Sanders matures into leader

Sean Corp and Sean Corp

Steve Sanders is blessed with the size, speed and athleticism to be a dominant player in college football and to succeed in the NFL. But it is another blessing that has made Sanders the star player he is today.

It isn’t the fortune of having a quarterback like Omar Jacobs throwing you perfect passes game after game. In fact, it doesn’t have anything to do with football. Sanders’ blessing occurred off the field.

He became a father.

“When I started I was very immature,” Sanders said. “I thought the world revolved around me.”

Coach Gregg Brandon said Sanders has come a long way in the five years he has been on the team.

“When Steve came into the program five years ago, he was kind of a misfit. He struggled early on to just be a Division I player,” Brandon remembered. “He’s really grown and matured.”

Nothing changes your life like the birth of a child and, as is typical of a young man finding out that he’s having a baby, Sanders was nervous.

Was he ready to have a kid? Could he be a great football player and still be a great father? Was life as he knew it over?

Sanders now realizes it is the best thing that has ever happened in his life, and it has made him an even better football player.

“A blessing in disguise,” Sanders said.

Little Amir Sanders, 2, is a typical two-year-old according to Sanders: spoiled, cute, watches cartoons like “The Lion King” over and over again, plays with toys. Strangely enough, he’s even a fan of 70s sitcom “Good Times.”

“He loves JJ,” Sanders said laughing, referring to the character on the show that coined the catch phrase, “Dyn-0-mite.”

Being a father changed Sanders’ outlook on life instantly.

“Some people don’t see that I have different struggles on and off the field,” Sanders said of fatherhood. “It made me want to become a better man than I was.”

If that was his goal, it seems Sanders has succeeded.

The brash young man who, in Sanders words, went “from being a guy who just went out there and talked and didn’t do anything, to now a guy who produces on the field.”

Not that Sanders has stopped talking.

He is still quick to let his feelings be known. But instead of talking about himself – his greatness, his ability, his superiority – he is talking to other players.

Talking about playing the game better, encouraging teammates when they do well and getting in their face when they make a mistake. Anything that helps the team.

“I think a lot of leadership goes with how you perform on the field and Steve’s backing it up,” Brandon said. “The thing I like about him is that he holds all the receivers accountable. He used to be one of those guys that wasn’t doing the little things.” Now he takes everyone not doing the little things to task.

Sanders credits his leadership and accountability with being a father.

“I think it gives me more of a leadership role on the team, because some of the guys know I have a son and they see how I act,” Sanders said.

Now he’s acting like one of the most productive receivers in football.

He ranks third in the nation and first among receivers in scoring with 54 points. Ahead of him are Heisman hopeful Brian Calhoun, the bruising running back from Wisconsin Badgers and Paul Martinez, the kicker for the Oregon Ducks.

He also has nine touchdowns, ranking him second in the nation, again behind Calhoun.

Of the top 10 players in receptions in the MAC, Sanders has the longest average yards per catch at 17.5. He also ranks second in the MAC in receiving yards per game with 109.2, behind only Akron’s Domenik Hixon.

He has scored two touchdowns in each of the last five games, dating back to last year’s GMAC Bowl victory over Memphis.

A big advantage Sanders has over other receivers is his size and strength. “He can go up in a crowd and catch a ball while getting his arms hit,” Brandon said. “He can just go up and snatch [the ball].”

In Saturday’s game he went down the middle of the field and leapt for a catch, taking a vicious hit to the ribs in the process. But he came down with the ball.

“I shrugged it off and just kept playing out there,” Sanders said. “I realize I’m going to take some hits. I just go out there and play.”

Sanders’ big body, listed at 6-feet-3-inches and 197 pounds, is an asset he utilizes to its fullest effect.

“You can make a living going across the middle [of the field], that’s what I always say,” Sanders said. “Because you have some guys who are scared to go across the middle.”

In order to take that punishment Sanders spent the summer with strength and conditioning coach Aaron Hillmann.

“I try and build my body up so that I can take hits like that,” Sanders said.

He also used the summer to work on his hands, after a 2004 season where he felt there were about five balls, by his count, that he dropped. That was five too many as far as Sanders was concerned.

With the help of a jugs machine, he and other receivers would catch 50 or more balls per day. They would also contort their bodies in different positions, mimicking any situation they could find themselves in during the regular season.

“That way when we came out this season there wouldn’t be any ball that we didn’t already catch,” he said.

And if it wasn’t for the tutelage of players like Josh Harris and Cole Magner, as well as being forced to grow up because of having a child, he might not be enjoying the success he is today.

“It just made me cherish the little things more,” he said. “I felt that I wasn’t living for only me now.”

If not for Amir’s birth, Sanders may have been another college football player blessed with all the skills to succeed, but not the head or the heart to see it through.

Sanders thanks God for his “blessing in disguise” and it is not surprising. Having a child forced him to go from being a child to not only a father, but a man.