Championship Hopes

Former West Virginia wide receiver David Saunders didn't expect to find a career in Arena League Football, but when that path opened for him he took advantage of it. The result has been a solid AFL career and a chance at a second Arena Bowl championship.

Saunders, who already holds one AFL title ring, will go for his second this weekend when his Columbus Destroyers take on the San Jose SaberCats in Arena Bowl XXI. Like most college standouts, Saunders envisioned himself playing in the NFL, but he is not about to complain about the success he has enjoyed in the summer league.

"I didn't picture myself playing here at all," Saunders told as he prepared for the title game. "But when other things didn't work out, I got an opportunity here, and I took it. The way I look at it, football is football."

Of course, there are some differences in the indoor game which took some getting used to.

"You have to run your routes a little quicker, and the fifty-yard field brings some different things into play," Saunders said. "On a big field, you have a little more time to run your route, and you just have to worry about the corner or the safety if you are running, say, a quick slant. In here, you have to worry about the linebacker and the defensive end inside too.

"The biggest thing, though, is the wall. You know it's going to stop you," he continued with a laugh. "You have to give yourself space, especially on the outside routes."

Even with those differences, however, Saunders' ‘football is football' mantra holds up.

"Obviously you don't get the big crowd, like we did at West Virginia, but the atmosphere is really good, even with the smaller numbers. Playing here in Ohio, everyone loves their football. We play in one of the louder stadiums in the country, and that helps, too."

Playing in the backyard of college giant Ohio State might seem to put Saunders and his Destroyer teammates in the shadows, but he notes that the AFL gets its fair share of recognition.

"Ohio State isn't playing now. We're the only ones scoring touchdowns," he said with an optimistic look at the situation. "Ohio loves football, so even if it's flag football, they will be there. It was the same way at West Virginia."

Saunders often hearkens back to his playing days at WVU, which prepared him for his life in the professional ranks. He also learned about life outside football after suffering a knee injury in fall practice before his junior season, which caused him to miss the entire season.

"When you come out of West Virginia, you know football. The coaches I had were great – there was a great staff when I was there. They helped shape your character off the field, and everyone was family.

"Just before my junior year, I had a knee injury that knocked me out for the year. And the first thing I learned was that I needed to get back into class and make sure I had that to fall back on. And then dealing with that injury, I learned that the mental side of it, the way you deal with it, is very important too."

Saunders used those lessons earlier this year, when a broken bone in his back caused him to miss five weeks of the season. However, he was able to keep everything in perspective and get back into the lineup.

"You have to put that injury out of your mind, and try to get back to work as quickly as you can," Saunders explained. "It's easy to get fatigued just sitting around not doing anything."

Saunders was certainly able to put the injury behind him. Despite the lengthy absence, he was still a major force on the Destroyer offense, catching 68 passes for 550 yards and 18 touchdowns. He is a primary target when Columbus nears the goal line, and has an active touchdown streak of eighteen games dating back to last season.

With a second championship now in his sights, Saunders has been thinking on how another ring would feel, and the effect it would have on his playing career.

"Winning one just makes you want to get another one," he said. "You are the only game on, and millions of people are watching you. It felt great to get the first one, but the feelings about winning are the same.

"I haven't thought about retiring yet, but it might be great to go out with a championship. A lot of it depends on how I feel after the game, and what other opportunities might come up."

Saunders and the Destroyers square off against the SaberCats on Sunday, July 29 at 3:00 p.m. The game is televised on ABC.

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