“I have an understanding that things don’t always go right. But it’s what you do when things aren’t right that matters. Are you going to keep pushing and keep fighting, or are you going to fold, give up and quit? I’ve never been a quitter. I could’ve given up a long time ago and said this is too much and too hard, when everyone was telling me what I couldn’t do.”
Every athlete’s college recruiting experience has its own challenges and nuances. Yet each individual’s journey can provide universal lessons about how to better approach the process. Here is NFL superstar Bob Sanders’ story–that of an undersized, underestimated kid who proved to college coaches that he could play with the best of them.
After three minutes with Bob Sanders, you realize that if he so desired, he could take one explosive step, drive his thick, powerful arms up through your chest, and smash you through a wall—without displacing one of his dreadlocks. It’s almost like every one of his 68 inches, from the soles of his feet to the crown of his braided dome, was designed specifically for that purpose— stepping and smashing. Bob’s teammates have been calling him the “Hit Man” since his sophomore year in college.
He wasn’t always Hit Man, though. As a child, Bob was called “Hustle Man,” on account of his extra effort when playing basketball, baseball, football—or simply running up a wall and performing back flips. “Whatever it was, I was hustling,” Bob says. “I was the same way from the beginning of the game to the end. If I gave it my all, I could live with myself at the end of the day—whether it was win or lose.”
From the start, Bob was surrounded by hustle and hard work. His father, who worked at a steel factory, would leave the house every morning wearing “normal” clothes—a pair of jeans and a t-shirt—and return home looking exactly the same. So, it wasn’t until his dad took a camcorder to work that the Sanders kids realized what took place during their father’s 16- to-18-hour work days.
“He put the tape together and sat us down,” Bob recalls. “He said, ‘Do you know who this guy is?’ It was a guy with a mask on, with sparks flying behind him. He pulled his mask off, and his face was full with dark [soot] from the factory.” The fact that Bob and his siblings couldn’t recognize their own father was “shocking, because we had never seen what his job consisted of. It was grimy; it was tough; it was hard. That film really showed me that all the hard work you put in will pay off eventually, because now he has everything he ever wanted.”
When Bob was in seventh grade, his athletic ability caught up to his work ethic; his size didn’t. “I was always the smallest guy on the field,” he says. “Every team I was on, I was the guy that sat in front of the camera with his [legs] crossed [with] everybody [else] standing up. I used to hate it. I’d say, ‘Put me on a platform or something and let me stand up with the big boys.’ It was all good, because being that small, if you’re a good player and you can fight with the big boys, then you stand out a lot more.”
And stand out he did.
After attending public school as a freshman, Bob made the tough decision to transfer to private, all-boys Cathedral Prep [Erie, Penn.] to improve his chances of getting a college scholarship. “Academics, graduation and sports were top notch with Prep,” he says. “I felt like that would be the school for me if I wanted to go on and play in college. There were so many kids going to college on academic and athletic scholarships every year. I took that big step of transferring, and it was a tough transition.”
Bob’s transfer paid off almost immediately. “I ended up with a great opportunity my sophomore year,” he says. “I played a couple games in sophomore ball, then they moved me up to varsity. That really helped me grow as far as my knowledge of the game. There were so many kids who grew up watching football since they were three years old with their dad, sitting in his lap on Sundays watching games. I didn’t grow up like that. Prep really helped me as far as getting that knowledge of football and learning how to study and prepare.”
During his three years at Prep, Bob torched opponents from both the RB and safety spots. But even though the kid could play, Bob still didn’t have the numbers to attract college coaches. “I was 5’8”, 175, not fast and couldn’t jump very high,” he says. “If you look at all my highlight tapes, I would never outrun someone; I always got caught. It didn’t matter if I was 50 yards downfield with no one around me—someone was catching me.”
These shortcomings kept major college coaches at a distance well into Bob’s senior season. “I got a letter from Miami of Ohio and Pitt, and maybe a couple others,” he says. “I wasn’t highly recruited. When I was a senior, a lot of juniors on my team were getting recruited, so there were big-time schools coming in. My coach would sneak in a tape and say, ‘We’ve got this guy here who’s a senior and not really getting recruited, but he’s a great running back—check him out.’ They’d look and say, ‘He’s too small; he’s not fast enough.’ When you are in high school playing football…you expect to go on and play college ball. If you’re good enough and everybody’s telling you you’re not, it’s real easy to go in the tank and accept what everyone else says.”
With some serious support from one of his high school coaches, though, Bob finally got the opportunity he’d been dreaming of. “It was truly a blessing,” he says. “It was a guy by the name of Joe Moore who coached at Notre Dame and at Pitt. He coached Coach Ferentz, the head coach of Iowa [as a high schooler], and coached with him, as well. [Moore] called [Ferentz] and said, ‘Hey, Coach, I have a player here who has great potential and can be a great player. No one wants him; they don’t think he can play at the next level in Division I.’ He offered me a scholarship on the spot, without ever seeing me on film. [Ferentz] said he trusted [Moore] enough and believed him. And when I finally got my opportunity, I realized that I better not screw this up, because [if I did], everything everyone said would come true.”
Bob was so confident that he felt comfortable making bold predictions about his upcoming career at Iowa. He says, “Right before I was going off to college, there were a lot of people saying, ‘You might play your senior year; you’ll probably never start, but you’ll play on special teams maybe your junior year going into your senior year.’ It just frustrated me because I was like, ‘Give me a reason why I can’t do it?’ They’d say, ‘Those guys are a lot bigger and faster than you. They’ve been playing football a lot longer than you have.’ I took it and ran with it. I told everyone that I [would] start my true freshman year and that I would be an All-American. I started my true freshman year, became an All-American and was three-time All Big-Ten and freshman All Big-Ten Honorable Mention.”
As Bob stepped into a starting role, then became team captain and MVP, his speed and explosiveness—which he believes are his two biggest weapons—blew up. “To hit the way I hit, I have to be explosive,” he says. “Within five yards, I can be at top speed and hit someone full-go. It’s not something I’ve always had; I had to work at it. When I got to college, I worked on form, technique and running. All that stuff played a big part in my speed.”
He worked so hard that by the time he left college, Bob had improved his 40 from 4.6 to 4.3 seconds and increased his vert from 33 to 44 inches.
When his prolific college career came to an end, Bob thought he had proved himself as a potential NFL contributor. However, the Combine presented Bob with a here-we-go again scenario. NFL scouts knew Bob could play, but questioned his size and speed. “I’m not a prototypical safety,” Bob says. “I brought other things to the table that some of those guys didn’t have. I was running fast like corners coming up, and a lot of people were really surprised. When I was at the Combine, I was in one of the meeting rooms with one of the teams. One of their questions was, ‘So, how fast do you think you’re going to run tomorrow?’ I said, ‘About a 4.35.’ Everyone in the room started laughing. They were like, ‘Come on, be honest. I know you’re confident, but be realistic. How fast do you think you’re going to run?’ I said, ‘Alright, whatever, we’ll see.’ The next day I ran a 4.35.”
That group of skeptical NFL front office staff has since watched Bob move through the ranks of the NFL—starter, team leader, Pro Bowler, NFL Defensive Player of the Year and Super Bowl champion.
Bob’s Words on Handling the Recruiting Process
1) Go to Camps Bob knew how beneficial camps were to getting noticed and improving a player’s ability. “My parents didn’t have the money to send me to those camps,” he says. “But [camps] really helped [some of the guys I played with]. You could definitely see a difference in how they played. It’s great to go there and get knowledge that high school players don’t have from guys who have been through it.”
2) Play Hard and Get It on Film Since Bob lacked the physical numbers, his coach constantly showed his film to recruiters to convince them he could play. Bob says, “The field is your friend, so put it all on the field. [And] what’s going to get you to college is what you put on film.”
3) Be Patient and Stay Focused Despite the naysayers, Bob kept his focus and didn’t panic. “It’s tough to not be really anxious about where you want to go,” he says. “It’s an exciting time, so have fun. You’ll never go through this period again. If you love it, go for it and let the process play itself out. Some things are not going to go the way you want them to, that’s life. So keep working. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t get the job done.”
Watch video of Bob Sanders’ recruiting advice.
2009 Key Recruiting Checklist
2009 Recruiting Terminology
Financial Aid 411
NCAA Initial Eligibility Center
Self Marketing Tips
Communicating With a Coach
Gauging A Coach’s Interest
Official College Visits
Key NCAA Rules & Regs