View Full Version : Saunders grateful for long road to NFL (good read)

11-30-2011, 08:40 PM
PITTSBURGH — Weslye Saunders spent nearly a year hearing the whispers. Endure the kind of self-inflicted hardship Saunders put himself through in 2010 and they're hard to ignore.

The Pittsburgh Steelers rookie tight end doesn't blame those who labeled him a "cancer" and a "head case" — Saunders' words — following his inglorious exit at South Carolina.

His senior season ended before it even began when coach Steve Spurrier suspended Saunders for a violation of team rules. He was kicked off the team entirely a few weeks later then admitted to lying to NCAA investigators about staying at an off-campus hotel at a discounted rate.

They weren't the kind of headlines that impress NFL scouts, ones just as concerned about character as the 6-foot-5, 270-pound Saunders' combination of size, speed and soft hands.

Missing the game he grew up loving humbled Saunders. It also made him grow up. Quickly.

"I had to prove I wasn't what they said I was back in Carolina," Saunders said.

The process proved painful.

Saunders broke his left foot preparing for the NFL Draft yet couldn't say no when the Steelers tight end coach James Daniel flew down to take a look. He went through all the drills — the 40-yard dash, shuttle run and route tree included — thanks to a mixture of grit and healthy doses of Tylenol.

He underwent surgery the next day then watched 224 players hear their name called in the draft. His was not one of them. It was a cold dose of reality, yet one Saunders now considers a favor.

If he'd stayed out of trouble, the Steelers wouldn't have signed him as an undrafted free agent shortly after the lockout ended. If he'd stayed healthy he might not have scored his first NFL touchdown last week in Pittsburgh's 13-9 win over Kansas City. If he'd played last year at South Carolina he might not have gained the perspective necessary to cut it with a veteran-laden team.

"Maybe if I'd have gone first round like everyone projected and I had anticipated I wouldn't be as grateful," he said. "I would have taken it for granted. Just the fact I had to work so hard to get to where I am now, I'm just enjoying it."

So much so Saunders forgot all about the well-choreographed touchdown celebration he'd outlined with teammate Antonio Brown when he finally reached the end zone for the first time, perhaps because he was still stunned when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger stepped away from pressure before finding Saunders along the end line for a 2-yard score.

During the countless times the Steelers have run that play in practice, the ball never came Saunders' way. Not once. Yet he kept running as Roethlisberger broke containment, then went up and snatched the high pass out of the air while deftly getting both feet down before tumbling to the earth.

"To his credit, he stayed alive," Roethlisberger said. "He's in the back of the end zone and he's a big-play guy. I was kind of disappointed he didn't go up and get it. He let it come down to him."

Roethlisberger is kidding, well mostly. He's not quite ready to say Saunders has arrived but acknowledges the two are slowly building a comfort level as the raw talent who couldn't block when training camp started became an effective part of the running game.

Once he proved his willingness to stick his nose in uncomfortable places and his ability to run routes properly, Saunders found himself on the field more often.

"When we started the season I didn't have a great rapport with Ben or anything like that," he said. "But over the weeks, getting cussed out at practice and doing the wrong things in the game I've learned what not to do and what Ben likes and that's what's most important."

Doesn't sound like the same kid who was so unwelcome at South Carolina last fall the school opted not to reinstate him last December even though he would have had one more year of eligibility.

There are no hard feelings on Saunders' part. As difficult as it was to be told he was no longer wanted, he needed it to grow both on the field and off.

"It definitely gave me time to grow and look at things from a different view," he said. "Coming to an organization like this is truly a blessing, where winning is so important. I've never been part of a program like this."

There's still one program he's not a part of despite countless lobbying: the "Young Money Family," the fraternity receivers Brown, Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders established last season.

Brown told Saunders he "needed to get his money up" to earn a spot. As an undrafted free agent, Saunders' three-year deal is in a significantly lower tax bracket than the lucrative contract he would have signed if he'd been chosen in the first round.

"We're Young Money, but he's no money," Wallace said with a laugh.

Maybe, though Saunders understands if he does his work, the big-time payday will come.

That's a long way off, to be certain. A lot can happen over the next three years. Over the last 18 months, Saunders has gone from surefire star to cautionary tale to humble rookie.

It's a journey he never planned on taking, but one he knows was necessary.

"I'm happy where I am right now," he said. "I really don't think about it as much. I wish things could have gone differently, but really things turned out OK."

http://www.deseretnews.com/article/7002 ... .html?pg=2 (http://www.deseretnews.com/article/700202883/Steelers-TE-Saunders-grateful-for-long-road-to-NFL.html?pg=2)

11-30-2011, 10:30 PM
Step by Step

PITTSBURGH – It’s been a step-by-step process for Steelers rookie tight end Weslye Saunders this season.

Step 1: Get hit in the facemask by a pass in Indianapolis.

Step 2: Drop a touchdown pass in Cincinnati.

Step 3: Learn from Step 1 and get head turned in time to make the catch and help the team put Cincinnati away on the final possession.

Step 4: Learn from Step 2 and catch touchdown pass in Kansas City.

It was the only touchdown of last Sunday night’s game. And getting seven instead of three at that point gave the Steelers their four-point margin of victory.

“Each week I like to think I’m growing off the previous outing,” said Saunders. “So hopefully I can do something else this week to solidify my place in this offense.”

And what exactly would make his coaches happy in that regard?

“Coach T [Mike Tomlin] would probably want me to do well on special teams,” Saunders said. “Coach JD [tight ends coach James Daniel], he’d probably want me to put some guy’s face in the dirt a few times on a few running plays.”

Is it forthcoming?

“I hope so,” Saunders said. “I hope so.”

As Saunders continues to work on his blocking, he’s showing the Steelers he can catch – and he’s showing off some pretty nifty footwork as well.

His sidestep after catching a late pass in Cincinnati gave the Steelers a critical first down. And his two-step tap-dance in the back of the end zone gave him his first career touchdown Sunday night in Kansas City. How did the 6-foot-5, 270-pounder develop those nifty feet?

“That’s what happens when you get a little too big to play football with the kids your age growing up,” he said. “At the time I didn’t like it but I got accustomed to being in gymnastics and soccer growing up. I was in gymnastics for six years and seven years in soccer.”

Gymnastics? Is that tough enough for a boy growing up in Gary, Indiana?

“Yeah, it’s definitely for tough guys,” he said. “It’s very dangerous, very dangerous. I have a lot of respect for the females who do it. Not many males do it but it’s very rigorous on the body. You have to have nimble feet. You have to be in great shape to do gymnastics, and I was glad I was able to do that at a young age because it’s helped me over the years with basketball and football.”

Saunders started gymnastics at the age of six. He excelled in the floor routine but couldn’t afford to travel to the competitions. So he just practiced, and sometimes it hurt.

“I got hurt trying to do a couple double back tucks and landed straight on my back with my head hitting the ground,” he said. “No broken bones during that time, but I had a lot of scares, definitely.”

It wouldn’t be the last time Saunders received a scare. He got one when he was thrown off the South Carolina football team prior to his senior season, and he got one when one of the first pro passes that came his way bounced off his facemask because he didn’t turn around in time.

“I took a lot of heat for that, especially from Ben [Roethlisberger] and the coaches,” Saunders said. “They told me I had to get my head around faster and I vowed never to make that mistake again. And if you recall in the Cincinnati game a couple weeks ago, when I caught that pass at the end of the game, it was a similar situation. The play was supposed to go a little deeper than that but because of the blitz it didn’t go how we planned it in practice. I had to look a little quicker.

“If what happened to me against the Colts hadn’t happened, I don’t know if I would’ve looked that quick. Everything happens for a reason.”

Even gymnastics


12-01-2011, 09:50 AM
Thanks for posting. Good reads.

Johnson should never be on the field in any situation where there is even the smallest chance for a pass. This kid has way more (raw) talent. Hopefully the tough NFL start pushes him to continue his hard work in the offseason and they have a real weapon come 2012.