(Photo: 247Sports)

It took nearly 16 years for former Utah safety Antwoine Sanders to complete his college degree after declaring early for the 2003 NFL Draft. But he did it just a few weeks ago, walking with the University of Utah graduating class of 2018, a bachelor’s in strategic communications proudly in hand. Sanders is living proof it is never too late to pick up where you left off and to dare yourself to create new goals once you have a little life perspective behind you.


“I had already said to myself, ‘I need to get my degree,’ but life happens,” Sanders said of his latest accomplishment. “I have kids. I have a wife so financially we have to make sure we’re ok. The money I made [in the NFL] was very minimal and it wasn’t going to last forever. At the time, I was not knowledgeable on investments - stock markets or investing in property. It took me a bit to gather myself because I went through that depression of where your name is no longer on the billboard. You’re an average Joe in the average world. What do you do from here?”


“What do you do from here?” is a question Sanders had to ask himself a lot early on in life, beginning after he graduated high school in 1996. Sanders ended up working for three years before he pursued playing college football in any capacity. Even after he found himself on a college campus, the road to seeing the gridiron was much tougher than he ever anticipated.


To start his football career, Sanders decided to attend Independence Community College. It became apparent early on that the coaching staff at the time was partial to the kids they recruited from Florida. A North Carolina native, Sanders felt he wasn’t given a fair shot because of where he was from. He left in frustration and went back home to look for another opportunity.


ICC ended up changing its coaching staff and asked Sanders to return and compete for starting positions on both sides of the ball. Initially, Sanders was agreeable until one of his friends mentioned he was transferring to Arizona Western in 1999 and there were starting positions open not only for Sanders but two other friends currently with Independence. The opportunity seemed like a no brainer, so all four transferred together.


However, the move to Arizona Western didn’t come without another setback. After earning the starting free safety job, Sanders learned he had to sit out a year because his transcript said he had failed a “Fundamentals of Football” class at Independence. As it turned out, the coaching staff at Independence was upset Sanders had walked away a second time and made up the failing grade to punish him. They eventually agreed to reverse the grade, but not until after it was too late to play that season. With some love and encouragement from his mom and head coach at Arizona Western, Sanders got through his setback. He had no idea there would be a life altering reward waiting for him at the end of the tunnel.


“Come [the next] spring I won the starting job, I was first team all-conference and first team all-region. I was going to be pre-season All American when a buddy of mine, Michael Culpepper, had been sent to Arizona Western by Kyle Whittingham,” said Sanders. “Later on, Culpepper went on his recruiting trip to visit the University of Utah and the coaches were asking him, ‘Who is #2 on the video?’ Culpepper told them who I was and that I wanted to leave early, and so Gary Andersen told Culpepper to let me know he would be down to visit me soon.”


One bang on Sanders’ dorm room door a few weeks later from Culpepper is all it took to change Sanders’ life once more. Coach Andersen was waiting to meet Sanders just like he had promised. It led to the best two years of Sanders’ collegiate career. Sanders made a quick impact for the Utes, earning second team All-Mountain West honors in 2001 with 78 tackles, four pass breakups and four interceptions. The following season he was named first team All-Mountain West in 2002 with 65 tackles, six pass breakups and two interceptions. Because of his success and age (he was 25 in 2002), it seemed a no brainer to leave Utah a year early and try his luck in the NFL.


“That experience was bittersweet,” said Sanders of his Draft Day experience. “I will say this because I was projected to be a first day draft pick- late first round, no later than third round pick was what I was told. I just remember the day before the Draft, USA Today came out with the cream of the crop at every position and so they had the top five guys ranked. I was ranked in the top five which was great for me because it was myself, Troy Polamalu and a couple of other guys so I’m thinking I’m sitting pretty.”


What happened next for Sanders was the horror movie version of Draft Day, a tale of not knowing who to trust and missteps because of it. The first call Sanders received a few days before the draft was from the Cleveland Browns. They wanted to find out if he was healthy, where he’d be during the draft, and if they had the correct phone number. Naturally, Sanders was excited after the conversation and felt sure Cleveland would take him because they had multiple picks in the first three rounds, had flown him out for a visit previously, and sent someone from the CIA (a very common practice) to do due diligence on his background. It didn’t hurt that Todd Bowles was the Browns’ defensive backs coach at the time and happened to be friends with Sanders’ uncle when they played together with the Redskins. Even Sanders’ agent was well connected and friendly with the organization. Everything seemed to add up for Sanders and the Browns, until it didn’t.


The trouble started when a friend of his called him and told him to check out the NFL’s website. Most of their evaluation of him was very positive, but the negatives were especially negative. “Plays for self, not team” and “wants NFL money” particularly stood out and Sanders had no idea where it was coming from. “I go online and see, ‘He’s selfish, arrogant, and he’s not a team player,’ and I’m like, ‘What? How is that even possible?’ I hadn’t given anyone any problems,” Sanders recalls. “I hadn’t had any off-the-field problems, I haven’t done anything to anyone wrong and could not figure out where this was coming from.”


In a panic, Sanders called his agent to see what was going on. The agent told Sanders he had no idea, but would look into it while trying to assure Sanders it would most likely blow over. At some point, Sanders was advised to look into his agent and ended up firing him the day before the draft without asking any questions.


Day one of the 2003 NFL Draft came and went without a single phone call from the Browns. Sanders had no idea at the time what had possibly happened, but believes upon reflection that firing his agent was a big mistake. It’s a decision he regrets to this day. The one time day one slam dunk ultimately did not start getting calls until the 5th round on day two of the Draft and was starting to be viewed as possible free agent by many.  However, a ray of hope came in the 7th round when the Baltimore Ravens called and told Sanders they really want him on their team and to hang tight for another call.


No more than 30 minutes later Ozzie Newsome was on the phone with Sanders to reiterate how interested they were in bringing him on board. With no agent to wheel and deal for him, Sanders had to think quickly to make sure a deal did in fact get done. Friends reminded him that Green Bay had two picks in the 7th round and were very interested in him as well, which Sanders relayed back to Newsome, who then had to go back to his people. It wasn’t more than a 30 second wait for Sanders - Newsome called back and told Sanders to “Do him a favor and tell your parents you’re officially a Baltimore Raven.”


It was a surreal experience for Sanders going from a highly touted draft pick and a potential six figure or million dollar plus signing bonus to a seventh round pick with a very minimal five figure signing bonus. Nonetheless, after the unexpected ordeal he went through Sanders was so excited he passed out and his mom had to catch him. At the end of the day Sanders was just happy someone saw him how he saw himself; a talented player who works his butt off and tries to do the right thing on and off the field.


Unfortunately for Sanders, even though he got the contract he was not out of the dark yet. Things never really panned out with the NFL the way he had hoped. He would spend under a year with the Ravens before receiving a medical release in 2004 to the Miami Dolphins where he spent a year. In 2005, Sanders found himself playing for a bit in the Canadian Football League for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats before finally hanging them up for good.


Once again Sanders was in a position where he was asking himself, “Where do you go from here?” All paths led back to Utah, a decision that would open the door for him to finish the degree he started years ago and fulfill a promise made to his mom that he would complete. First, he had to make sure ends were being met for his family, which got him into consulting to train athletes and building athletic training protocols while traveling abroad as an ambassador fitness trainer, owning his own fitness studio, creating his own CTX fitness band equipment, and opening up an Acai juice bar. Finally, after accomplishing all of that and putting his family in a good position without a degree Sanders was ready to buckle down and get back to school to finish what he had started.


Like most young college students, Sanders was unsure of what degree he wanted to pursue. Did he want to pick up where he left off or start completely over in something new?  The only thing Sanders was sure of when he got back into school is that he was entering with the goal of eventually being a college or pro football coach but knew he couldn’t coach at that level without that official piece of paper.


“I love football so much that I decided I really wanted to coach,” Sanders said. “I’ve always helped my oldest son out who plays little league football and will be going into high school next year and so coaching was something I really wanted to do and still want to do. It’s something I kick myself for. ‘Why didn’t you think of this earlier?’”


Sanders says the timing of his venture back into college could not have been better with his kids old enough to appreciate the effort, dedication and sacrifices he would be making to be a successful student. Many Saturdays and Sundays were spent locked in the office for hours studying, while the rest of the family was at the movies and other fun activities.


“My wife already has her degree,” Sanders said. “For the foundation of our family we preach education around here as much as we possibly can and [our kids] are great students. It was an awesome opportunity for them to see dad go from being out of school for 16 plus years to go back and get a degree. They got to witness the whole process.”


As it turned out, the Utah Athletic Department - more specifically Coordinator of Football Academics Beth Brennan - was going to be along for the ride as well, helping guide him and making sure he was doing what he needed to in order to graduate. Sanders could not be more thankful that Utah was just as invested in his scholastic success now as they were 16 years earlier when he was actually playing for the school.


“It’s a beautiful thing,” Sanders said. “Myself and my roommate Devin Houston both left school at the same time and came back and graduated at the same time, which is amazing. It’s one of those things where, my first semester back I actually paid for the two classes I took and a good friend of ours, Quincy Watkins, was like, ‘Did you talk to Beth to get back in?’ I was like, ‘No, who is Beth?’ and he said ‘She’s the coordinator for helping all of us guys who left school early to return and get their degree.’”


Another aspect of Sander’s school comeback that surprised and moved him was Utah’s willingness to refund him for the first semester he went back. “That showed me they are really serious about bringing their guys back to make sure they are providing them the opportunity to move forward in life because they easily could have said, ‘No, we will not reimburse you’,” he said. “This is just showing the parents of these kids in the households they are going to go sit down in that education is first and foremost and that they understand they are a great athlete and want to help them achieve their dream, but also want to help them achieve a second dream which is to graduate college and be a great man and a great individual in the community and have a great lifestyle. One day football will end so when it does end they want to prepare them for life after. We all know how important having a degree for an individual can be.”


“I was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth and my mom never could have paid for me to go to college, so for them to give me a scholarship to go to school in the first place is really impactful and amazing to me. But for them to say, ‘Hey, you’ve been gone for 16 years but you’re still a part of this family and we want to assist you in the best way we can. How can we help you get back in school and get your degree?’ I just think it’s a beautiful thing,” Sanders continued. “I think it speaks volumes to what they are doing and they continue to recruit by letting them know they are very competitive, have one of the best facilities in the country, go to a bowl game every single year, are part of the Pac-12 but guess what? We are going to make sure we do everything in our power to help you graduate from the University of Utah and if you don’t graduate it will solely be because the individual chose not to. I say that because they not only give you the opportunity to do so while you are a student-athlete, but they also give you the opportunity to come back and finish after you are no longer physically playing football for the team.”


Still feeling like “part of the family” is what initially spurred Sanders to his latest venture - UBoyz Vets; an organization designed to bring together former players while helping support nonprofits they are involved in. “UBoyz Vets is something that originated on the Marco Polo group which is an app where we can video chat,” Sanders said. “Once I heard about Marco Polo I wanted to get in touch with all of my guys. I started reaching out to guys and getting their contact info and morphing us into this group and I named the group UBoyz Vets. It’s a collection of guys I played with at the University of Utah. The beauty of it was some of us hadn’t talked to each other since our playing days and as I looked at it everyone was living a different life. Everyone had changed so much since we were in college, we all bring something different to the table and we all have different career fields.”


In order to generate funds to help with charitable acts, Sanders has created a line of hats that were very prevalent during this past spring Red and White Game that say “UBoyz” (or UGirlz for the ladies) across the front and Vets in the back which are now available for sale on www.uboyzvets.com.  Sanders has also started a podcast called “Making Noise With The UBoyz Vets” every Tuesday at 10:30 am Mountain time on Facebook and YouTube that features guys he once played with as well as other guests to help get the word out about what they are doing and to help catch fans up on their favorite former players.


“I wanted to create an apparel line but I also wanted to attach some social cause to it. If I was to ask Edwin Bitten, who I played with at the University of Utah, ‘If you could have the resources or financial means to get behind what is a program you would want to get behind?’ One thing I know Edwin is behind right now is at-risk kids who have been adopted and he’s trying to help them have a father-figure, like a brother in their life that can kind of educate them and get them things outside of school that will make them better,” Sanders said. “Then if I were to ask Arnold Parker my better half of ‘ASAP’ and safety pride, who is currently a police officer in Vegas and he’s trying to help the kids that have really troubled households stay prepared for educational things and sports so they can stay in really positive things and avoid the negative things in their neighborhoods. UBoyz Vets needed to create a movement that with the sale of every product- I started with the hat and we would find certain organizations that with every sale a portion of the proceeds would go to the organization.”


When Sanders first showed up to Utah 16 years ago as a young man he had no idea what to expect and didn’t really think the school, state, or people would have as profound an affect on him as they have. Now Sanders wouldn’t have it any other way. “After I got here and got settled in I noticed it was very peaceful, the people are very friendly, family oriented, they have all four seasons,” Sanders said. “There is a lot to do here, people hike, bike, ski, snowboard, they are out running, going to lakes and boating. There is a nightlife and it’s not too late at night, the malls are pretty decent.”


“I’m always telling guys if you played here, and kept your nose clean people are willing to assist you in any way they possibly can,” Sanders continued. “You’ve got to learn to take full advantage of that- not that you’re trying take advantage of a person and their kindness but take advantage of the fact you are who you are, you’ve done what you’ve done, people enjoy being around you, you’ve got a great personality, a big, warm heart. You’re wiling to bring them to your space and they are willing to bring you into theirs. It’s working. Being here at Utah actually helps us be as successful as we want to be just by the network and influence in which people have on us and we have on them. Every year the school gets better with the functions they are having for the vets, the returning alumni and keeping that strength alive- the younger guys coming through the program are always running across former players and guys are very upbeat about what they are a part of currently today. I can see why a lot of guys are still here and doing good things in the community and making this home.”


No matter where he goes, or what his next venture might be Sanders knows he will always have a home in Salt Lake City and a big, inviting family to go to with the Utes. “The easiest way I can sum it up is that I’m a part of greatness because the guys that I met. They have really loved the time that they spent here and they love the direction the university is heading and I feel the exact same way,” Sanders said of being a Ute. “I’m very humbled and honored to have had the opportunity to come play here, be a part of this network of men in this university.”