Junior running back Isaiah Saunders’ running style is quite emulative of how he handles his problems in life — he keeps his legs churning, meets them head on and runs through.
After beginning his career at the University of Idaho in Jan. 2014, Saunders had been steadily rising through the ranks of Idaho running backs. Reaching for the top is just another one of the obstacles Saunders has been faced with.
Born and raised in Stockton, Calif., Saunders said he did not think of himself entirely as a football player early in his athletic career.
“I didn’t think football would be my sport early on,” Saunders said. “I was a basketball player up until eighth grade.”
Playing three different positions during his youth, Saunders said he was the shortest small forward on the court during most contests. What he lacked in height, he made up for in shooting, as he was a corner specialist on the hardwood.
Saunders said LeBron James played an influence on his sports career from the beginning. While James was turning heads on the national stage at St. Vincent – St. Mary High School in Akron, Ohio, Saunders said he was diligently watching.
James can generally be seen pushing his way into the paint for easy buckets, a bruising style Saunders appears to echo on the gridiron.
Although his love for sports was defined early by basketball, Saunders said football never was out of the picture. After moving about 40 miles north to Elk Grove for high school, Saunders began to refine his game as a football player.
Due to family connections at Fresno State University, Saunders said he became a fan of former Bulldog and current NFL running-back Ryan Matthews, and he would begin to take note of Matthews’ running style for his own merit on the field.
But snaps did not come easy at Pleasant Grove High School. Saunders played behind Mark Jenkins for two seasons, a player who rushed for nearly 3,000 yards and 2,000 yards in his junior and senior seasons, respectively. Saunders said he knew if he was going to play, he needed to keep working.
“Going into my junior year, I was busting my butt in the offseason, working out hard to get some carries. Early in the season I wasn’t getting much playing time and I was like, ‘I know when he leaves I’ll do something but is this really for me?’” Saunders said. “But I kept trusting it in the back of my mind, then later in the season I started getting carries and saw how good I could be.”
After a near-1,400 yard, 18 touchdown senior season, Saunders had offers from Idaho and Nevada, along with some from FCS schools, but he said Idaho ended up being the right fit.
Saunders’ father, Walter, was also a running back at Idaho in the early 1990s. Walter had a bit of sway on the decision, as his future position coach was Idaho’s current head coach Paul Petrino. Saunders said the atmosphere at Idaho and the way his father talked so highly of Petrino partly influenced his decision.
Through family ties, Saunders found his love for football and a home at Idaho, but he said family is what pushes him to keep going.
Walter was diagnosed in 2006 with a rare form of meningitis, sometimes called Valley fever. Saunders said, throughout his football career, whenever he gets down on himself, he thinks of his father to encourage him to keep going.
“I play for my father, he’s been going through a rough time,” Saunders said. “He hurts a lot so whenever I start hurting I think of him, and that pushes me further. He’s been dealing with this for 11 years now, bouncing from hospital to hospital, but he’s always kept faith and even when he’s hurting, I’d never see it.”
It’s evident where Saunders gets his toughness from, and he said that allows him to run both for the name on the back and the front of his jersey.
While Saunders plays for others, he said he also cherishes the opportunity to play because it was an opportunity he nearly lost.
“I had to gray-shirt my freshman year, they found something wrong with my heart,” Saunders said. “I went in for my physical during my first summer here and the doctor said he heard an irregular heartbeat.”
Saunders said he bounced around, from hospital to hospital, and worried if he would ever see the field again.
“Everyone was telling me, ‘it’s this or it’s that,’ I never heard so many diagnoses,” he said.
Saunders was ruled out for his freshman season, the fall of 2013, but his scholarship remained intact and he did not lose a year of eligibility, as it was for medical purposes.
Coming back to fall camp in 2014, Saunders said he was feeling healthy and prepared coming in. But, just two days into camp, Saunders visited the same doctor who had cleared him to play prior to camp. Once again, Saunders was ruled ineligible because of concerns with his heart.
Despite having to sit out another full season, Saunders said he does not hold any grudges, as the doctors were simply keeping him safe.
“I don’t disagree with anything anyone was doing, it was just a precaution to keep me safe,” Saunders said. “I don’t blame anybody, God works in mysterious ways. I’m completely healthy now, 100 percent.”
Saunders was cleared by Mayo Clinic physicians, a nonprofit research and practice group based out of the Midwest. When he visited clinic physicians during the 2014 season, they told him there were no irregularities with his heart, and Saunders was back to doing what he loves.
Despite the obstacles, Saunders pushed through, and for this reason, he said he is happy. Saunders said he has taken the role as the “funny guy” in the locker room, someone who will turn negative energy around.
“I’ve been called the funny guy by a lot of people so I think I’ll just take that one,” Saunders said, smiling. “I can really be an emotional leader, but I think my role is to pick everybody up when they’re in a slump.”
Saunders’ position coach and recruiter, Jason Shumaker, said Saunders is quite the likeable character.
“He’s a really outgoing kid, you know, I think he’s buddies with everyone on the team,” Shumaker said. “Isaiah’s a great kid, and he just likes to have fun.”
Saunders is currently pursuing a master’s degree in public administration. Even though being ruled out for his first two seasons here was not fortuitous, he was able to finish his undergraduate studies with two seasons of eligibility left.
He said he has taken quite the mentor position on the team, pushing the offense, especially the young running backs, to get better.
Saunders had perhaps the biggest game of his career last season in the bowl victory over Colorado State in Boise, rushing for 147 yards and three touchdowns, but he said he looks forward to the future, as every game gives him an opportunity to play for who he loves.
“My favorite thing about football is knowing I can go out there on Saturday and play for my family,” Saunders said. “When I make a big play I always come back and see my mom and dad texting me ‘great job’ or ‘nice run.’ I even got my granddad and granny calling and telling me I did good, I don’t even know they knew how to get the game on.”
Colton Clark can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @coltonclark95