Before Miles Sanders was vying to become Penn State’s starting running back, he was a nervous ninth- grader waiting for his varsity debut.
Sanders — always the fast and muscular type, especially for his age group — looked across the field at the bigger and stronger Upper St. Clair (Pa.) players. He saw players who made the 5-foot-9, 160-pound freshman realize this was a whole new ballgame. The butterflies kicked in, and the only thing that could take his mind off this next level was a phone call.
“I can remember to this day when he called and he was like, ‘Mom, are you here?’ ” Marlene Sanders said. “He had that starting role and of course he was scared.”
Sanders carried the ball 18 times for less than 10 yards but gained invaluable confidence just because he made it through the game. The family still jokes about that day. But as has been the case since his high school debut, Marlene always knows to expect a game-day call.
“Every game, ‘Mom, are you here?’ ” she said. “He wants to know. Even if he can’t see me, he wants to know Mom is in the stands.”
Whether it’s making the 10-hour drive from Pittsburgh to Iowa or the straight shot across the state to Beaver Stadium, her response always has been the same. Whether Miles starts or comes off the bench, fumbles or scores a touchdown, she’ll be there for every game. Just as she’s been since he started playing football at age 7, just the way she was when he finished his high school career with 4,573 yards. Yes, he’s come a long way since that nervous varsity debut.
She’s certainly not about to miss any snaps now.
With the starting running back spot open as Penn State moves on in the post-Saquon Barkley era, Sanders, a junior, can seize the opportunity he’s waited for since he committed to Penn State. Coach James Franklin said in the winter the position could take on more of a back-by-committee approach than it has, and 5-star signee Ricky Slade arrives this summer. Mark Allen, Johnathan Thomas and Journey Brown will be in the mix as well.
Still, Sanders has a spot to protect, and it’s one he’s waited to fight for.
“He’s a special talent,” Barkley said in January when he sat next to Sanders in the locker room one last time after the Fiesta Bowl. “Obviously he hasn’t gotten the opportunity to show his talent as much as he’d like, but we’ve seen it in practice, we’ve seen flashes of it. He’s strong, he’s powerful, he’s fast, he’s a hard worker, he’s humble and he’s going to be a great back in the future. … You guys won’t be talking about Saquon Barkley for long.”
The last two years, watching and learning from Barkley, helped to prepare Sanders. He learned to be patient, though it wasn’t always easy. Early fumbling issues gave way to second-guessing. Standing on the sideline made him wonder if he was in the right spot. Usually quiet and laid back, Sanders wondered aloud to his mom if this was what he signed up for.
When Sanders committed to Penn State, nobody knew Barkley would go on to shatter records and catapult to the potential No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft. The two years waiting behind Barkley after his two years in the spotlight as a highly touted recruit seemed like an eternity to Sanders.
Mom preached patience. Son, in typical teenage fashion, had the occasional “Yeah, but…”
“As parents, sometimes we think they’re not listening because they don’t want to hear it, but they are,” Marlene said, adding that Sanders by the end of his freshman year understood this was the natural progression and that he’d have to wait his turn. “They’re listening.”
After all, it’s not every day a recruit says no to Alabama as Sanders did or successfully fends off Michigan State as the Spartans pursued him around the clock, coming and going to his high school the week before he signed with Penn State. Pitt put on the full-court press too. The Panthers tried to sell him on the idea of home games in Heinz Field, but that didn’t appeal to Sanders, in part because he wanted to be farther away from home — but not too far that Mom would have to fly to every game.
This spring, as mother and son communicate via FaceTime and the Nittany Lions figure out their pecking order in the backfield, the stakes for Miles have never been higher. When Barkley gave Marlene a hug toward the end of last season, he told her that Miles needed to leave some of his records intact.
It’s an unenviable spot to follow in Barkley’s footsteps, but Marlene long has delivered the message to Miles that this journey was going to be whatever they made of it. Whether he shatters records or not, she’ll still await his phone call every Saturday as she files into the stadium.
“I told him, ‘This is your time. Saquon is gone and nobody expects you to go out there and be Saquon. You’re Miles. I expect you to go out there and be Miles and show them why they recruited you,’ ” she said. “That’s what we’re waiting to see.”