Tommy Saunders was one of the greatest receivers in Missouri football history and now finds himself on an NFL roster. However, the road to success has been anything but easy for him.
For any college graduate, transitioning from college to a professional career can be difficult. Throw in the fact that the chosen career is professional football and that transition becomes even more difficult. But for former MU standout receiver Tommy Saunders, the NFL is just another goal on an already remarkable list of accomplishments.
“I set [the NFL] as a goal,” Saunders said. “I just took it one thing at a time. By the time I got to this point in my life it was just the next thing in line.”
That humble, one-at-a-time approach has worked magically for Saunders as the former walk-on now finds himself on the brink of an NFL career.
Saunders, a man coaches refer to as “a dream,” leaves Missouri as one of the most prolific pass-catchers in Tiger history. He ranks among the top10 all-time in Mizzou football history in career receptions, career receiving yards, receptions in a season, and receiving yards in a season. He was part of the winningest class ever at Mizzou. He is undoubtedly one of the greatest receivers to don a Missouri uniform. With achievements like that, one might assume things have come easily for Saunders. However, that assumption could not be further from the truth.
Flashback to 2004, Saunders senior year at Kearney (Mo) High School: After leading the Kearney football team to a 14-0 record and the Class 4A state championship, Saunders was named to First Team All-State on both offense and defense. With 23 career interceptions, he still owns a Class 4A state record for most career INT’s. His five interception returns for touchdowns are also a state record. Not to mention, that same year Saunders also led Kearney to an appearance in the state championship in basketball as well. It appeared as if a star was born. One might guess colleges were lined up at the Saunders’ residence begging this kid to come play for them. Wrong again. Tommy Saunders had been overlooked.
Despite his on-field accomplishments and the fact he could bench-press over 300 lbs. as a high school senior, Saunders received no major scholarship offers. Out of a possible five star ranking, Rivals.com recruiting website deemed Saunders worthy of one star.
It would have been easy for Saunders to give up. Thousands of kids each year give up their athletic dreams once they fall short of a scholarship. But for Saunders, quitting was not an option. Instead, he simply readjusted his goals. The goal: to earn a football scholarship.
The coach’s dream, already well noted for his work ethic, began to work even harder. Even now, for teammates who have only known him a few months, Saunders’ work ethic still manages to make an impression.
“He is one of those guys that you have to kick out of the weight room,” Missouri linebacker Josh Tatum said.
Tatum, who joined Mizzou in the spring of 2009 after transferring from junior college, said that Saunders’ work ethic has led to his opportunities as a player.
“He is going to outwork, outplay, and out-think an opponent,” he said. “That is why he deserves to be in the position he is.”
After spending the 2004 season as a red-shirt freshman on the practice squad, Saunders began to see his hard work pay off. He was rewarded with a football scholarship prior to the start of the 2005 season. Saunders had accomplished his goal, a feat with which he would quickly become familiar.
Over the course of his career at MU, Saunders set and met numerous personal goals. His goals were not easily achievable ones either. Take for example his goal to do 100,000 pushups in a single year. That’s roughly 275 per day.
“The pushups thing is something I did just to push myself to be in shape,” Saunders said. “I try to stay in as good as shape as possible.”
Saunders not only reached 100,000 pushups, he did 100,084, stopping on 84 to match his jersey number.
After catching 41 passes as a junior in Missouri’s 12-2 2007 campaign, one might guess Saunders was beginning to garner attention from professional scouts. Wrong again. But all Saunders did was continue to work hard.
By senior year Saunders had met his goal of becoming a team captain. He completed his senior season in 2008 by setting personal bests in receptions (72), receiving yards (833) and receiving touchdowns (7). Yet critics still persisted. He was too slow they said. He wasn’t big enough for the NFL. However, in typical Tommy Saunders fashion, he refused to let anyone count him out.
“It’s not about what anyone else thinks,” Saunders said. “I don’t really listen to any of that stuff. I just worry about making myself a better player.”
So Saunders worked at making himself better in hopes of earning an invitation to the NFL scouting combine. Each year hundreds of the best collegiate football players are invited to Indianapolis to work out in front of scouts from every NFL team. For Saunders, the combine represented a chance to finally show the NFL what he could do. Instead, Saunders could only watch as many of his Missouri teammates packed their bags for Indianapolis. Saunders was not invited. Once again, he had been overlooked.
“I was disappointed not to get invited,” Saunders said. “I wanted to go. Once I didn’t get invited to the combine I knew I wasn’t going to be drafted.”
For some, rejection from the combine may have led to the end of the story. It would have been easy for him to hang up his cleats and reflect on a successful college career. But Saunders refused to settle. Instead, he simply readjusted his goals. The goal: make it to an NFL team’s rookie camp.
As Saunders correctly predicted, he was not one of the 256 players selected in the NFL draft. He was reduced to the role of a spectator as he proudly saw six of his Missouri teammates hear their names called on draft weekend.
“I’m happy for all of those guys,” Saunders said of his Tiger teammates who were selected by NFL teams. “Anytime you see your teammates succeed it’s a great feeling.”
Shortly after the draft ended, Saunders received the call for which he had put in so much hard work. It was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on the phone; they were offering Saunders a contract to compete in the Buccaneers rookie mini-camp. It appeared as though someone was finally going to give him his chance.
At the camp, which lasted a total of three days, Saunders was impressive. He was even featured in a story on the Buccaneers official website (link here: http://www.buccaneers.com/news/newsdetail.aspx?newsid=7077). As usual, Saunders showed nothing but humility following practice with Tampa Bay.
“It doesn’t count until August and the final cuts, and however you get there is fine,” Saunders said in an interview with buccaneers.com. “That’s my goal – little steps and try to get to August.”
However, Saunders would not see another day with the Buccaneers, yet alone August. He was released by Tampa Bay following the mini-camp. Once again, Tommy Saunders had been overlooked.
Although he was cut by Tampa, the goal was still in place for Saunders. In May, he got another chance at the NFL when the Detroit Lions signed him to a free agent contract. This time, he has lasted more than just a few days. He now finds himself catching passes from Matthew Stafford, the first player chosen in this year’s draft, on a daily basis. Being the coach’s dream that he is, Saunders is working harder than ever in his attempt to reach his newest goal: survive training camp and make the final roster.
Until then, Saunders will continue to put himself through his daily routine of waking up at 6:30a.m., practicing, going through team meetings, and studying his playbook. When he gets back to his hotel at 5:30p.m., a normal person may go to sleep or watch television. But not Tommy Saunders. Instead, Saunders works out again –
“I’m used to practicing and working out everyday,” Saunders said. “It’s more mentally tiring than anything.”
– All to help ease his transition from college to the pros and to help him reach his ultimate goal.
Despite the obstacles and setbacks he has encountered along the way, Saunders has now worked his way to the doorstep of an NFL career. Not bad for a one-star recruit who did not receive a scholarship. Some who have achieved everything Saunders has might boast about their accomplishments. They might predict a long, successful NFL career accompanied by fame and fortune. But not Saunders. He continues to take life one goal at a time.
When asked where he sees himself in five years, Saunders replied, “I want to be involved in football somehow. Whether that’s playing in the NFL or coaching or whatever. I take things one step at a time so I can’t tell you that I will definitely be in the NFL or anything like that. But mostly, I just want to have a family and be able to support them. That’s the most important thing.”
So while Saunders will continue to work harder than anyone to reach his goal of making an NFL team, he is careful to keep things in perspective.
Hundreds of players will be cut from NFL rosters before opening day this fall. For many of them, they will not know what to do once being removed from football. Not Saunders though. If football doesn’t work out, he will simply, once again, readjust his goals. With the work ethic and attitude he possesses, something tells me Saunders will be successful no matter where he ends up.