Land of 10 has embarked on a series of “Next Generation” articles, a project that aims to bring our readers greater insight into the Class of 2018 signees. Land of 10 Wisconsin reporter Jesse Temple is visiting the Wisconsin incoming freshman class. Throughout the year leading up to their debuts, Land of 10 will introduce the Wisconsin fan base to the newest Badgers. Today we feature linebacker Jack Sanborn.
DEER PARK, Ill. — Jack Sanborn felt the pinch of pain after extending his left shoulder on a routine blocking drill and assumed it quickly would pass. Just a stinger, he told himself. Nothing serious enough to keep him from playing his senior season on a Lake Zurich football team with state championship aspirations.
But as the hours churned on following that summer conditioning session in June, those state title hopes hung in limbo with the shoulder of Lake Zurich’s captain and most dominant defensive player. Sanborn realized during his drive home that he couldn’t lift his left arm to grip the steering wheel. He iced the shoulder, went to bed and woke up unable to move his arm.
Was this really how Sanborn, a 4-star inside linebacker and Wisconsin signee in the 2018 recruiting class, was going to see his high school career end?
“I had no mobility in it, and that’s what scared me,” Sanborn told Land of 10. “I was online looking up all these things like, ‘What could this be?’ I was scared to tell anyone.”
When Sanborn informed the high school trainer the next day, he was instructed to undergo an MRI. He feared the results would reveal a rotator cuff injury, which would require immediate surgery. Instead, Sanborn learned that he had a tear behind the labrum in his left shoulder.
Doctors told him he could play if he so chose. But it would not be comfortable and might require surgery after the season. The only conversations Sanborn had with medical personnel and his mom weren’t about missing time, but the talks were about how he could manage to get through the season.
Few people outside of Sanborn’s inner circle were aware of just how painful the injury was last season. He rehabbed for more than a month before returning to practice. He remembers an offensive lineman teammate pulling his arm away in a drill and the pain shooting through his body, which led to one thought: There is no way I can do this the entire year.
Then, another thought quickly followed: There is no way I can’t play this year.
“It obviously meant a lot to me,” Sanborn said. “I don’t know how I would be able to just stand on the sideline my senior year. Those are my guys growing up. Those are some of my best friends out there, and we’ve been playing football since we were little kids together. And then our last year together, me not being able to play, I couldn’t see that.”
Sanborn certainly didn’t play like he was hurt. He recorded 120 tackles and repeated as a first-team all-state honoree in Illinois. He also helped guide Lake Zurich to a state title-game appearance and a 13-1 season.
The pain began to subside halfway through the season, according to Sanborn. But even though the muscles around the labrum seemed to adapt as Sanborn endured a grueling 14-game schedule, he wound up tearing the front of his shoulder as well, which mandated a full labrum repair after the season.
Sanborn underwent surgery Dec. 14 and already is on the mend as he prepares to enroll at Wisconsin in June. His goal is to be fully healed so he can enter school and not have to think about the injury. As he progresses through a lengthy rehab process, Sanborn says he has zero regrets.
That’s the type of blue-collar toughness Wisconsin will get when Sanborn arrives. But his decision to play was about something more. After all, football and family are the two pillars of Sanborn’s life. To let down his football family, then, would have been unthinkable.
“I think some kids are just wired to play,” said Malinda Sanborn, Jack’s mother. “They’re wired to work through the hard times. They’re just willing. He wasn’t willing to sit on the sidelines and let his team not have the best shot.”
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When Jack was in the seventh grade, people in the Lake Zurich community began telling Malinda that her son would become a college football player. She was flattered. But she would ask herself how they could know at such an early age how good Jack could be.
The moment that began to shift Malinda’s viewpoint came after Jack’s eighth-grade team lost in the semifinals of an area youth football league against a team from nearby Palatine. After the game, the opposing team’s coach approached Jack. He handed him the game ball and told him he couldn’t wait to watch him play football in high school.
“And I thought, ‘Wow, this really could be something,’ ” Malinda said.
It took Jack just a little while longer to see the same thing. He never considered the idea that he could earn a football scholarship until after his sophomore season. He had become a stalwart on the varsity team and recorded 88 tackles with 7 sacks. In April 2016, Iowa State became the first school to offer him a scholarship.
“Before that, I had no idea,” Jack said. “I was like, ‘College football, those guys are amazing. I wish I could do that.’ Then after that, my whole mindset changed. I was like, ‘Now, I’ve got to become that.’ ”
Offers soon began rolling in for Sanborn as word spread about his talent. His intelligence and game preparation helped him to anticipate where the ball would be before a play began. His strength and athleticism allowed him to meet the ball carrier with jarring force. That combination made him one of the best players in the Chicago area.
Iowa offered him a scholarship that summer. He took unofficial visits in the fall to Northwestern and Notre Dame. And then Wisconsin entered the picture with a scholarship offer in October 2016. Sanborn visited less than two weeks later for a prime-time game against Ohio State at Camp Randall Stadium. In the ensuing months, he noticed other players accepting scholarship offers to Wisconsin and began to worry that he might lose his spot.
Malinda offered some advice: If you’re getting that worried, what is that telling you?
“I just think that I really felt it in my gut that that’s where I wanted to be,” Sanborn said. “Coaches know what they want in a player and a person. They want to get somebody that really fits their identity and their system, which I thought was really cool. And they’re really honest and easy to talk to and get to know.”
By the time Sanborn committed to Wisconsin in March 2017, he held 14 scholarship offers, from Duke, Indiana, Iowa, Iowa State, Michigan State, Minnesota, Northwestern, Syracuse and Vanderbilt, among others.
Lake Zurich football coach Luke Mertens said what stood out most about Sanborn during the recruiting process was his humility. Despite being one of the most well-known football players in the area, he never changed.
“He’s a leader not because of his athletic talents, but because of who he is as a person,” Mertens said. “He’s a great person. He treats everybody with respect. If you came and talked to any of our teachers, they’ll tell you, ‘Oh, I had Jack in class, I love him, he’s such a great kid.’ He’s just a kid that his athletic accolades never went to his head. He doesn’t like the spotlight on him, to be honest with you.”
Malinda provides an example from Jack’s 10th birthday, when he held a sports-themed party and invited some friends who didn’t play sports. During a tag football game, Jack decided to be all-time quarterback to make sure and pass them the ball. That way, everybody could feel included.
“He didn’t want them to be bored at the party,” Malinda said. “And he is very humble. I think he’s grateful and he feels appreciative of people who are supporting him. And I think he understands that when you do get a big head about yourself, when you think you’re all that great, that’s when you kind of lose focus.”
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Sanborn learned at a young age to appreciate what he has because nothing is guaranteed.
Sanborn committed to Wisconsin on March 22, 2017, which marked the 12-year anniversary of the death of his father, Paul. Sanborn said he hadn’t planned that day to be the one in which he picked the Badgers. He initially had called outside linebackers coach Tim Tibesar to inform him of his commitment days earlier. But Tibesar said it wouldn’t be official until he told coach Paul Chryst, who had been out of town.
Chryst’s return date? March 22.
“Usually that’s a time where we remember my father,” Jack said. “We looked at each other like, ‘Yeah, I guess this is how it’s meant to be.’ ”
Paul Sanborn played football at Oregon from 1980-82. When he died unexpectedly, Jack was 4. His older brother, Steven, was 7, and his younger brother, Bryan, was 1.
“I think that whole event just makes you realize what life almost is all about,” Sanborn said. “It’s almost like everything happens for a reason. That’s how I look at life now is I think every bad event that happens, good can come out of it. I think that event with my father passing has taught me a lot of life lessons that I don’t think I would’ve been able to get another way. I think it’s helped me mature.”
Malinda noted the experience changed everybody and drew the family even closer.
“It’s probably been sad for them growing up at times, and maybe they didn’t even want to talk to me about it,” she said. “I think when you just go through something like that and you grow up without your dad and you see other kids with their dad, I think it changes you and I think that they do grow up faster.”
Sanborn praised his mom for helping the family through difficult times and providing them with the opportunities they have. He takes pride in the way Malinda raised three young boys, made them a priority and kept their lives as normal as possible, all while holding down a job at an investment management company in Chicago.
“She’s meant everything,” Sanborn said. “I wouldn’t be here where I am having this conversation right now if it wasn’t for her. She’s amazing. Sometimes, I don’t know how she even does it. But she’ll always figure out a way to take care of all of us.”
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Malinda will have ample opportunity to be close to Jack when he sets off for college. Wisconsin’s campus is a mere two-hour drive northwest from the Sanborn home. Remaining in the Midwest is important to Jack. So is building relationships with his future football family.
The 6-foot-2, 225-pound Sanborn has befriended senior inside linebacker T.J. Edwards, who played for the same high school coach. Mertens coached Edwards at Lakes Community High School in Lake Villa, Ill., before he took the Lake Zurich job last season. Edwards has occasionally texted Sanborn this offseason to check in and see how he is progressing from shoulder surgery.
“Obviously, he’s great,” Sanborn said. “He was an All-American last year, so obviously as a linebacker, I’m trying to become like him almost. You’re going to watch him to try and learn what he does.”
Edwards was a 2-star prospect — the lowest among Wisconsin’s 2015 class — who played quarterback in high school. Sanborn is the highest-rated player in the Badgers’ 2018 class and the only 4-star prospect. But Mertens sees a clear connection between the two.
“They’ve got that ability to finish and tackle,” Mertens said. “They’ve got the instincts to the ball. Although T.J. played quarterback and Jack played linebacker, there are a lot of similarities between the two of them in terms of their overall athleticism, their humbleness around the school, the love their teammates have for them. There are really a lot of parallels between the two of them.”
Sanborn calls it an honor to be rated by recruiting services as a 4-star prospect, but he also recognizes rankings mean little once he arrives on campus. Wisconsin’s inside linebacker unit is loaded and features a top three of Edwards, Ryan Connelly and Chris Orr. That trio has combined to appear in 103 games with 68 starts and has recorded 508 tackles with 50 tackles for loss.
In other words, even a player of Sanborn’s caliber will have to earn playing time early in his career. Sanborn doesn’t show an ounce of ego. If coaches decide a redshirt year is necessary, he says he will respect their input. Sanborn will work humbly to be the best player he can be.
“He’s like, ‘Coach, to me it’s a win-win,’ ” Mertens said. ” ‘I’m going to go there and if I redshirt, I’ll learn from some of the best linebackers in college football. What a blessing that is. If they need me to play, what a blessing that is to be a true freshman and get to play at an elite program like Wisconsin.’
“He just has great perspective.”
Jack Sanborn breakdown
|247 Composite rank||No. 4 in Illinois, No. 17 inside linebacker nationally|
|Star rating||4 stars|
|Commitment date||March 22, 2017|