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Former MU football player looks for new direction

Sunday, May 9, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 9:21 a.m. CDT, Monday, May 10, 2010
Tommy Saunders runs the ball down field during the Kansas City Blues Rugby Club's final home game against the Boulder RFC on April 24, 2010 at Bourke Field at Rockhurst University in Kansas City. Saunders had four tries in the game and Kansas City defeated Boulder 68-10.

COLUMBIA — Scattered in the corner of former Missouri wide receiver Tommy Saunders' bedroom in Columbia is a pile of thick rubber bracelets that he designed. They come in black, gold and white and all say, "We are Mizzou."

Not anymore.

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He's no longer a football player. He's no longer a high school star. Saunders' life has lost its label.

He started playing for the U.S. rugby team in December, but finding a future in the sport is unlikely so defining him as a rugby player doesn't seem right.

Most of Saunders' life has been consumed by sports. He's used to a strict schedule of lifting, training, practicing, meeting and studying.

"Before, I knew what my goals were at Mizzou," Saunders said. "Now the main goals — like that I want to be in shape — are there, but the six-month and longer goals — I don't know what those should be. It's something I'm kind of struggling with and have my eyes open to."

Now Saunders has a bedroom about the size of a spacious walk-in closet. Not bad considering it’s rent free. He lives with former teammate Steve Redmond and Redmond’s wife.

In his tiny room are about 30 pairs of shoes lined up against a wall. That’s all there is space for. A stuffed bookshelf is in the back corner of the room. A pile of unfolded laundry, duffle bags, plastic bins and an empty Gatorade bottle covers most of the stained gray carpet. And the bracelets.

Prior to graduation from MU, Saunders was a person who always had a specific mission — earn a scholarship as a walk-on, become a starter, do 100,000 push-ups in one year — all completed.

Ever since his sophomore year of high school he has put Post-it notes on the mirror in his bathroom. One with a short-term goal written on it, the other with a long-term goal.

Now there are no notes on his mirror. He doesn't wake up in the same place consistently enough. He still carries around a notebook with his goals written down in it, but even those have gone stale.

While he doesn't have the vivid vision of his future that he used to, Saunders says he's content working hard to keep his body in perfect condition and seeing where the next opportunity takes him.

Amateur status

A soccer team is just finishing up when the Kansas City Blues, a club rugby team, begins to arrive for a practice in April at Swope Park.

They wait next to a small set of bleachers, stretching and tossing around a bright green rugby ball.

As the sun sets further below the tall tree line that outlines one side of the field, the humidity quickly leaves the air. Four sets of stadium lights illuminate the artificial turf.

The Blues begin practice with two laps around the field. Their shoulder muscles bulge out of their shirts as they jog. No pads in this sport.

Most of these men are out playing for fun. They are construction workers, salesmen, students, computer analysts and other professionals, all just looking for a place compete and hit some people.

“Rugby in the United States, especially Division I rugby, we are an amateur status sport, so our players are not compensated for their play,” head coach Scott Adamson said.

That’s the main reason it’s so rare for them to see a player like Saunders.

“We do have a lot of former athletes, but having high-level Division I athletes come out after their career is not as common.”

It’s the reason Saunders could walk into a sport that he had never played before and almost instantly start competing with the national team.

“In the United States as a rule, our third-tier athletes play rugby,” Adamson said. “There’s obviously the NFL, there’s baseball, there’s basketball and that’s where the money is. That’s where the top-tier athletes go. So when somebody like Tommy comes to rugby, his athleticism and his notoriety draw a lot of attention.”

A week before Christmas last year, Saunders received a call from former teammate Tony Temple. Temple told him about an opportunity to try out for the national rugby team.

So he went to a few practices with the Blues and was flown out for a tournament in Las Vegas where he could learn the game.

“It was fun,” Saunders said. “It’s really just like playing backyard football. It’s like playing with your friends on Thanksgiving.”

Shortly after that Saunders had his tryout with the national team. After a week, he made the team and headed to Australia the next day for an international tour that also included a stop in Hong Kong.

Family matters

It’s 9:15 p.m. when Saunders shows up at practice. He’s 45 minutes late, but nobody yells or calls him out.

Everyone on the team has other priorities. Others reasons to be late. Only about 20 players show up to the practice. The roster has 50 names.

Saunders made the two-hour drive from Columbia earlier that evening, but stopped by to visit his grandmother before practice.

He never needed to use the excuse.

He runs from the parking lot into the outdoor practice facility. Saunders underhand tosses his car keys to his father who is sitting on the bleachers watching practice. There is one other spectator.

His father came directly from work. He’s wearing a white chef jacket with a black trimming. He has gray stubble covering his face. Saunders’ father put in 16 hours of work before coming to watch his son practice.

“Forty hours a week is standard,” he says. “It’s overtime where you get your dividends.”

Saunders jumps immediately into the drill and begins fielding punts. Unlike football, he takes three steps after making a catch and kicks the ball right back.

He looks up as the watermelon-sized ball floats toward the sideline.

“Does it have to stay in bounds?” Saunders, who still has a few questions about the details of the game, asks.

As his coach says yes, the ball bounces inches from the line, just in bounds.

“How about that,” his father yells and then starts to laugh. “He’s got this down.”

The highs and lows

Transitioning to life off the field hasn’t been quite as easy.

After his senior season at MU, Saunders went through a stretch of several months where his emotions would skyrocket with joy and quickly crash with disappointment.

It started with the low of not being drafted, but things turned around when he received a tryout with Tampa Bay. After being cut by the Buccaneers, he earned three more tryouts with NFL teams and was even signed by the Detroit Lions, but each opportunity ended like the first one.

“It’s a lot of highs and lows,” Saunders said. "You really got to know what you want to do and not give up.”

Saunders said he could not continue a career in athletics without the support of his family. His father played basketball for Pittsburgh State University and tried out with the Los Angeles Lakers. His grandfather played for the Harlem Globetrotters.

“We know what it’s like to stop too early,” his father said. “After one year, I just quit and started working construction. It’s always like ‘Man, should I have stayed at it?’ You got to make a living, but we tell him to do what you like doing for as long as you can right now.”

That’s why his father and the rest of his family give whatever they can to help Saunders.

“Right now he has his grandmother, his mom, my parents, myself, and we tell him to keep pursuing it,” his father said. “We help him any way possible. You only got so long to follow the dream. If he needs anything, we’ll help him, so that’s how we do it. We all work together.”

On Friday, Saunders left for the Olympic-training facility in San Diego to compete for a spot on the next international trip. If he makes it, he will leave Saturday for games in England and Scotland.

“I don’t have any money, but after this camp I’ll have a little bit of money for this summer,” Saunders said.

When he’s with the national team, Saunders earns $100 a day and all of his expenses are covered. He knows it’s not much, but with the help of his family and friends he has been able make it so far.

“It’s tough at times, and yeah, I need money at times, but I’m really loving life, and I couldn’t do it without the people around me,” he said.

While he sometimes feels the pressure to think about the future from his mom, grandma and girlfriend, Saunders feels most comfortable enjoying each day and taking what comes his way.

“I’m doing in my heart what I want to do,” Saunders said. “I feel like I’m not ready to get a job and put 40 hours into something I really don’t care for that much.”


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