Penn State Football

With NFL draft decision looming, Penn State’s Miles Sanders leans on his mother

‘He’s really matured’: James Franklin on Miles Sanders

Penn State football coach James Franklin talks about running back Miles Sanders after a game this season.
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Penn State football coach James Franklin talks about running back Miles Sanders after a game this season.

Miles Sanders’ mother can still remember asking him at the age of 7 what he wanted for Christmas. He didn’t beg for a game system or a phone. But he did draw a man in red — it just wasn’t Santa.

“Miles drew a picture of Jerry Rice, colored in his red shirt and wrote next to it, ‘NFL,’” Sanders’ mother, Marlene, said with a laugh. “From that point on, he’s been serious about it.”

“It,” of course, is Miles Sanders’ dream of playing in the NFL — a dream that might become reality in April. The All-Big Ten honoree whose 1,223 rushing yards ranks second in the conference is widely considered a Day 2 or 3 draft prospect. The junior, who stepped out of Saquon Barkley’s shadow as a first-year starter, is the No. 6 running back on ESPN expert Mel Kiper Jr.’s Big Board and ranks higher elsewhere.

Sanders spoke with James Franklin about the NFL before the season started and has made it clear that he’s focused on Kentucky and the upcoming Citrus Bowl. But he has a decision to make — stay or go? Thankfully, the Pittsburgh native has Marlene to lean on. The woman who sacrificed everything to get Sanders to this point.

“My mom means the world to me. I tell everyone that. Everyone knows that,” Sanders told the CDT in an October conversation. “The reason why I’m doing all this is so I can retire my mom. ... I’m literally doing all of this for her.”

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Penn State running back Miles Sanders landed this week’s Sports Illustrated cover. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

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From 2000 to 2014, Marlene Sanders’ routine was the same. After making sure Miles, his older brother, Brian, and his younger brother, Kobe, got to school, she went to work at the Allegheny County Housing Authority. Marlene got off at 5 p.m., picked up her three boys at home, took them to football practice, “went through all the drive-thrus we could,” and repeated the cycle the next day.

The life of a single mother wasn’t impossible, but it was “very hard.” She chose the economical sedan over the spacious SUV. She attended every parent-teacher conference. And, perhaps most importantly, Marlene never missed a football practice or game.

“You married and got a divorce and didn’t expect to be raising three kids by yourself,” Marlene said on the phone. “I had to sacrifice. But I said, you know what, it’s not about me. It’s about them. ... I just poured myself into them.”

That meant watching Miles try football for the first time in a 6-, 7- and 8-year-old midget league. It meant Google searching plays to understand a game she knew so little about. It meant standing idly by, sometimes with tears rolling down her cheeks, as Miles — a running back from the get-go — got hit and dragged to the grass.

Initially, football was a way to keep Miles, Brian and Kobe off the streets, keep them busy after school. But she saw something spark in the eyes of her middle child. When coaches barked instructions, Marlene sat back thinking, This is just little league. Not an NFL tryout. But Sanders was a sponge. The Swissvale Golden Flashes’ bell cow was already dreaming about playing for a Division I school and getting a crack at the pros.

“At 7 years old, I told his mom, ‘He’s going to be special,’” former Swissvale coach Craig Williams said. “He listened to everything.”

Well, not everything. At least not right away. The 7-year-old Sanders ran side to side time after time. It became a crutch, a habit Williams wanted to kick. Fourteen years ago, the coach told Miles at practice that if he didn’t hit the hole, he’d put him on the offensive line. Sanders kept running east-west and found himself in the trenches for one practice before caving.

“You ready to run the ball?” Williams asked.

“Yes, Coach Craig,” Sanders said.

Penn State fans can thank Williams for the back’s downhill running style. From that point on, Sanders took off. He starred at Swissvale until junior high, started on Woodland Hills’ varsity team as a freshman and scored 59 touchdowns in four years with the Wolverines. Sanders — who in high school earned the nickname “Boobie Miles” after the powerful rusher in “Friday Night Lights” — tallied 4,573 career yards and became the No. 1 running back prospect in the country.

Recruiting-wise, Sanders caught his break in the summer of 2014, when he earned offers from Michigan, Nebraska, Virginia Tech and Penn State. But the turning point in Miles’ young football career was his first game at Woodland Hills. The program’s starting running back went down, and as a freshman, Marlene’s middle child was thrust into the starting role.

Sanders, then a 5-foot-9, 160-pound deer in the headlights, was stuffed by Upper St. Clair for 10 yards on 18 carries. But that game gave the back confidence he could make it, just by getting through the less-than-ideal debut. And it started a tradition between Miles and his mother, one they continue to this day.

“He called before the game and asked, ‘Mom, are you here?’” Marlene recalled. “It’s not that he needed me there to play. But it’s a sense of relief. He knows that if nobody else is there, I’m there.”

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A pack of Maryland defenders reach for Penn State running back Miles Sanders during the game on Saturday, Nov. 24, 2018. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

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Miles Sanders’ “big picture” came into focus at the end of his sophomore year. The recreation, park and tourism management major decided that he wants to open a Jamaican restaurant franchise with mom, help rebuild his neighborhood and own sports facilities in the area.

“That’s when I realized, this is my vision,” Sanders said. “After football, obviously.”

If all goes right, that post-football vision won’t come to fruition for another decade or so. But the question surrounding Sanders now is, will that NFL clock start ticking in 2019 or 2020?

Back in October, Sanders said he wasn’t thinking about forgoing his senior year. Since wrapping a successful regular season, the junior has brushed aside questions about his future, remaining keyed in on what Penn State faces on Jan. 1. and nothing beyond that. Williams, once a coach and now a mentor to Miles, said they talked about the NFL a few months ago, and the topic hasn’t been brought up since. Marlene — who FaceTimes with her son every day — said the pros and cons of going pro and coming back have been briefly discussed, but that a more comprehensive conversation will happen after the Citrus Bowl.

The choice Sanders has in front of him isn’t an easy one. But his mother views it as a blessing.

“It’s a good feeling to know that after the year that he’s had, that he’s actually a candidate for the NFL. Because that’s every kid’s dream,” Marlene said. “It’s not bad if he stays, and it’s not bad if he goes. Are you mentally and physically ready to take this next leap in your life? Or do you want to take the time to stay another year? This one is difficult. Should I go or should I stay? ... I told Miles, ‘You have to do what’s right for you.’”

One thing that might keep Sanders in Happy Valley is his pursuit of a degree. The junior has not graduated yet, and he said earning his diploma is “probably more important to me than trying to make it to the NFL.” Miles would be the first of Marlene’s sons to secure a college degree, something that isn’t lost on him. “Football isn’t there forever,” Sanders added. “I put in the effort to keep grinding. And now I’m here, and I’m so close. I really want a degree. That will probably be the best feeling in the world.”

But it might make sense to declare early and finish his degree at a later date, like his predecessor, Barkley, plans to do. By all accounts, the 2019 draft class for running backs is weak. Sanders, who ran a 4.5-second 40-yard dash in high school, could be Dwight Galt’s next Combine freakshow and skyrocket to the second or third round. ESPN analyst Steve Muench told the CDT in November that while Sanders probably won’t be a team’s primary ball-carrier, “That’s a guy who’s good enough to play in the NFL.”

So if Sanders is a shoo-in to get drafted, is the risk of injury worth returning? That’s something he’ll have to decide for himself.

But whenever Sanders chooses to take that next step, his “why” remains the same: He wants to let his mom retire. Marlene, who’s worked at the public housing department for 18 years, picked up a second job this year to pay for her younger son’s tuition out in California. “They hate the fact that I work two jobs,” Marlene said. But that’s the way she’s wired.

Williams called her the “mom of the century.” Penn State head coach James Franklin, when asked about Sanders’ 159-yard performance against Wisconsin, went out of his way to say that Marlene has “done an unbelievable job raising him.” And Miles himself couldn’t heap more praise on his mom in a 20-minute interview if he tried.

Sanders has seen her struggle. He has seen her sacrifice. But no matter what, Marlene was and always is there for her boy.

That won’t change when Miles makes it to the NFL, either. Whether it’s in 2019 or 2020, she just hopes he gets drafted by a team on the East Coast. And if he doesn’t? Well, she’ll start racking up airline miles.

“I drove to Iowa. After college, there’s no more driving,” Marlene said laughing. “But I will not miss a game. It doesn’t matter if he plays in Jamaica. I’ll be there.”

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