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He Carried His Dream With Him, and Soon It Became a Reality

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No one has ever carried the football like Miami’s Robert Sowell. Not Walter Payton. Not Eric Dickerson. Not even Jim (I Am the Greatest) Brown.

Those other guys carried the football for a living.

Robert Sowell carried one for life.

For a solid year, Sowell took his football wherever he went. He took it to restaurants. He took it to work. He took it when he went jogging. He took it along on dates. He took the football with him to bed.

Linus has his blanket, Sowell his football. Whatever works for you.

“I carried it around because I wanted to keep my mind on football,” Sowell said Wednesday. “There were things in Columbus (Ohio), like drugs, stealing, things you could get into. I kept the football with me to remind me what I was here for.”

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Sowell was put on earth, he was convinced, to play professional football.

Hardly anyone agreed with him.

The football was a game ball from high school, Mifflin High in Columbus. Sowell had scored two touchdowns that night. Glory days.

He went off to college for a season at Howard University in Washington, D.C., but there were problems with grades and Sowell’s father had a stroke. So he came home, gave up his scholarship, but hung on to a dream.

“I carried that football to keep the dream alive,” Sowell said.

The dream was pro football. And now, Sowell is in the Super Bowl as a special kind of special teams player who flirts with his mortality on each mad hurtle downfield. He slams into the wedge, or he slams into the ball carrier. Occasionally, he gets knocked out, but more often he is putting the knock on someone else. He made the team because of an exhibition game in which he accounted for six special-teams tackles. You’ve seen the type before--in the movies anyway. Sowell is the kind who volunteers for the suicide mission.

There are others in the NFL like that, at least one to a team. But there are no others quite like Sowell. His path to the Super Bowl was so fantastic, so incredible, that even Sowell has problems believing it.

His peculiar journey--which doubles as a study in determination--went something like this:

Sowell dropped out of school in 1980 and went to work rust-proofing cars. In 1981, he went to Canada to try out for the Toronto Argonauts, who cut him. They sent him to Sacramento to play semipro ball for the Twin City Cougars, where he played for $50 a week, an apartment and food stamps. In 1982, he quit his job at a warehouse, where he was making $2 an hour, for a promise of a tryout with the Chicago Blitz of the USFL. The Blitz told him to come back next year.

Finally, it was June of 1983, Sowell’s class had graduated, and he was eligible to play in the NFL. Now, all he needed was a team that wanted him.

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“I started writing resumes and stuff to all the teams,” Sowell said. “I got ‘em typed up and made Xeroxes of ‘em and signed ‘em myself. My lady and I went to the library in Columbus to look up the addresses.”

What could he tell these teams? That he was all-state in high school, that he was second-team all-conference his one year at Howard, that he was cut by the CFL, that he was a special-teams player in the California semipro league, that he had been working out religiously for three years and that he carried a football with him wherever he went?

Maybe this sounds like a high school dropout applying for Harvard Law School, but NFL teams aren’t so picky about pedigree and degrees. What they want to know is, can he play?

The Dolphins were one of five teams responding positively to Sowell’s application, and Charley Winner, their chief scout, followed with a call. Another Dolphin scout, Elbert Dubenion, who lives in Ohio, went to Columbus to take a look at the 5-11, 180-pounder and liked what he saw. Sowell got invited to camp. “It was a struggle. I was struggling hard,” Sowell said of life before the Dolphins. “Sometimes I would just sit by myself and cry. This was a rough life, what I was trying to accomplish. I told myself, ‘I’m going to keep on going. I want to get that one tryout in the NFL and if doesn’t work out, I’ll just leave it alone.’ ”

He got the tryout and, of course, he was scared to death. Don Shula didn’t know who he was. Neither did any of the players. They called him Kroeter, after the unknown rookie in the beer commercial. The nickname stuck. So did Sowell.

All he had to give to the Dolphins was his life. Or at least a limb. He played all out.

“I knew I wouldn’t get no shot at defensive back,” Sowell said. “I didn’t go to school and didn’t have good coaching. I knew on special teams, you can’t get coached. On special teams you have to just go out and throw yourself at somebody. I knew I was good at doing that.”

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After that six-tackle exhibition game against Washington, Sowell heard his first words from Shula. They were encouraging.

When Sowell learned he had made the team, he called up his mom. She was about the only one he could talk to.

“I was on a cloud for about a week and half because my dream had come true,” said Sowell, who enjoys telling his story almost as much as he has enjoyed living it. “I didn’t know what to say. I was interviewed on television and I didn’t say nothing. I couldn’t believe that it had happened.”

He led the special teams in 1983 and ’84 and has become a respectable reserve defensive back, whom the Dolphins pay $63,000 a year. Now, he’s in the Super Bowl.

“This right here is something unreal,” he said. “I never dreamed about going to no Super Bowl at all.”

No, the dream he dreamed was impossible enough. There’s only so much you can hope for.

Now, Sowell doesn’t have to carry that football anymore. His father has it back in Columbus, locked away in a safe. It is, after all, more than a football. It’s a dream worth hanging on to.

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