What does it feel like to stand on the field before more than 84,000 fans with two minutes and forty-six seconds remain in the second half of a game as pivotal as any in Gamecock history against one of the most perennially brutal opponents in the SEC? What does it feel like to trot into the end zone, football in hand, with the game-tying touchdown? What does it feel like to be a part of a moment that causes a crowd reaction that sets off warning signals in a USGS station twenty miles away? What does it feel like to put everything on the line to pursue a future that could benefit you and your loved ones beyond their wildest dreams? What does it feel like to cross that same goal line in the NFL? What does it feel like to have those dreams come crashing down? What does it feel like to pick up the pieces and go back into the flames full steam?
Ask Weslye Saunders.
Gary, Indiana. Like so many places in the American Midwest, it is a shining example of a flapper-era boomtown whose better days have long-since passed her by. Rife with items seemingly hand-picked from a Norman Rockwell painting, many portions of the town that once was home to more than 200,000 people now stands as a fossil that underscores a change in the trade-winds that blow across global economic markets. The town that was literally built by the United States Steel Corporation slowly buckled from the weight of a changing world. Forty years of population decline and urban blight led a city whose walls once echoed with the sounds of a homegrown group of boys named Jackie, Tito, Marlon, Jermaine, and Michael into the abyss.
Weslye Saunders was born on January 16th, 1989 in Gary, Indiana, and only spent a short while near the shores of Lake Michigan before his family heeded the call of new opportunity and moved to the Tar Heel state, but his story will be inexorably linked to his hometown. Weslye’s father, Barry, received an offer from the News & Observer, and the family would settle in Durham. As time passed, the family would watch a town that had experienced a similar economic downfall to that of their Midwestern home rise from the ashes and reinvent itself by placing emphasis on cultural and artistic growth.
That same passion for artistic expression fueled Weslye Saunders. It just so happens that football is also one of those things that provides an excellent outlet for self-expression. Football is a thing that rises in your soul; it’s a thing that is interwoven in the fabric of our being as southerners. As humans. Football isn’t merely something that you do. Football is part of who you are.
While the Saunders family was taking root in Durham, Gary, Indiana, also experienced a renaissance. Public redevelopment and private investment were taking hold of an urban core in an effort to redefine a place that was once a crucial piece of the backbone of America. Barry Saunders was on his way to being a legend at the News & Observer. Weslye Saunders was just getting started.
That story was football.
Football transitioned from insanely low-probability dream to damn-this-just-might-work reality. Football became more than a game.
Football became a way to make a difference: Riverside High School became the vehicle to tell that story. 12 sacks, 120 tackles, 1000 yards of catches, 250 yards rushing, and 23 touchdowns were the footnotes, being a top-20 tight end in a class that included Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez was cause enough for celebration, but it was just another anecdote in a long line of things yet to come. There was something more.
Saunders speaks fondly of his conversations with two other recruits from the Tar Heel state in 2007. Those men were Chris Culliver and Melvin Ingram, who would likewise etch their names into the annals of South Carolina Gamecock football history, and ride their on-field successes straight into the NFL. But why South Carolina?
Saunders is nothing if not incredibly honest. He wanted from day one to make an impact on the football field in an environment that would allow him to do so. When asked why he chose to come to Columbia to play for Steve Spurrier over North Carolina and a powerful Louisville squad, he deadpanned, "Well, [Coach Spurrier] likes to throw the ball; I like to catch it. That’s all I needed to know." When he signed with the Gamecocks, it sent regional shockwaves clean through the powder blue curtain and into the South Carolina midlands. The shockwaves wouldn’t stop there.
Everyone has a moment that turns dream into reality. For Weslye Saunders, that moment came at a night practice on the field at Williams-Brice. On a crisp evening, a curling pattern introduced the stud tight-end to one Emmanuel Cook in what can be best described as the biblical sense. "After I realized I wasn’t dead, I said to someone, 'MAN, this is big-boy football'." That blistering lick in practice was a prideful moment for him; a reminder that he was alive and that he was actually, factually, a top-tier college football player.
2009 began as a year that seemingly held more promise than any year in South Carolina history. The roster was teeming with talented players, and the game plan that revolutionized college football in the South had finally taken root within a program perennially destined to sit somewhere smack dab in the middle of the conference rankings. Undeterred by a clumsy Thursday night performance in Raleigh to open the season, the team rolled into Athens to face a Georgia team that had beaten the Gamecocks 6 of the past 7 years. Both teams felt as if they had a considerable amount to prove, and it showed on the field. The Gamecocks had scored 37 points between the hedges, but it wasn’t enough to come out victorious. Saunders was blunt: "It was a heartbreaking loss but it did change the outcome of the season." Most people would've been discouraged beyond reproach, yet, Weslye says that "the lightbulb went off that night, just a little too late," for most of the players. A belief was beginning to take hold in the stands, but that frenetic afternoon in the middle of Georgia was just the right amount of kick to change the course of Gamecock football for good. That same South Carolina team would go on to decimate the #4 Ole Miss Rebels on Thursday night before a crowd that watched as a Sandstorm swept over the field. The remainder of the season was a series of fits and starts, and plenty of off-field issues exacerbated the problems inherent with managing more than 70 young men.
Weslye Saunders walked across the goal line with the ball that sealed the first of five consecutive victories against the Clemson Tigers. Sadly, he would never play another down for the Gamecocks. He would be dismissed from the squad shortly after a lengthy investigation conducted by the NCAA because Weslye got a rent concession, and instead of being thrust into a world of buyers and sellers in a market with high-yields and low-cumulative returns (the NFL), he would just have to wait and sit out the entire 2010 season. Through that period, he would never stop being anything but himself. "We really changed the culture." Saunders also noted that [the past few seasons], "put us on the draft board map," and defined the University of South Carolina as a place where significant recruits can flourish on a more consistent basis. "Perception is reality," says Saunders, "and you have to control that."
Ironically, while they changed the way that recruits viewed the school going forward, outside perceptions proved far more toxic for Weslye than anyone had anticipated.
There is no middle-ground: either you hate the NFL combine because it's a series of arbitrary evaluations that don't test on-field ability, or you absolutely love the fact that you can compare hundreds of athletes that have likely never played against each other in the vacuum of situational competition. That's simple enough. What isn't simple is the goings-on behind the pomp and the circumstance and the ill-fitting shirts. Weslye Saunders can tell you all about the goings-on, but he tells it best in his own words.
Initially run aground because of a paperwork snafu, Saunders was granted his appeal to enter the 2011 NFL draft. One problem. He had broken his foot seemingly hours before this news came through. Saunders would make the trip to Lucas Oil Stadium and attempt to participate in drills, but would drop after his second test. He spent the next few months working for the University of North Carolina Hospital's Neuroscience department while the NFL Players' Union was locked in a nasty dispute over minimum contracts and franchise tags. However, a short while later, the lockout ended, the Pittsburgh Steelers called, and Weslye was able to finally compete for the dream he had cultivated for so long.
Saunders, once the top pick on Mel Kiper's draft board, wound up being signed as an undrafted free agent because his workouts affected his stock, but more-so, because he was the victim of character skepticism hurting your draft stock, long before character skepticism began to be something you argued about before changing your tune. Many might argue that this next step might have seemed like an opportunity wasted, but Weslye viewed is as the opportunity to make right and reassure everyone that they could still be hopeful for a brighter tomorrow.
Following a productive first NFL season, Saunders was suspended 4 games for violating The League's substance policy, and was waived by the Steelers weeks before his suspension was lifted before being picked up by the Indianapolis Colts in October of 2012.
Despite uproarious speculation as to the nature of the offense (Adderall), he was given another second chance to play in the house that had harbored so many bad memories in the combine. He was suspended again, this time for the first 8 games of the 2013 season for a 'not-yet-published-drug'. Despite a good showing to end the campaign, he was waived just before the 2014 season. He signed again in November, but was waived yet again just a short time later and is not currently a member of any NFL roster.
Everyone rides the ups and downs of the waves that are life; it depends on how you treat those waves that makes all the difference.
Sometimes people have a story that touches you beyond their circumstances.
Sometimes people make it big just because they get lucky. Sometimes people flounder around waiting for a lifeboat. Sometimes people just never give it a shot. Sometimes people keep coming back again and again and again, and learn each time from their mistakes. They try to eliminate them for good. Sometimes, people are concerned only with the next chapter in their story.
For Weslye Saunders, there's a palpable, humbling honesty that comes with his marathon pursuit of a childhood obsession. Everyone deserves a second chance. After that? You have to work for it. Weslye Saunders is ready to work for it. He's learned from his unique perspective. He's begun taking care of himself on a different level than he ever did. He’s learned what he can and cannot put in his body and he says he's never felt better. He's constantly working out with NFL scouts, and says that things are looking really good for the 2016 season.
His hometown has turned into a haven for inner-city urban redevelopment, his second-home has become the third-leg of the triangle’s tech hub, and now Weslye Saunders has turned himself into a better, stronger, more aware athlete on the verge of his own new beginning.
As the Gamecocks football program stands on the precipice of the unknown entering the 2016 season, we too hope that a body of hard work compiled over the past several months will help restore our good name in the college football world. Until then, we can only keep our eyes fixed forward.
-Forever to Thee
Listen below to the full interview with the GABA Cast's own Sam McDowell. Click here to find us on iTunes, or just search for 'GABA Cast' wherever you get your podcasts.
PS: Best of luck to Weslye this season and in the future as he endeavors to re-sign with an NFL program in the near future. In the meantime, ask yourself, #WhyNotWes?