TAMPA — There was a time Bentlee Sanders thought he would never see this day.
Three years ago, the Tampa Catholic defensive back pondered his future in the most trying time of his life. Sanders lost his older sister, Elese, in February 2014 to suicide. Then a torn ligament in his knee during a preseason game cost him his sophomore season.
He felt like giving up. At such a young age, the pain and the loss were hard to comprehend.
"There were points that I just sat in my room and cried," Sanders said. "I was like, 'Man, is this the end of my career? Am I going to get an offer or anything?' "
But Sanders overcame, concluding his career with 135 tackles and six interceptions. And on Wednesday, before a roomful of friends, coaches and family members, those old worries faded for good as he pulled a white snap-back cap snug over his light brown hair, inking a letter of intent to USF along with teammates Devan Barrett (Auburn), Darius Corbett (Toledo), Austin Sessums (Texas Southern) and Steven Rix (Valdosta State).
A three-star prospect, there was never a question where Sanders wanted to be: right at home. And that was only bolstered when Charlie Strong was hired in December to replace Willie Taggart, who departed for Oregon.
"I had no doubts whatsoever," Sanders said. "(Strong) called me I think a few days after and we talked. He said he was ready and I told him I was ready, too."
TC coach Mike Gregory said Sanders brings a "warrior mentality" to the Bulls. But more than that, it's the passion during the difficult moments that set him apart.
"You overcome a season-ending injury like he did in an important sophomore year, that speaks volumes about the type of person he is," Gregory said.
Barrett, a four-star running back prospect, said he dreamt of an opportunity like this from a young age. To finally get there left him nearly speechless.
"There's no words to explain how happy I am," said Barrett, who rushed for more than 3,600 yards and was a four-year starter.
"Just to have an opportunity to sign a letter of intent and knowing where I'm going to college, it's just a great feeling."
The hard part is over. As a new chapter dawns, to Sanders, the bar is already set high.
"Going 11-2, you can't go wrong with that," Sanders said of USF's best-ever season in 2016.
"Next year, I feel like we can go undefeated. I feel like we can do that easily."