Being Part of History

Emmanuel Sanders

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This series is brought to you by United Dairy Industry of Michigan.

When I was in high school, my coach used to call me “popsicle.”

I was 140 pounds, but no one could tackle me. Coach would say I was slicker than a popsicle, hence the nickname.

I was skinny as hell, but I knew I had a gift when I stepped onto the football field. God blessed me with this gift, and I wasn’t about to waste it.

My last name is something I’ve taken great pride in as well. I’ve done everything in my power to represent my last name and make my family proud, but beyond that, let’s not forget how prominent the Sanders name is in the history of football.

When I was growing up, Deion Sanders was my guy. Even though he was a cornerback and I was a wide receiver, I admired everything he did on and off the field.

Having the same last name, I always believed I shared a connection with Deion. As I got older and learned how he took care of his family and changed his mom’s life, that inspired me to do the same.

I’m not going to sit here and say I believed I’d be a Hall of Famer one day like the GOAT in Deion, but I did have aspirations to make a name for myself in the NFL. When I found SMU, I believed they could help me do just that.

Little did I know that university would go on to impact my life in more ways than I ever thought possible.

The perfect fit

With my speed and physicality on the football field, I started to get recruited by Baylor, Kansas, Houston, et cetera, but everything changed after I met Larry Edmondson at SMU. Larry was the receivers coach, and he took an immediate interest in me.

It was obvious he cared more about me as an individual than an athlete, and that struck a chord with me.

Once I arrived in Dallas for my official visit, I met a QB named Justin Willis. For whatever reason, Justin and I hit it off right away.

After dinner one night, with God as my witness, Justin and I darted into Coach Phil Bennett’s office and committed together on the spot.

The connection I had with Justin, combined with the relationships I built with Larry and the rest of the coaching staff, led me to believe SMU was the perfect fit for me – and it’s by far one of the best decisions I have ever made.

Trust in the plan

I was so pissed off.

Here I was, a scrappy and fearless kid from Southeast Texas, and all I wanted to do was play college football.

Then I was told I would be redshirting my freshman year.

To make matters worse, we weren’t a great football team at the time.

That began to mess with my confidence a bit, you know?

I started to wonder, if I can’t get on the field for a losing team, how will I ever see the field if we start winning?

That’s why Larry Edmondson has been such a blessing in my life. I’ll never forget one day after practice when he walked up to me and said, “Son, someday you’re going to be playing on Sundays.”

I thought he was crazy! I hadn’t even caught one ball at the time in a college game – how the hell did he know I was going to be playing in the NFL one day?

As usual, Larry was right. Once I began to trust and have patience in the plan God had for me, everything fell into place for me like I had hoped, and I firmly believed the best was yet to come.

I started to wonder, if I can’t get on the field for a losing team, how will I ever see the field if we start winning? That’s why Larry Edmondson has been such a blessing in my life. I’ll never forget one day after practice when he walked up to me and said, “Son, someday you’re going to be playing on Sundays.”

On the rise

A saying I’ve continuously lived by is “I don’t wish for things, I pray for things.”

One of the biggest prayers of my life was answered when June Jones was hired as the head football coach for my junior season.

In addition to flourishing in June’s system, he provided me with an opportunity I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

When June was on the coaching staff with the Atlanta Falcons, he helped coach a guy by the name of Deion Sanders, who, if you remember, was my idol.

Deion was in Dallas hosting a workout with some of the best corners in the league, including Devin Hester and Pacman Jones. Deion needed some receivers to go against his corners, and he reached out to June for help.

June mentioned my name, and just like that, I had the opportunity to meet my hero and face some of the best corners in the NFL.

I stacked up well against them, but I didn’t act like it was anything special. I was just grateful and humbled by the opportunity.

When I got home that night, I’ll never forget sitting down in my apartment with my cousin Josh and the rest of the boys.

There was this awkward silence for about five minutes, then all of a sudden Josh belts out, “You’re going to the (expletive) league!”

At that moment, more so than I ever thought before, I knew I was on my way.

Leaving better than I found it

After speaking with Deion – who would go on to be a mentor of mine – and the rest of my family, I decided it was in my best interest to return to SMU for my senior season.

Not only was it a career year for me individually, but it was by far the most success we’d had as a team – ending the season with a victory in the Hawaii Bowl.

When I think back to my time at SMU, one of the first things that comes to mind is being part of a team that ushered in a new era for SMU football.

I emphatically believe that my senior season — 2009 — helped put SMU back on the map. It’s more than evident with all the Mustangs that have made it to the NFL in the past decade.

If I never came back for my final year, I wouldn’t have been a part of this, so I’m forever grateful for returning for my senior season and carrying that sense of pride for the rest of my life.

An everlasting legacy

When I retired in 2021, after 12 incredible seasons in the NFL, I can honestly say I had no regrets.

I’ve always loved football, and that’s never going to change, but I’m not a rearview mirror guy. I don’t need to look back on my career and live in the past – I’m constantly moving forward in the next steps of my life.

For that reason, when Rick Hart called and told me I was being inducted into the 2023 SMU Hall of Fame, I didn’t really know how to react at first.

I thought the last chapter of my football career had already been written, but clearly there was a final one left.

As I mentioned before, I’m honored that part of my legacy was helping to restore this program to the days of Craig James and Eric Dickerson. To say my name will go down in history at this university with those guys almost leaves me without words.

When I was a kid, all I wanted to do was play football and live up to the prestige in the last name I shared with my hero.

Because of Deion, Larry, June, and so many countless others that have blessed my life, the Sanders name will have an everlasting legacy in the SMU Hall of Fame.

The inductees will be recognized at the annual Hall of Fame Banquet and Induction Ceremony on Friday, September 15 in Armstrong Fieldhouse on the SMU Campus. For additional information or for tickets to the SMU Athletics Hall of Fame Banquet, click here.