It was hunger for trust and respect that pushed his body to unfamiliar limits before the season began, and it was hunger that consistently drove him to where he is now near the top of the league as a receiver.
And when he was younger, he knew even hungrier days. Days when he spread mayonnaise and ketchup on slices of bread and called it a meal. Days when he rummaged through cabinets trying to scrounge together something to eat.
To this day, that hunger endures unabated, even as he’s become one of the league’s top receivers. It’s no longer about food, but it’s still about survival.
A small country boy from a small country town outside of Houston, Sanders is a product of his upbringing, which has allowed him to seamlessly integrate into a new offense.
Once you can understand Sanders’ past, you can understand how he’s burst upon the scene in his first season as a Bronco. His mindset is one of pure drive, and his devotion, passion and determination have paid off.
Bellville, Texas, is located about an hour west of Houston, and in Sanders’ words, it is “a really country town.”
With a population that eclipsed 4,000 people at the most recent census, that’s probably a fair assessment.
Sanders had a firsthand look at country life, and the toughness it required. Two of his uncles are cowboys, one a bull rider and the other a calf roper. Football assuredly seems less daunting in comparison to trying to maintain stability atop a bucking 1,600-pound bull.
“It takes a lot of guts to ride a bull. It takes a lot of guts to calf-rope, to jump off a horse, flip a calf over and tie it up in a matter of 10 seconds,” Sanders said. “So I mean, that within itself definitely gave me that edge to be tough, and that kind of made me tough.”
“I wouldn’t say that we were extremely poor, but there was times where I had to fix a mayonnaise and ketchup sandwich in order to eat, or I had to go into the cabinet and just try to make up some kind of food because I was that hungry,” he said. “Obviously, you know, when you have a big family, it’s first come, first serve in terms of the food. So sometimes we were struggling in terms of getting food.”
Certainly, Sanders wanted to emerge from Bellville. He and his best friend in high school wanted to at least explore bigger pastures, venturing out to meet with Army recruiters in case he didn’t get a scholarship to a school he preferred.
And though it now seems weird to think of Sanders going without a scholarship, exposure was hard to find for Sanders. Colleges didn’t come calling until his senior year. Despite All-District honors and more accolades, he didn’t know how good he was, and neither did many others. In fact, Rivals.com had him ranked as a two-star recruit.
So he took his best opportunity and committed to Southern Methodist University. Then he set their record books aflame, eventually setting more than a handful of school records, including single-season receiving yards, career receiving yards, single-game receptions, single-season receptions, career receptions and total career touchdown receptions.
He’d come a long way since Bellville, but he was still far from where he wanted to be and the next step toward that would be going to the NFL.
Sanders spent his first four years with the Steelers, eventually starting on a more consistent basis in his last year there. But he wanted more, and he knew he had what it takes to make a big leap.
Once he became a free agent, Sanders began meeting with teams, but the process alienated him a little bit with some teams playing around and not seeing eye-to-eye on his talent level.
Naturally, the change would require an adjustment. The Steelers were a proud run-first team and now he was moving to what he calls “wide receiver heaven” with a quarterback and offense that spread the ball through the air to everyone.
“With Pittsburgh, [Sanders] was more of a run around, get open type of guy with Ben [Roethlisberger], you know, because he’s not really a timing type quarterback like Peyton is,” said
Sanders was committed to making that transition as seamless as possible, and that chemistry between him and Manning would have to be born out of tireless work in the months before the season.
“When I got here I said, ‘You know what? First and foremost, I want to earn the respect and the trust of
He knew what the changes would be: that Manning’s effectiveness is based largely in anticipation and trust, that the ball might be in the air before you make your break, understanding the complexities of the offense. And so the adjustment would not only be physical, but mental as well.
“I ran a lot of routes in OTAs and then after practice we spent 10 to 15 minutes throwing. That doesn’t seem like a long time but if you’re going 10 to 15 minutes of routes and throwing, that’s a lot of routes to run,” Sanders said. “And not only that, but going over signs, because this is a complicated offense. You’ve got to know a lot. As much as we did physically on the field, we did mentally.”
All the extra routes put extra strain on his body, but it has become increasingly clear that all his work paid dividends.
The first hint of what was to come was evident in the third game of the preseason. Sanders had yet to catch a pass in the preseason opener, and a minor thigh injury kept him out of the second game. But against the Texans, he exploded on the scene with five catches for 128 yards and two touchdowns.
Then the regular season began, and he started crushing his personal records. He recorded his first-ever 100-yard receiving game in Week 2, and then he got his second and third in the next two games. He would surpass his best season’s total receiving yards in Week 9 of this season, and has the most touchdowns of his career in a season already.
And if you were expecting a slow start in a continuing adjustment period, it seems that Sanders had long been acclimated to all the offense’s nuances by the time the season began. Manning went to Sanders early and often, and Sanders ended up leading the league in receptions through three weeks.
The only thing missing was a touchdown. He was leading the team in receiving yards, but going into their Week 7 matchup with the 49ers, he still didn’t have a touchdown. Sanders scored early in that game, but it was the following week that he had his breakthrough game, putting everything together for a three-touchdown, 120-yard performance.
Sanders’ style has become easy to identify. He has a burst of speed that torches corners in single coverage, great hands and a willingness to stretch out for any pass in his vicinity. All in all, that makes him “a hard guy to overthrow,” as Manning put it, though he did add that he could take some pride in being able to overthrow Sanders.
The chemistry between Manning and Sanders has been a crucial component of the offense, and the trust between them is easy to see. Sanders leads the Broncos in first downs, and he’s also fourth in the NFL in receiving yards. And with
But perhaps the greatest part of watching Sanders play is how visually apparent his effort on the field is, and his willingness to exert his body to its limits.
“There’s no lack of effort in anything he does. Everything is game speed, from the beginning of practice to the end of practice, and that’s always been since we got him,” Offensive Coordinator Adam Gase said. “For a guy who’s not DT’s size, he takes some big shots and he bounces right back up. The guy’s got a toughness and a willingness about him that you don’t see in every player.”
That toughness and that energy is contagious for his teammates, which helps raise those around him, too.
“All the catches he makes and the bang-bang hits he gets and comes up with the ball and to be excited about it, it drives a team and it drives the guys around him,” Thomas said. “I love it.”
And that mentality that has been so notable in Sanders’ career? It’s the same one that he’s had since back to those days in Bellville from the struggles he’s overcome.
“That’s where I developed a mindset that someday I’m going to go out, I’m going to make something of myself and I’m not going to live like this the rest of my life and I don’t want my family to live like this the rest of their lives,” he says. “That right there gave me the motivation, and still is giving me the motivation to continuously strive to be the best that I can be and try to bring up others while I’m at it.”
So even though he’s emerged as one of the league’s best receivers and proved plenty of people wrong, don’t expect his hunger to fade.