Jeff Sanders' senior season sure finished a lot better than it started.
The IU-bound tight end from Springfield, Illinois' Sacred Heart Griffin H.S. saw his team get its 2005 season off in ominous fashion. In the season-opener against defending Class 4A state champion Montini Catholic, Sanders and his teammates watched their foe run the game's – and the season's – opening kickoff back 99 yards for a touchdown.
"We thought it was going to be a loooong season," said the 6-4, 235-pound Sanders.
Sacred Heart Griffin turned it into a long season alright, but for all the right reasons. The team wound up coming back and pounding Montini Catholic 40-15 in the season opener, the first of 14 straight wins that culminated with a 28-21 win over Rock Island Alleman for the Class 5A state championship.
For one of Illinois' traditional football powerhouses, it was SHG's first-ever state championship after four runner-up finishes, and an improbable one at that.
"It was great because people thought we were the group that didn't have any talent and couldn't get it done," said Sanders.
Sanders and his SHG teammates did get it done, achieving something that ranks extremely high on Sanders' list of achievement to date. He's enjoying another one of those days today, when he inks his IU letter of intent to play tight end for the Hoosiers beginning in the fall.
"It's a huge day for me," said Sanders, who will sign his letter in the morning and fax it to IU Coach Terry Hoeppner, and then participate in a press conference in the afternoon at his high school. "I'm signing something that I can dedicate the next four or five years of my life to. It's an unbelievable opportunity.
"It ranks right up there with winning the state title. You work hard to achieve team goals, and personal things come along with it. If each person works to be as good as they can be, the team will achieve goals, and so will the individual. The scholarship is an individual achievement, while the state championship was a team thing that we've been working towards since I was a sophomore."
Today's signing day festivities, like the state championship, provides plenty of reason for the Sanders' family to celebrate. Sanders said he suspects that afterwards he and his family will go out to dinner to honor the occasion, and it's a good bet Jeff will have his choice of destinations.
"I'm a steak man myself," said Sanders. "My dad's favorite restaurant is Longhorn, so we'll kill two birds with one stone and go there."
Sanders is a big catch for the Indiana program. The nation's 73rd ranked tight end according to Scout.com, Sanders caught plenty of balls at SHG during his career, including a 10-catch, 134-yard effort in the state championship game win over Alleman.
He'll also be someone who knows what it takes to win. He's done it throughout his high school career, and he fully expects to do the same as an Indiana Hoosier.
"It's like what we were talking about at (high school) basketball practice - every athlete wants to win on Friday and Saturday, but which athletes have the will to win Monday thru Thursday, are willing to put in the effort?" said Sanders. "I'm sure that Indiana has guys like that, and Alex (Perry, another Illinois prep who won a state title in the fall) and I and some of the other recruits are also going to bring that to the program."
Sanders' recruiting coach, Assistant Head Coach Bill Lynch, said he wants him to bring something else along with him to – some additional weight. While Lynch didn't specify what weight he'd like to see Sanders at in the fall, he did say that the next several months need to include plenty of time in the weight room.
"He said I need to work my butt off in the weight room, and to not go on a diet on him," said Sanders.
Might that be Sanders' ticket to a few extra steak diners at Longhorn as well?
"I think so," said Sanders. "Sounds good to me…"
SIGNING DAY 2006 - Jeff Sanders
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