When the Vikings used a seventh-round selection in the 2009 draft on safety Jamarca Sanford, his primary selling point was that he was a long-term starter in the SEC, where he played for Ole Miss.
In four years with the Vikings, the last two as a full-time starter, Sanford has witnessed the highs and lows of the cyclical nature of the NFL. The 2009 Vikings were the greatest team the franchise had seen in a decade. The 2011 team was as futile as any in team history.
As he enters his fifth NFL season, Sanford has endured the ups and downs of NFL reality and believes that, while the team can't rest on the laurels of success they had in their turnaround 2012 season, the team is heading in the right direction.
"I've seen a lot here in four years," Sanford said. "When I was rookie, we had a great team that was close to the Super Bowl. Two years ago, we learned what it was like to walk off the field with your head down knowing that you gave it you all, but it was little things you did that cost you the game. Each year is different by itself. 2009 was very different than 2011 and 2011 was very different from last year. But I would say that I did learn a lot from (the 2011 season) because nobody wants to have a year like that. Each year is something new. Last year we were one of the teams that people saw as a surprise team that made the playoffs. We want to build on that and not be a surprise team that makes the playoffs this year. "
At last year's training camp, a lot of eyes were on rookie Harrison Smith. He had been anointed by many as a means to cure the Vikings' deficiencies at safety and Sanford was in a fight for his starting job. A year later, the outlook at safety looks much brighter – as does the outlook for the team as a whole.
"I feel like we're growing as a team and getting better," Sanford said. "We're building off of what we accomplished last year and it shows out there every day. Everyone is ready to grind. Harrison has grown a lot since he got here and we're looking to make the play of safeties a strength of this defense. Everybody is stepping up and we're in a lot better place than we were a year ago."
In the process, Sanford has emerged from being a guy that had a lot of upside to a leader in the secondary. It's a mantle he accepts willingly, but not something he sought out. He's always been a leader on his football teams since he first put on pads and enjoys being viewed as one of the defensive leaders.
"I think you don't get handed leadership, it's something that is just part of who you are and who I am as a player," Sanford said. "I have leadership qualities just being myself. Everybody looks at me as a leader because I'm outspoken and not afraid to say what's on my mind or call myself out. I'm the first to criticize myself when I'm not playing at the level I think I should."
Defensive coordinator Alan Williams admitted with a smile that Sanford is outspoken – and that's an understatement for anyone that has attended spirited practices – but he also back up his talk with solid play on the field.
"I think that Jamarca feels comfortable in his skin as I've mentioned before. He's always been a leader," Williams said. "You guys have interviewed him; now he likes to talk. The one thing about Jamarca, though, is that he backs it up on the football field. I think that's an important part of what guys do. Guys can talk, but Jamarca's one where when he gets on the field he goes 100 miles an hour. He plays hard, and he plays smart."
Sanford said he has worked as hard this offseason as he ever has because he isn't satisfied with the status quo. While many viewed the 2012 season as a surprisingly quick return to respectability, Sanford views it more as a foundation building block to bigger and better things. He acknowledges that he is seen as a leader and with that position comes added responsibility – something Sanford doesn't take lightly.
If the new-look Vikings are going to compete on a level like the 2009 Vikings of his rookie season did, it's going to take a lot of leaders stepping up and making others accountable – challenging them to raise their own game for the good of the team.
"You can't just talk about it, you have to lead by example," Sanford said. "That's why I worked as hard as I did in the offseason to come back and be prepared and to have my teammates look up to me as someone who does it right and is willing to put in the extra time to make himself better. I see that as a big part of leadership and hopefully it will inspire other guys to follow my lead and do the same. If we all do, that will make us a much better team in the long run."
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Highs and lows have helped shape Sanford
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