Between all the magnificent touchdowns, tackles and highlights, it is no wonder how football has become one of the most popular sports across the world.
It is exhilarating to watch modern day gladiators put on twenty pounds of armor and collide play after play, as they try and overpower the other team and score.
But after the game is over, and there is no more violence and drama, what happens then? What happens when the game is over, the stadium is empty and no one is watching anymore?
During their respective season, the adversity football players face on the field is witnessed once a week, but it is forgotten what these athletes can go through when they aren’t lined up between the white lines.
These athletes leave the sport of football behind, and join everyone else in a much more important game: life.
Redshirt sophomore and Slippery Rock University linebacker Arison Sanders is no stranger to dealing with adversity, no matter if it’s on the football field or in every day life.
A standout in high school in both academics and athletics, the Akron, Ohio native was an honor roll student and lettered three times in football, while also winning state championships in both 2015 and 2016.
After graduating from Archbishop Hoban High School, Sanders then came to Slippery Rock University in the fall of 2017 as a dual-major in Safety Management and Spanish, while planning to continue his football career on an athletic scholarship.
Then, adversity struck.
It was during his freshman year when Sanders would begin his first battle against blood clots. The blood clots put a temporary halt to Sanders’ football career, forcing the prospective linebacker to redshirt, as his overall health was in jeopardy.
Determined to get back to get back on to the field, Sanders would battle and overcome his blood clots in 2017, and later was able to play his first official season for the Slippery Rock University football team in 2018 as a redshirt freshman.
Sanders described his first season with his first season with The Rock as a way to get re-acclimated to the game, while adjusting to the speed of college football.
“Last season was my redshirt freshman season, that was more just getting back into the swing of things,” Sanders said. “Last year was just getting acclimated.”
Sanders joined an already talented group of linebackers which featured the likes of Brad Zaffram, Tim Vernick and Trysten McDonald. Though it was his first season, Sanders was more than happy to contribute in any way that he could.
“[I] was just getting my plays where I could,” Sanders said. “Whether it was blowouts or if somebody had to come out for a play, it was just being ready whenever your name was called on.”
In his first healthy season with The Rock, Sanders made an immediate impact when he filled, especially on special teams. He led the team in 2018 in special teams tackles, registered a season high eight tackles against Millersville and got his first collegiate sack against Gannon.
Sanders described 2018 as a chance for things to go back to normal and to learn the defensive scheme. And for a few months, things were normal as Sanders continued to find where he fit in with the team and improve upon his game.
In the midst of summer workouts in 2019, Sanders would suffer another setback.
“We were up [at Slippery Rock] for optional training and we had lifted arms the day before and the next we were going out to run and my calf was just hurting really bad,” Sanders said.
The fact that the team did not have any workouts the day prior signaled that something was not right, Sanders said.
“I finished the workout, kept running and was just like ‘man this doesn’t feel right,'” Sanders said. “So I just made my way back to Ohio, went to the hospital and of course it was a blood clot.”
This time, the blood clot formed in his calf, and once again Sanders’ football career hung in the balance.
“At that hospital, they told me I couldn’t play again,” Sanders said.
Unwilling to depart from the game that he has invested so much time into, Sanders went and sought a second opinion a few days later. It was ultimately determined that a return to football was not ruled out of the equation, as Sanders’ recovery would be monitored over time. There was one unfortunate guarantee from the doctor however.
“Once I got the second opinion they said ‘well look, we’ll put you on your blood thinners and see how it goes,'” Sanders said.
The doctors went on to tell Sanders that if he happens to suffer from another blood clot, that his time in football will be done.
Sanders went on to say that as he went through the process of recovering from another blood clot, he kept his faith in God and is thankful of the support his coaches and fellow teammates gave him throughout his road to recovery.
Sanders said the coaches made sure to let Sanders know that he will always be a part of the football team no matter what happens and ensured him that they would not take away his athletic scholarship, regardless of the linebacker’s circumstances. With the overwhelming support from those around him, Sanders wanted to return to playing football, if he could control it.
“That was part of the reason why I wanted to fight and work hard to get back,” Sanders said. “I knew I had people who have my back and that made the process go so much easier. It took a lot of load off and it just made me feel so much better. I can’t even really explain it. I love the team, I really do.”
Sanders would go on to miss the first five games of the 2019 season, before returning in Slippery Rock’s most important game of the year up until that point: Indiana (Pa.).
With just over five minutes of regulation time played, Sanders would have his name called upon, as McDonald went down with a freak ACL injury in the first quarter after returning an interception for a touchdown.
With a leader in the defense going down in Slippery Rock’s biggest game of the year, Sanders described the rollercoaster of emotions the team felt after simultaneously experiencing one of the best and worst moments of the game.
“[McDonald] never made his way to the sideline and everyone was like ‘wow, Trysten’s out,'” Sanders said. “That was our best linebacker in terms of physicality and knowledge.”
In his first game back in full uniform, Sanders would find himself contributing a large role in one of the most heated rivalry games in the region.
“I had only been in pads for a week,” Sanders said. “I didn’t get camp or anything like that.”
Sanders recalled his coaches asking him about his knowledge of the defensive playbook and if he was ready to go in and play. Anxious to get his chance once again, Sanders gave the team all that he had.
The returning linebacker would go on to contribute to a 45-42 win over the Crimson Hawks that gave Slippery Rock a chance to control its own destiny to capture the Pennsylvania State Athletic Western Division title. Sanders described how it felt to persevere through health issues once again and return to contribute to his team.
“It felt good to get back, I was very glad that [the coaches] had that trust in me,” Sanders said. “The support system here, I have never had anything like it. My teammates were all happy that I was out there, it’s just good to be back.”
Since returning against IUP, The Rock has played five more games, with Sanders making his presence known when he is on the field.
The following week against Gannon served as productive outings for Sanders, as he registered nine tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss, both career highs.
Also, in The Rock’s most recent win over Gannon, Sanders returned a fumble for a 21-yard touchdown in the third quarter, contributing to an impressive 56-7 victory.
Now, Sanders gets to play in the biggest game of his collegiate career, as The Rock takes on Kutztown on Saturday at 12:05 to decide the PSAC champion.
Through all he has faced on and off the field, Sanders shared an important lesson he has learned on his journey over the past three years.
“When I got the blood clot the very first time, it made me realize that nothing at all is guaranteed,” Sanders said. “Keep faith in yourself, keep faith in God, and you know it’s gonna work out. You just gotta appreciate every single thing that you do in life.”
With no guarantee if his blood clots will return or not, it is clear that Sanders has maintained a positive outlook through thick and thin.
As Winston Churchill once said, “Success is never final, failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts.”