The smile on Brandon “Duke” Sanders’ face at Jeff Davis High School on national signing day on Wednesday was more expressive than anyone else there.
But considering the wild journey the Jeff Davis High School (Montgomery, Ala.) senior wide receiver has undergone in the last year, who could blame him?
Sanders, who has gone by the nickname Duke since he was in elementary school, hasn’t played in a football game since 2017.
Yet, there he was in the school gymnasium with a suit, bow tie signing a letter of intent for a full football scholarship to Jackson State.
“As a single parent of four, to see your youngest go to college – and to do this in the way it happened – you know that God is not far away,” said Sanders’ mother, Jabreta Hartley. “I’m very proud of him. He’s been playing football since he was six years old and now he can play on the next level and earn a degree.”
Last spring, suiting up collegiately appeared to be a long shot. During the Volunteers’ second day of spring practice, Sanders tore the ACL in his left knee.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” said Jeff Davis coach Lee Carter. “He ran a slant route, planted his leg and that was it.”
Sanders underwent surgery and began the long rehabilitation process with the help of trainer Linzy Buffington.
The Volunteers began the season against crosstown rival Carver at Alabama State on Aug. 23. His mother said Sanders was emotional while watching his teammates from the sideline.
“The first game was when he broke down,” Hartley said. “When they ran out of the tunnel, he was saying that’s supposed to be me. That’s not how my senior year is supposed to end.”
Following the injury, Sanders, who is listed as a three-star recruit by 24/7 Sports, saw his scholarship offers dwindle. After a six-month rehabilitation, Sanders was medically cleared to resume football activities in November.
Once he received a clean bill of health, some schools returned to recruiting him.
Then, in December, while playing in a pick-up football game with his friends, Sanders tore the ACL in his right knee.
“When schools found out he was healthy they started coming back around,” Carter said. “Then, when he tore the other one … they fell off. My heart was breaking for him. Jackson State and ASU were the only two left.”
Sanders, who plans to study business or engineering in college, is scheduled for surgery on his right knee in the next two weeks. He’ll begin the arduous process all over again, so he can be medically cleared when Jackson State opens practice in August.
“It was tough down the road but if it was meant to happen, it was meant to happen,” Sanders said. “You just have to get past it. I’m going to rehab and get back to playing as soon as I can.”
Carter gave credit to Jackson State coach John Hendrick and his staff credit for sticking by Sanders. The 6-foot-2, 165-pound Sanders said the school was “excited and legit about me coming there and you knew they cared about me as a player.”
“I’m not worried about that (Sanders’ injury history),” Hendrick said. “I’m not worried about him as a football player.
“The way they are now with science, you tear your ACL and you’re coming back better than you were before. If it was back in my day, I’d be worried as heck.”
The members of Sanders’ family couldn’t be more excited. Hartley said when Brandon played his first high school game as a junior more than 40 friends and family were in attendance.
She said that her family including Brandon’s grandmother Brenda Hartley, 25-year-old brother Denard, 23-year-old sister Kiara and 21-year-old sister Ashle will attend as many Jackson State games as they can.
She’s already mapped out the first part of schedule: vs. Bethune-Cookman on Sept. 1 in Atlanta, vs. South Alabama in Mobile on Sept. 7 and vs. Tennessee State in Memphis.
“There will not be a game that goes by where at least two of us are not there,” Hartley said. “For them not to turn their back on him, I was crying. I’m so proud … I’m just a proud momma. It’s a testament when you are struggling to keep going.”
Sanders is learning a lesson of perseverance he can pass on to others.
“One thing I would tell people, don’t get caught up in what happened and lose your identity if you get something taken away from you,” Sanders said. “I love football and it was hard. It hurt me. But I had to stay strong and work to get it back.”