West Virginia junior receiver Jock Sanders, a former St. Petersburg Catholic standout, found himself last spring in a most precarious position.
He was careening toward becoming a cautionary tale.
In February, he was charged with driving under the influence and suspended from the team. Sanders, 21, who was involved in a fight outside a Morgantown club a year earlier, had to clean out his locker and was barred from the training facilities.
"I was pretty tough on him," coach Bill Stewart said.
"I was isolated," Sanders said. "I was by myself. That's not what I wanted at all. I wanted to be a part of this team. I love the family here. I put myself in the situation where it scared me and brought me down to earth. I made a mistake, but I was determined to turn my life around."
He has and in the processbecome an inspirational tale for his teammates, who meet Florida State on Friday in the Gator Bowl.
"He's never downtown. He's never out with the guys. He's always home doing what he's supposed to do, being a responsible parent (with his fiancee)," Stewart said. "That speaks volumes to the type of young man he is. Has the incident helped? Well, maybe a little bit, but Jock's always been a wonderful young man."
Sanders, reinstated just before August's fall camp, has blossomed on the field, too. He has a career-best and team-high 70 receptions (seven shy of the schoolrecord) for 674 yards and three touchdowns;168 yards and a touchdown on 34 rushes; a team-high 146 yards on 17 punt returns and one kickoff return for 28 yards. That's 1,016 all-purpose yards. His teammates and coaches named him and running back Noel Devine co-offensive players of the year.
"I'm very fortunate to be in the position I'm in right now; just to have another opportunity after my incident last spring," Sanders said. "I've just tried to make the best of that opportunity."
That's something he readily admits he didn't always do. But he realized the hard way he had to change as he faced the ramifications of his off-field problems.
While his teammates worked out and practiced during the spring, he went to class then a gym, where he hooked up with trainer Wes Brown.
"I'm a person who wholeheartedly believes in second chances. I had plenty of them coming up," Brown said. "If someone wasn't there to talk to me and help me out, I wouldn't be in the position I am now."
So he talked to Sanders, said he found him to be a "really quality individual" and offered his guidance and no-nonsense, ultra-demanding approach to strength and conditioning.
"Jock busted his gut every single day," Brown said.
"I wasn't on the team, and I felt everyone else had an edge on me. So I had to be working at all times," the 5-foot-7, 178-pound Sanders said. "It was hard for me to sit back and see my teammates move forward and I was still in the same spot."
Late in the summer, prosecutors agreed to put him in the test-and-lock program. (A device installed on his car tests his blood alcohol before it can be started.) And if he meets the terms, the DUI charge can be expunged from his record. He also adhered to requirements imposed by Stewart, meeting with him and his position coach, Chris Beatty.
"They showed me how much they truly cared," Sanders said. "That meant a lot to me knowing I had people on my side because at some points, I felt the world was against me."
When Stewart reinstated him, Sanders said he was relieved, as nervous as an incoming freshman but motivated like never before.
"I felt I had something to prove," he said. "I had a hunger and a dedication."
That didn't surprise junior cornerback Brandon Hogan, who is as close as family with Sanders.
"The thing that happened to him made him mature," he said.
Sanders said his troubles have helped him learn that life is replete with obstacles and the measure of man is how he deals with them. And he insists he's better prepared now.
"He was absolutely a trooper about it," Stewart said. "He was up front about it. He was a man about it. He's been a tremendous role model for the young players."
Brian Landman can be reached at email@example.com.