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September 19, 2012

Bowl victory and finance degree made former Tech receiver Steve Sanders' career a big success

By: Jimmy Robertson

Like nearly every college football player, former Tech wide receiver Steve Sanders wanted to play in the NFL. In fact, he planned for it, majoring in finance at Tech because he wanted to be able to manage his own money.

But like so many college football players, his NFL plans did not work out, forcing him to rely on his degree. Fortunately, that has propelled him to a successful career, one that today sees him working for GE Healthcare and living in Charlotte, N.C.

He serves as a perfect example for today’s Tech football players, and his message to them would be simple.

“I’d tell them to think about what they’re going to do if things don’t go the way they want,” Sanders said. “You need to be prepared for life beyond football. You need to make decisions for yourself and by yourself. As a student-athlete, take advantage of the opportunity and get a good degree while a great school is paying for it.”

Athletically, Tech wasn’t exactly great when Sanders arrived on campus out of Green Run High School in Virginia Beach, Va., in 1990, though the Hokies were coming off a 6-4-1 season after two losing campaigns in head coach Frank Beamer’s first two years. But he decided to commit anyway, trusting in Beamer and his staff. While Sanders considered other schools such as UVa, Clemson, Duke, Wake Forest and Tennessee, he committed to Tech after his official visit, cancelling visits to UVa and Clemson against his mom’s desires.

“My mom wasn’t too happy when I called Tom O’Brien [former UVa assistant coach] and cancelled my visit,” Sanders said. “She didn’t have anything against Tech. She just wanted me to explore all my options and make an informed decision.

“But I loved the atmosphere at Tech, and there was an opportunity to play quite a bit. I didn’t know much about Tech, but I learned a lot on my visit, and I liked it.”

Sanders played as a true freshman, though to say “played” might be a stretch. He did not catch a pass and spent much of his time on the sidelines hampered by injuries that season, while the Hokies went on to a 6-5 season, culminating in a 38-13 blasting of rival UVa in Blacksburg.

His sophomore season, he caught 17 passes for 219 yards, as the Hokies finished with a losing record (5-6) for the third time in Beamer’s first five seasons. Things went worse the next season, as the Hokies finished an infamous 2-8-1, and Sanders caught just 14 passes for 189 yards.

“Those were trying times,” Sanders said. “We had great players and great talent, but things weren’t working out. We’d always finished around 5-6, 6-5, and then we had that 2-8-1 season. I never thought about leaving, though. All that we had been through just made my last year that much better.”

As most Tech fans know, Beamer and his staff turned the program around in 1993. Behind the throwing of quarterback Maurice DeShazo, the running of Duane Thomas and a defense led by guys like Cornell Brown, J.C. Price and Torrian Gray, the Hokies went 9-3, beating UVa in Charlottesville to end the regular season and then knocking off Indiana in the Independence Bowl.

Sanders aided the cause that season, starting every game and catching 29 passes for 552 yards and four touchdowns. He would have led the team in receptions and yards except for some guy named Antonio Freeman, who went on to have a great NFL career.

“I think we had great leadership on that team, and what had happened the previous year really brought us together,” Sanders said. “Guys worked so hard, and they were focused. People stayed that summer and went to summer school and worked out. We didn’t want to be mediocre, and I know I didn’t want my last year to end the way the ’92 season ended.”

Sanders’ best game that season came at West Virginia when he caught four passes for 106 yards, including a 46-yard touchdown from DeShazo in a bitter 14-13 defeat. He had another touchdown reception in that game, but it got called back because of a questionable holding penalty – arguably the biggest play in the game.

Yet he wrapped up his career in fine fashion, catching two passes and escorting Antonio Banks into the end zone after Tech blocked a half-ending, field-goal attempt by Indiana. The play changed the game, as the Hokies went on to a big win – one that began a streak of 19 straight bowl appearances.

“When I’m at games, I think about that,” Sanders said. “I think about where we were and where we are now. It’s good to be a part of it. Every time I hear ESPN talk about it, I think to myself, ‘I was there for that.’ That’s a pretty good feeling.”

Following that season, Sanders signed with the Chicago Bears as a free agent and spent a lot of time in their training camp. He made it to the last round of cuts before the Bears let him go. He expected to land a spot on the Bears’ practice squad, but the Bears picked up another receiver, leaving Sanders unemployed.

“That’s when I went back to Tech to finish up work on my degree,” Sanders said. “I wish I had redshirted because I had so many injuries that first year, but Coach Beamer and Tech were gracious enough to pay for my schooling that last year since I hadn’t redshirted.

“I’m glad I went back and finished. It was good to be just a student. I had a lot more time since I wasn’t playing, and I was able to meet a lot more people. I really enjoyed that year.”

Sanders graduated with his finance degree in the spring of 1995. He landed a job in Northern Virginia, working for a government contractor. He spent 11 years in Northern Virginia before moving to Charlotte in January of 2006. He got involved in pharmaceutical sales, and then, the past four years, has worked in medical equipment sales for GE Healthcare.

Sanders, who is married (to a Tech graduate) and has a 7-year-old daughter and a 9-month-old son, often makes it back to Blacksburg, especially in the fall, as he has season tickets. He stopped by practice following a day of business in Roanoke and said hello, and he also came to the lettermen’s reunion before the Maroon-White game last spring.

“I keep in touch with a few of the guys,” he said. “I don’t do Facebook, so I’m a little out of the loop. But Antonio Freeman and I text quite a bit, and I keep in touch with a few others. I really enjoyed the lettermen’s reunion. That gave me a chance to catch up with a lot of people.”

Things have worked out nicely for Sanders, thanks to a wise decision years ago to focus on the future while in the present. For sure, it’s a philosophy that should be heeded by all of Tech’s football players, present and future.