bob Sanders goes to work every day, acting as if his life is at stake because that's all he knows. He does it to honor a man who spent more than three decades in a sweaty factory so he and his mother and seven brothers and sisters could eat. He does it because he knows that back in Erie, Pa., that same man is living his dreams through the accomplishments of his youngest son.
Just ask Bob Sanders and he'll tell you. At this point in his career, what is he is most proud of? Not winning a Super Bowl. Not becoming the Colts' first Pro Bowl defensive back since the team moved to Indianapolis. Not helping Iowa to its first undefeated Big Ten season in 80 years. And not having his jersey retired at Erie's Cathedral Prep High School.
"I'm most proud that I made my parents proud," he says. "I'm proud that when they talk about me, they can smile and tell people that Bob made something of himself.
"All the work my dad put in, all the days and weeks that went by when I didn't see him, he gets to see the benefits of all that now. He smiles more, he's happier. It's brought us so much closer together. And that makes me smile."
When the Colts face the Patriots this Sunday, Marion and Jean Sanders will watch from inside the RCA Dome. They attend every Colts home game and an occasional road contest, too. Their son has bought them a car and a truck and paid off the mortgage on the house where Bob grew up. They talk by phone just about every day, sharing simple small talk like, "How are you?" and "How was practice?"
But for all the perks that come along with having a son who has achieved NFL cult status stardom, nothing makes his mom and dad happier than hearing a football analyst praise their son's toughness or work ethic. They know the work he put in. They know the work they put in. And now they can sit back and smile.
"I always wanted one of my sons to be a prizefighter because I was never able to chase that dream," Marion Sanders says. "But with Bob, I got the next best thing. He plays football like a prizefighter. And now I'm able to live my dreams through him.
"I've already told him he never has to do anything else for his mom and I. He's given us enough. He's let us know that all that hard work, all those long days, it was all worth it."
Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.