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San Diego Chargers safety Bob Sanders (center) impressed his teammates on and off the field before suffering a season-ending knee injury.
It was the news Bob Sanders hoped he'd never have to share again.
The Chargers safety walked to his fellow defensive backs during their Wednesday morning walkthrough and, with his usual soft-spoken tone, addressed the group together. He told them a decision had been made. His knee injury would sideline him the rest of the season.
For the fourth straight year, Sanders was placed on injured reserve.
“It's very tough to look at each other eye-to-eye when something like that happens,” safety Darrell Stuckey said. “Any time something like that happens to a great player or to anybody, it's never a good thing. But especially to him.”
Said safety Eric Weddle: “There's nothing really to say. We just wished him the best.”
The Sanders era in San Diego lasted a training camp and two games, but the 30-year-old's presence, however brief, was not in vain, as he left a resounding effect on Chargers defenders. They will face the Miami Dolphins on Sunday in their first game without him on the 53-man roster.
Co-captain linebacker Takeo Spikes said he was an “inspiration to all of us.”
Sanders played 102 of 117 defensive snaps in the team's first two games before waking up on a Monday morning with knee soreness. He dazzled as a decisive, instinctive tackler. In run support, every angle he took, no matter the degree, was right.
On maybe his most memorable snap, everything went wrong.
Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson took a second-quarter run in Week 1 through a gaping hole between right guard and tackle.
Sanders, the human protractor at seven yards depth on the opposite side, measured the play and began striding forward before quarterback Donovan McNabb could transfer the handoff.
“He was able to see things almost before they happened,” said Steve Gregory, who's filled Sanders' place in the starting lineup. “He had a good vision for runs and the way they developed.”
Peterson clutched the ball, jolted his accelerators and met Sanders five yards downfield. The defensive back's arms banged off the steam engine's legs for a missed tackle. In half an instant, Sanders popped from his knees and resumed chase.
Still rolling ahead, Peterson made a second defender miss at the Chargers' 39-yard line. He zigged past a third man at the 8.
The end zone was steps away, and there came the forgotten Sanders, the 2007 AP Defensive Player of the Year and a Super Bowl champion with the Indianapolis Colts, from behind, wrapping and pulling the runner to the ground four yards short of a score change.
“He got up and he hustled his ass down there to try to get (him), which he did,” said defensive coordinator Greg Manusky later that week. “We had a chance to play the next down. He's a ballplayer.”
Chargers cornerback Quentin Jammer sat at his locker Wednesday, hours after Sanders' announcement.
His deep voice rumbled lowly as he reflected with empathy on his teammate's string of physical hardship. Even if injuries, as it's often matter-of-factly stated, are part of the game, the Sanders sequence seemed especially cruel.
While applying lotion to his own ailment, a left hamstring injury, the memory of playing alongside Sanders brought a smile to his face.
“He wasn't one to shy away from contact,” Jammer said with a chuckle. “He brought attitude to each and every play. That's what we'll take from him: the fact that he brought attitude with every play he played.”
Sanders lasted two picks longer than Travis LaBoy in the second round of the 2004 NFL draft.
Seven years later, LaBoy noticed little changed: Sanders lasted longer.
LaBoy, an outside linebacker, stays at the Chargers facility in Mission Valley later than most, but there comes a time to flip the lights, turn the key, and push the pedal down Interstate 15.
Before exiting the complex, he'd see Sanders, studying more film.
Just like earlier when he saw Sanders, lifting extra in the weight room. Or when Sanders took long stretches from trainers. Or when he worked on minute technical details on the practice field.
“He's a professional, and he carries himself like a professional,” LaBoy said. “(Seeing that) is valuable for young guys. It's valuable for vets like myself. I look up to him and give him the utmost respect for the things he's done and the things he's capable of doing.”
Sanders was an active student in the Chargers film room.
On a given snap, to ensure all were on the same page, he'd ask Weddle what he saw as a play developed. He'd ask the cornerbacks. He'd ask secondary coach Steven Wilks.
Sanders was a pro, Weddle said, at “just being a pro.”
“Not settling for mediocre. Always wanting to be great,” Weddle said. “He'd prepare his butt off, and I do as well, but it just confirms what I do is the right thing when you see a guy like that. Just as a teammate and as a friend, he's a great guy. I don't think he ever said a bad thing about anyone. He was quiet and reserved but passionate and aggressive when he needed to be.”
Life as a rookie NFL cornerback has it bumps. During the lockout, the absence of OTAs and minicamp added a few potholes.
Lucky for Marcus Gilchrist, he had Sanders volunteering to help smoothen them out.
“He was always asking me if I was getting everything, how my body was feeling,” Gilchrist, 22, said. “He was kind of like a big brother-type. He was always checking up on me.”
Stuckey, 24, received similar assistance.
In training camp, Sanders gave pointers and encouraged the safety to keep working. During the season, as Stuckey began devoting more time to special teams, Sanders continued the support, lauding Stuckey for his performance and imploring him to continue.
"I think there's a mindset to guys you respect and feel are great players," coach Norv Turner said. "With what he's accomplished, I think he had our players' attention. He's got great work ethic, he knows how to prepare, and I think that rubbed off on some of our guys."
Sanders, his teammates know, would never miss a game if given the choice.
Without him now, they're left with the blueprint of a champion.
Play with humble attitude. Make the extra effort. Take care of your body. Take care of your teammates.
Do it all, and have an effect.
“Something to this extent cannot be controlled,” Stuckey said. “You can't control injuries. You can't control what happens to you. All you can do is pray. But he definitely left his impact on the NFL. He left his impact on this team. He left his impact on this secondary and especially me.”