When a running back is charging up the field, Penns Valley linebacker Justin Sands is hardly intimidated.
Sands has taken down much, much bigger targets.
High school backs have nothing on a steer bolting out of a gate.
“A lot of people joke around with me,” said the senior, who is also the Rams’ quarterback and spends his spare time training for and competing in rodeos. “If I can throw a 400-pound steer, a 180-pound running back’s no big deal.”
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If I can throw a 400-pound steer, a 180-pound running back’s no big deal.
Penns Valley senior QB/LB Justin Sands
With the cowboy hat and all, riding horses, throwing a lasso at a calf and even hauling down a bolting steer —– yes, he grabs bulls by the horns — Sands is not your average football player. As the Rams hit the road to open Mountain League play at 7 p.m. Friday at Clearfield, Sands will take his positions on both offense and defense conditioned for years by his atypical hobby.
Sands has been riding a horse almost literally since he was born. His mother, Anne, first sat him on a saddle for a ride when he was 6 weeks old, wrapped in a blanket and propped against his mom’s lap.
“We would bundle him up and off into the woods we would go,” she said. “It’s what we did as a family. We didn’t think much of it. He was just kind of born into it, and it went from there.”
Justin spent most of his early life in Snyder County, southeast of Penns Valley, on the family’s 150-acre farm. There were beef cattle, pigs and, of course, horses. Around the age of 8 he was getting into Keystone Junior Rodeo Association competitions, battling against others from Pennsylvania, New York and West Virginia.
The rodeo schedule now remains two events per weekend for six weekends through the year, with the final weekend this season on Sept. 9-10 in Benton — the night after the Rams visit Bald Eagle Area. Sands heads into the weekend in second place among a field of 14 in the 15-18 year-old boys’ division all-around standings with 251 points, well behind leader Jacob Varner’s 319.5.
You might think, competing and practicing for all the events over the majority of his life, Sands might have some good war stories and battle scars to show off. Although he has been thrown from a horse more than once, he has suffered only one broken arm — when he was stepping off a horse and his boot was caught in the stirrup.
“It’s been a little more nerve-wracking this year with the way things have gone with football,” Anne Sands said, noting the horse is still running when Sands is jumping off to finish roping his target. “When he steps off a horse, I’m like, ‘Oh I hope his knee holds.’”
Rams coach Martin Tobias does not mind at all that one of his key players on both sides of the ball, not to mention a team leader, takes part in a potentially dangerous activity. He knows hobbies and passions, which could last a lifetime, are far more important than a high school football season.
“We’ve never tried to prevent our kids from being involved in activities,” said Tobias, noting the only thing he discourages is motorcycle riding during the season. “You don’t want anyone to get hurt in an activity, but you can’t live in a bubble. You can’t live in a shell. As young adults, they need to make good, well-informed decisions, budget their time and pursue their dreams and interests.”
There is little doubt about Sands’ importance on the football field. He played every defensive snap at outside linebacker last Friday in the Rams’ 22-21 win over Punxsutawney. He took about three-quarters of the offensive snaps at quarterback, completing 8 of 17 passes for 48 yards and carrying the ball nine times for 77 yards and a touchdown. Tobias’ son, Aaron, a sophomore, took up the remaining plays behind center.
Although it is exhausting to be playing so much on both sides of the ball, a necessity with the Rams’ small roster, it is nothing Sands hasn’t experienced before. He recalled playing a midget football game in third grade, leaving the field just twice the whole game.
After this season of rodeo is done, however, Sands envisions hanging up his saddle — for a while. He would like to play football in college and study mechanical and aerospace engineering, carrying a 4.0 grade-point average at Penns Valley. Once he has his degrees, and can chase a dream of working on fighter jets, he can return to competition.
“I can do that a whole lot longer in life than I can play football,” he said. “I’m going to cling to the football field ’til it quits me.”
Being involved in so much scholastically, with football and with the rodeos, certainly has him properly conditioned for time management. He also has to take care of his horses, keeping them conditioned and ready for events just like him, and that, along with the years of competition, has given him a great deal of self-confidence.
“It puts more on my plate, but I wouldn’t want it any other way,” said Sands, who carries a mature demeanor for a high school senior.
It’s been an enjoyable ride, in so many ways, and he’s looking forward to that next tackle — of a steer or a running back.
“It’s been a part of my life ever since I was born,” he said. “The horses, I’ll be around agriculture and horses ’til I die. But I don’t know how long I’ll stay with the rodeo thing.”