From South Brunswick to Piscataway to Cincinnati to Atlanta, Mohamed Sanu always shows up to play with a fan base.
Speak to anyone close to Sanu, who plays next week in his first Super Bowl, and it is easy to see why so many rally around him. Sanu earned a lot in football, but always made it a goal to give more than he got.
“He's just such an amazing kid,” said Rutgers director of high school relations Rick Mantz. “I know it's kind of cliché when people talk about a guy being a better person than he is an athlete. It's absolutely true though. When I first got hired at South Brunswick, it was his sophomore year. He found me in the building after school. He made it a point to find the football coach. He was smiling.”
The relationship between Mantz and the Sanu family is well documented since his time as South Brunswick's head football coach. Mantz helped Sanu as an adviser when he declared a year early for the NFL draft.
While Mantz moved on from South Brunswick to stops at Passaic (N.J.) High and Rutgers University, Sanu was always available as a mentor to young players.
“Some of these guys, they grow up and the leave and they go on and they forget,” Mantz said. “He's certainly not that way. He's just an incredible kid. I love him and I feel good for him.”
Sanu never stopped representing Rutgers on a big stage either. While ties and mentors like Greg Schiano and PJ Fleck left the program, Sanu build relationships with the next generation of players and coach Chris Ash.
Sanu used his Atlanta Falcons bye week to address a struggling Rutgers team before a practice, where his nephew Mohamed Jabbie red-shirted as a wide receiver. Jabbie wears the same No. 6 Sanu made famous.
“Mohamed's done an outstanding job about coming back and talking to our players about what it takes to get where he is,” Ash said. “A lot of guys love the recruiting process and they don't love the actual grind and the process it takes to get to the next level. He's a guy who embodied that. He embraced that. He comes back and talks to our players about that. He's awesome when he comes around.”
Rutgers literally provided Sanu with his first consistent bed on which to sleep. Sanu, who did not play as a senior because he was too old, sacrificed with family to make it to Rutgers in another reason fans that know his story so strongly support him.
“He really had so many tough things going on in his personal life,” Mantz said. “His mom is a great lady but she wasn't around very much. She was back and forth from Africa taking care of her village. He lived with his sister who was a few years older than him. He slept on a couch. Mohamed Sanu didn't have a bed to sleep in until he came here to college. He slept on the couch in a little, tiny apartment. His sister and brother-in-law lived there with two little girls, his nieces, and his nephew – Mo Jabbie.
Be it a post-practice takeout meal before class or grabbing a muffin in transition, Sanu took advantage of every opportunity when he enrolled at Rutgers.
“He ate whatever food was left [in high school],” Mantz said. “We all knew that he wasn't getting a lot of food at home. Me, the basketball coach, a couple guys in town, we would take him out to eat. We'd make sure he had a sandwich. We'd give him food to take home to make sure he had something to eat. It was funny. When he enrolled at Rutgers after his senior year of high school, he went back to visit and some of the teachers were like, 'oh my gosh, did you see Mohamed? Is he on steroids? He's huge. He put on almost 30 pounds.' I said, 'no. He's eating.'”