BEREA, Ohio - It has almost been three years since Lewis Sanders heard the words that every football player fears.
He was sitting in his doctor's office, his right shoulder needing surgery.
He was just off a stellar sophomore season at Maryland, where he had 74 tackles as the team's starting safety.
Everything had been going so well. Even though his Terps had just struggled through a two-win season, he had caught the eyes of many in the Atlantic Coast Conference and across the country. The dreams he had while growing up in New York City, the dreams of playing in the NFL, were starting to take shape.
But now he had nerve damage in his shoulder, the result of a hit in the last game of the season against Georgia Tech. And suddenly everything was in question.
"The doctor told me there was a real chance I could never play again," Sanders said yesterday at the Cleveland Browns' practice facility. "But I knew I could, I knew it right after the surgery. I could just feel my shoulder getting stronger every day."
He was right. Even after the injury forced him to sit out the 1998 season, he now finds himself right where he hoped to be - in the NFL.
After putting together an impressive season with the Terps last fall, making 56 tackles and leading the ACC with six interceptions at cornerback, Sanders opted to skip his final year of eligibility and was drafted in the fourth round by the Browns, who play host to the Ravens at 1 p.m. Sunday.
And he has spent the first four weeks of his rookie season turning heads. He has five tackles and an interception in the first month of the season. Last week against the Oakland Raiders, the 6-foot, 200-pound rookie made one of the Browns' best defensive plays of the season, leaping in front of wide receiver James Jett to make a juggling interception.
The Raiders challenged the call and replays showed that Sanders had landed out of bounds, but it still was on many of the highlight reels. That play and his interception off the Bengals' Akili Smith in Week 2 have shown his big-play potential. And now it has many thinking he may challenge for a starting job in the near future.
"So far I'm just trying to do what I've been coached to do," Sanders said. "I've just been in the right place at the right time."
Sanders was part of the Browns' effort to revamp their defensive backfield. The team drafted four defensive backs, signed cornerback Earl Little away from the New Orleans Saints and safety Percy Ellsworth away from the New York Giants.
But Sanders, even though he had played cornerback only one year at Maryland, quickly stood out from the crowd in training camp and has been seeing more playing time than almost an other defensive backup.
"Lewis has been playing great," said cornerback Corey Fuller, who is the veteran in the Browns' defensive backfield. "He still has to work on his techniques, but he is most definitely improving every week."
Sanders has been around long enough, however, to recognize what a challenge he and his teammates have this week with the Ravens. He said he hadn't watched any film of the team, yet he already was expressing concern. "They've got great talent with the rookie [Travis Taylor], Jermaine Lewis and Qadry Ismail," Sanders said.
And as for his shoulder, he said that it is totally healed and he thinks all the problems with it are in the past. And that's good news for what he hopes is a bright future.