Underwood Taking Small Steps in NFL

Monday, May 8th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

IRVING, Texas (AP) — Sprawled across a navy blue sofa, Dimitrius Underwood doesn't have a care in the world.

He's sound asleep in the middle of the Dallas Cowboys locker room. A morning practice is done and now it's the lunch hour. A nap is his favorite way to prepare for the upcoming defensive meeting and second practice of the day.

The serene scene doesn't seem to fit. All the public really knows about this 23-year-old lineman is that he didn't make it with two NFL teams and once slashed his own throat with steak knives.

Yet, here he is, three days into his first minicamp with his third team and ... nothing.

He participated in every drill of every session. He was the left defensive end on the first team for two days, then joined the second team when an injured starter returned.

If you didn't know he was No. 91, you wouldn't have known he was there.

No news is definitely good news for Underwood. It's a sign he might finally be headed in the right direction.

About five minutes before the meeting, former Michigan State teammate Flozell Adams wakes Underwood by gently rubbing his head. Underwood walks to his locker and agrees to speak to several reporters who've been waiting for him.

``Things are going good, man, going good,'' Underwood said as he squeezed a foot into a shoe.

Good enough to talk about all he's been through and why things might be different this time?

``Nah,'' he said, slipping on the other shoe. ``I just want to talk about football.''

There isn't much football to talk about, though. Underwood hasn't played in a game that counted since 1997, his junior year as a Spartan.

An ankle injury forced him to miss his senior season, but he'd shown enough that the Minnesota Vikings took him 29th overall in last year's draft. Then they gave him a $5.3 million, five-year contract and a $1.75 million bonus.

Underwood bolted from training camp the next day and wasn't heard from for several days. When he resurfaced, he said his heart wasn't into football; he'd rather do ministry work. So the Vikings tore up his contract, got the bonus back and released him.

Underwood changed his mind again when the Miami Dolphins called.

He signed for $395,000 and no bonus and was offered the chance to sit out all season. Instead, he began practicing on a Tuesday and was thrown into an exhibition game that Friday. In the third quarter, he dislocated his left shoulder.

The bizarre case turned frightening a few weeks later when Underwood was found bleeding from his neck on a street in Lansing, Mich. Police later discovered he'd used two steak knives to cut his throat while visiting his girlfriend and their young twins.

Underwood went into protective care for two months, then committed himself to a mental health center only to flee hours later. The Dolphins gave up on him the next week.

In March, he signed with Dallas.

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said Underwood's agents called him because they were impressed by the team's player counseling program. Last season, the in-house unit overseen by Calvin Hill helped Alonzo Spellman revive his career after personal problems derailed it.

Spellman went through 1 1/2 years of erratic behavior that cost him his job with the Chicago Bears and nearly his career. The Cowboys gave him a chance, but only for the veteran minimum and no guarantees.

Things clicked. Spellman became an anchor on the defensive line and a source of inspiration in the locker room, earning a huge raise this summer.

Jones, who was personally involved in the signing and treatment of Spellman, spent about two weeks researching whether Underwood was a risk worth taking. He ended up signing him for two years.

``I know how he's approaching this both on and off the field and I think it's got a good chance to work,'' Jones said. ``We aren't talking about someone who has been in life long enough to create any hard and fast evaluation of what their behavior is. We all have changed our behavior and there is no reason to believe he can't if he has the proper influences.''

Underwood weighs about 310 pounds, 20 over his preferred playing weight, but it hardly shows on his 6-foot-6 frame. More evident is a fleshy scar just above his collar that serves as a permanent reminder of how close he came to never playing again.

Underwood is trying hard to make the most of his third chance. He works out twice a day, with Spellman often joining him for evening sessions. Although neither would discuss their relationship, it's apparent they've become close.

``He's light years ahead of where I was when I came here,'' Spellman said. ``I couldn't even imagine going through what I went through at his age and being able to rebound as fast as he did. It's truly incredible.''

Spellman was especially impressed with what he saw at minicamp.

``Dimitrius has made strides on the football field a lot faster than I did coming back,'' Spellman said. ``I haven't seen a blown assignment yet. I blew so many assignments my first couple of days, it was crazy.

``He's really doing well and I'm not blowing smoke. You can see it on the film.''

Underwood shrugs off the praise.

``The speed of the game is still the same. It's like riding a bike,'' he said. ``The terminology here is a little different, but a 4-3 defense is a 4-3 defense wherever you're at.''

Coaches seem optimistic but cautious. They realize he could become a great player, yet are trying to keep expectations low.

``He's got to prove things on the field and off the field before I put any pressure on him,'' coach Dave Campo said.

Underwood has made one off-field slip-up: He was caught driving 95 mph on an interstate in Virginia nine days after signing with the Cowboys. His driver's license was suspended for a year and he was fined $350, plus $40 in court costs.

As for his on-field progress, defensive ends coach Jim Jeffcoat said Underwood looks good.

``He's improving every day,'' Jeffcoat said. ``That's all we ask of him.''