Overcoming Adversity

Sophomore middle linebacker <B>Matt Sanders</b> has overcome three knee surgeries and work on his shoulder before finally seeing game action last fall. Now the Louisville native is leading the competition to replace NFL-bound Robert McCune.

Entering his senior year at Louisville Male High School in 2001, Matt Sanders had it pretty good. After a strong junior campaign, when he recorded 105 tackles, 12 sacks and an interception, Sanders was drawing heavy interest from colleges throughout the region. You name the school and odds are they were taking a long look at the linebacker.

Sanders entered his senior season playing well, but during just the team's fourth game he suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament and was out for the remainder of the season. Interest from college coaches quickly faded, but John L. Smith, then head coach at the University of Louisville, stuck with him and extended a scholarship offer.

The plan was to have Sanders continue rehab on the knee during his freshman year and then have him ready to play as a redshirt freshman. Problem is, nobody told Matt's knee of the plan.

Over the next couple of years, Sanders would find himself visiting the surgery room after tearing his ACL two more times. Toss in a couple of shoulder scopes and the former hot commodity was good to go.

"Being healthy my senior year in high school and then blowing my ACL, then having it happen two my times, including my freshman year here, plus having both of my shoulders scoped in a three year period was a tough battle," explained Sanders. "Sometimes I wondered if I was ever going to get back to where I was before the injuries."

Most after just suffering one torn ACL would have given up and nearly everyone else would call it quits after the second, but not Sanders.

"There were times after I tore my ACL for the third time I started to wonder if I had some type of disorder where it just wouldn't be fixed," Sanders explained. "I started to wonder if the cartlidge on my knee was deteriorating or something. Quitting definately goes through your mind, but once I found out that it could be fixed, I knew I would do my part to get back out here."

Matt Sanders & Brandon Johnson
After multiple surgeries and months of rehab Matt finally had the chance to get back out there early last fall. In 2004, he saw action in 10 games as a member of the special teams unit and as a reserve middle linebacker, recording 26 tackles, including one for a loss.

He knew that despite being a standout linebacker in high school, that he would have to prove that he could perform like that once again.

"It's all about getting plays and getting reps," Sanders said. "It doesn't matter who it's against, it is just important to make some plays. Once you start getting that the game starts to slow down for you and you start to understand why you are doing things a certain way."

Following last year's 11-1 season, starting middle linebacker Robert McCune - who led the team in tackles for the second consecutive season - completed his eligibility and began preparing for a career in the NFL. Sanders would get his chance and entered spring camp at the top of the depth chart.

"It feels great to be flying around and hitting again," explained Sanders. "I feel like nothing ever happened...I feel as good as I ever have. I'm about as happy as I have been in a long time."

Through the first third of the spring practice schedule Sanders has played well. He's becoming a vocal leader for the defense, just as a middle linebacker should.

"The experience that I had last year makes a world of a difference," explained Sanders.

Michael Bush, a former high school teammate of Sanders, has noticed Sanders determination and drive on the practice fields.

"He's a tough guy to me," said Bush. "He's overcome a lot of adversity with surgeries since coming out of high school. Right now he's on top of his game and he looks like he is in the best shape he has ever been in."

Bush experienced the now healthy Sanders improved play during a practice session early last week. As the 6-foot-3, 250-pound Bush took the handoff from Brian Brohm and hit a large hole opened by the offensive line, he saw Sanders come at him front the left.

"I have been playing ball with Michael for a long time and we have never really had to hit each other," Sanders explained. "He ran the sweep and I saw him cut up the field...we just hit at full speed. When we got up, his chinstrip was undone and so was mine. We were in the locker room afterwards and we both said that it rattled us."

"He saw me coming and then just embraced me," Bush said of the play. "It kind of got me a little bit...I didn't expect it to be that hard of a hit. If you look at the picture though, you'll see that I'm still moving forward, while his feet are off the ground."

While simply seeing Matt back on the football field would make for a great story, seeing him competing at the level he is now is remarkable and inspiring.

"I had good support from my family and friends," Sanders said of his time away from the field. "This really does show that hard work does pay off in the end."

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