Sanders' choice turned out Super
Returning to SMU for senior season improved draft status, landed WR in Super Bowl
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Emmanuel Sanders is living the dream.
The Pittsburgh Steelers rookie wide receiver, who played college ball at SMU, wanted to play football since he was eight years old.
And on Sunday he will play in the ultimate game when the Steelers take on the Green Bay Packers at Cowboys Stadium in Super Bowl XLV.
"A dream come true; I firmly believed that," Sanders said. "I was that kid who wanted to be on that TV. I wanted to make the National Football League, and I actually did it."
But at the end of his end of his junior year at SMU, Sanders' head was spinning.
He had skipped some classes and was suspended for the final two games of the 2008 regular season for violating team rules. His coach at the time, June Jones, didn't like his attitude.
The pair told the receiver to stay in school and get to class -- and if he did those things, something positive would happen.
His senior season was wonderful. He started all 13 games, earning first-team Conference USA honors, and caught 98 passes for 1,339 yards with seven touchdowns. He ranked sixth in the NCAA with a 103-yards-per-game average.
With his four-year career over, Sanders finished as SMU's all-time leader in catches, touchdown receptions and yards.
"He grew up," Jones said. "If you ask him he will say that one thing turned him around if anything else. He was thinking about coming out his junior year, and he made a good decision to come back that last season. He was a totally different player. He always had the ability."
When he was recruited out of Bellville Texas High School, then coach Phil Bennett thought bigger schools such as LSU, Oklahoma and Texas A&M would be in the running for him. Instead, SMU and the University of Houston, among others, went after Sanders.
He committed to SMU in the hopes of turning around a struggling program that hadn't been to a bowl game since receiving the NCAA's death penalty for numerous rules violations in the late 1980s. Sanders wanted to turn the SMU program around and believed in what Bennett was doing.
"I knew we had found a gold mine," said Bennett, now the defensive coordinator at Baylor. "He was so fast. His freshman year, I didn't play him because I was trying to build that [program.] On scout team, he used to kills us and he used to tell me, 'Let me go play.'
Bennett did in 2006.
But Sanders really emerged when Jones took over for Bennett, who fired following the 2007 season. In his junior season, Sanders caught nine touchdown passes and finished 11th in the nation with a 95.8-yards-per-game average.
In 2008, Sanders thought he should come out after earning second-team All Conference USA honors, but that talk with Deion Sanders and Jones woke him up.
"I thought maybe it is time for me to go," Emmanuel Sanders said. "But I talked to Deion and coach Jones and they told me the best thing for me to do was come back to SMU and take them to a bowl game. They said catch over 100 passes and get 1,000 yards and your stock will rise with the NFL, and they were right."
Sanders was one of the bright spots in that 2009 season as SMU reached its first bowl game in 25 years. And Sanders' stock increased with NFL scouts. He was the Steelers' third-round pick last spring and was quickly thrust into action.
Despite being inactive for three weeks early in the season, Sanders caught his first NFL pass Oct. 17 vs. Cleveland. He had his biggest game vs. the New York Jets on Dec. 19 when he caught seven passes for 78 yards. He was targeted 13 times by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The next week against Carolina he caught four passes for 54 yards, including a career-long 35-yard reception.
His play has given the Steelers hope for the future that they can rely on the speedy wide receiver who almost left school early.
"I took the necessary steps," Sanders said. "It was a long road, a lot of ups and downs but I'm here now and yeah, I'm really happy I stayed."
Calvin Watkins covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.