As a member of the New England Patriots defense, James Sanders could be described as the “Prototypical Patriot.” Head coach Bill Belichick, enlists in the services of players that fit the mold of the complex defensive scheme that supports the championship caliber teams he’s been producing since 2001. Safety, James Sanders is one of those players that truly defines what it means to be a contributing member of the system. Drafted out of Fresno State in 2005, Sanders has assumed the role as the field captain of a very young, yet talented defensive backfield.
The transition from college to the NFL wasn’t the smoothest for Sanders early on in his career. At Fresno State under head coach Pat Hill, Sanders had grown accustomed to a pro-style system. The drafting philosophy of Belichick often leaves Patriots fans confused and surprised. But he must have seen something in Sanders that persuaded to him pull the trigger in the 4th round of the 2005 NFL Draft. The switch to Bill Belichick’s system proved to be a challenge for Sanders, a challenge the young safety was ready to undertake.
“It was a huge learning curve, Pat Hill the head coach at Fresno State, he has a pro style offense and defense, a pro style practice. Once you get drafted and play for coach Belichick it’s a whole different ball game. His schemes are real complex. When you come to the league you’re a young man, but you’re being treated as a professional and you have to approach your job just like everybody else. He demands a lot out of everybody. It was a slow process, but I started out on special teams, and just kept working harder and harder on becoming a better player each and every year.”
Sanders arrived to New England during an era when there was a strong veteran presence on the roster. Veterans were ready to embrace and show him, and the other younger Patriots, the “Patriot” way. The Patriots are known for utilizing veteran players that have matured in the NFL and that have been successful. Not only do they produce, but they also serve as on-field coaches and mentors to the young players that are brought in, via the NFL Draft. Sanders was very fortunate to have that opportunity to work with some of legendary Patriots ,en-route to becoming a professional. Sanders credits several former and current Patriots, and their professionalism that have helped mold him into the player that he is today.
“There were a few guys; Kevin Faulk, Chad Scott, Adalius Thomas obviously Rodney Harrison, Artrell Hawkins and Willie McGinest. Me and my friends all call Willie ‘The Big Homey.’ He really took me under his wing while we were both in New England. I’m still great friends with him today. He just shot me a text the other day making sure I was all right and making sure that I was doing everything I needed to be doing. I really appreciate everything that he has done for me, as well as Rodney (Harrison.) There were also a few other guys; Randy Moss, Fred Taylor and Jarrad Page, they were are all veterans that were brought in, and provided me some really great tips on how to maintain longevity in the competitive league that we play in. It’s also been a really great experience playing alongside Brandon Meriweather, and watching him grow as a player.”
Now a veteran in the NFL of 6 years, Sanders was once brought in to replace a legend in former all-pro Rodney Harrison. He has learned to embrace the drafting philosophy of Bill Belichick. In 2009 the Patriots spent a 1st round selection on eventual pro bowler Brandon Meriweather. The following year they selected safety Patrick Chung in the 2nd round. Sanders is able to adapt to the team and to embrace the depth and competition that is brought in at each position. At the end of the day, it’s all about winning that Super Bowl championship.
“My mindset going in to each season is to continue to work hard and to improve areas of my game. I always feel like I’m in the mindset to be the starter, regardless of who the coaches and the organization draft. Me, Brandon Meriweather, Patrick Chung, the whole secondary, we’re all great friends. But when we go into camp I keep in my mind that I’m trying to leave as the starter.”
With a game plan that constantly changes, Sanders maintains that mental preparations are just as important as physical preparations. Part of the depth that Belichick has built at all positions enables him to operate at any time with different personnel, enabling him to cause match-up issues. Although you may not hear Sanders name announced with the starters on Monday Night Football chances are that Sanders is taking the field with the first team.
“Last year was a weird year. Off the top of my head I can’t remember how many games I started, but it was quite a few. I approach each game, week after week, as if I’m going to be the starter. The worst thing you can do is go in unprepared. If you get thrown in the fire, you need to be ready to go. I’d rather be over prepared then under prepared. You sit there thinking you’re not going to play and of a sudden your number is called and you could potentially cost your team the game. I always want to be known as a reliable player, and for the coaches to have faith that when they put me in the game, I’m going to get the job done.”
Being able to practice against perhaps the NFL’s most elite quarterback, Tom Brady and the dynamic New England Patriots offense, allows Sanders to stay even more on top of his game.
“It definitely prepares you. Not taking a shot at the other quarterbacks around the league, and we have some great quarterbacks in our league, but Tom is just different. To be able to compete against him each day, and our offense with our receivers and tight ends and different styles and packages that they put together is a tremendous advantage. The games are never easy, but practicing against them just gets you prepared leading up to that weeks game.”
Ironically, the moment that Sanders felt that he had arrived to NFL, wasn’t making his first interception, causing his first fumble or recording his first sack. It was on the practice field the place where Sanders fine-tunes his craft and prepares for next weeks battle. Sanders recalls the moment that he felt he had made it;
“The first day practicing with the veterans. When I got drafted I was 21 years old, it was always my dream to play in the NFL. Once I got that opportunity, veterans or not, whoever was on that field I was going to compete against them with my utmost ability. I was a 4th round draft pick, but as soon as I got to New England I went out and started looking for a house and I was ready to get myself established, just because I had that mindset that I was going to make this team no matter what. For me the very first step I took on the practice field with, not only with the rookies from my draft class, but with the veterans, that was the moment that I felt I had arrived… and it was time for me to make my mark on this team.”
After 6 NFL seasons, Sanders still aims to improve his game and not allow himself to get complacent. Each year he approaches this season with goals set to ensure success for the team as well as himself.
“Personally for me, I just want to improve my game each year. I know a lot of guys say it, but I just want to learn to become the best player that I can possibly be. I feel like I haven’t reached my full potential. I feel like I’m still learning more and more after each season. I just want to continue to grow in all facets of my game, run defense, pass defense, special teams… everything. I want to continue to strive to be a better player every year and I feel up to this point that I’ve been improving each year and I just aim to continue to do so. As a team, obviously the goal is to win a super bowl. I’ve come close a couple of times, but I haven’t had the opportunity to hold that trophy and get that championship ring and that’s something I still strive to earn.”
During the 2010 season, the NFL embraced a more headstrong approach to making players accountable for helmet-to-helmet hits and concussion prevention. As perhaps the most consistent safety on the New England Patriots roster, Sanders realizes that those types of hits are part of the game, and that he wont let these rules deter him from making a play.
“With all the rule changes, I have to keep in my mind that ‘all right, I know the rules on helmet- to-helmet, and shoulder- to-helmet.’ But you also know that you’re going to react and whatever is going to happen is going to happen. Sometimes there are going to be helmet-to-helmet collisions, sometimes there are going to be shoulder-to-helmet collisions, it’s just part of the game. We’ve been playing one way for so long and for them to change the rules all of the sudden, and change the way you’ve been playing a game for so long, you try not to have any unfortunate events happen out there. Hopefully if it does happen, (NFL Commissioner) Roger Goodell will not be too harsh on the fine.”
The opportunity to play under head coach Bill Belichick has allowed Sanders to take many of the philosophies that he incorporates on the field and incorporate them into his daily life. Having built a legacy for himself as one of the greatest coaches in NFL history, Sanders realizes what a privilege and an opportunity it is to perfect the game of football under this icon.
“Coach Belichick loves the game a football, obviously he’s going to go down as one of the greatest coaches of all time. You just learn from him that if you want to be great at something you have to put you’re all into it. You see that he puts his all into each game during the season. He never leaves the facility as he is always preparing and always trying to gain an edge on our opponent. He instills that on the members of the team, and encourages us to prepare extremely hard. We take that home and basically study constantly. We learn our opponents like the back of our hands and I think that’s what gives us a jump on our competition, not only in games, but in critical situations. Coach having that mentality helps fuel us to be better professionals and better players.
As the NFL is currently locked out and in a state of limbo, Sanders continues to work hard off the field and stay prepared for the day he hears the news that he can resume activities with his teammates.
“I come back home to Fresno, California and train with a small group. But my main training partner is one of my best friends, Richard Marshall of the Carolina Panthers. We get together on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, 4 days a week and we just grind. Our trainer out here Steve Sabonya (Progressive Sports Conditioning) has done a great a job getting us in shape, as well as our sprint coach Josh Norman. We run hills, we have strict weight lifting regiments…the first couple weeks were brutal. But they do a great job”
Sanders, among other players was aware of the lockout and knew that it’s imminence would put him in the position to train on his own and stay physically and mentally in tune with his game.
“We knew it was coming last year during the season. You have to be professional enough, and man enough to know that you don’t have the coaches out there following you around making sure you’re running and working out on your own. You just have to be man enough to keep yourself accountable.”
In 2009 Sanders signed a new 3-year deal to keep him in a New England Patriots uniform. Stability is something that must remain a constant in the Patriots defensive backfield. With the veteran presence and determination that Sanders possesses, a young Patriots backfield now turns to this veteran safety to lead them to success and in a positive direction to earn that next Lombardi Trophy.