Former Missouri WR Tommy Saunders once pushed himself to do 100,000 push-ups in a single calendar year, all in the name of improving day by day
In the spring of 2007, NFL scouts flocked to Troy University in Alabama to get a close look at cornerback Leodis McKelvin, a highly-rated draft prospect. McKelvin impressed, there and on his game tape, and eventually went to the Buffalo Bills with the 11th overall pick.
Some of those who scouted the Trojans also noted that the cornerback play was pretty good on the other side of the field, too. That was the territory of a much lesser-known prospect named Elbert Mack. After going undrafted in 2007, Mack signed on with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as an undrafted free agent.
As it turned out, Mack's path to the NFL worked out just as well as McKelvin's. When the final cuts had been made in early September, both former Trojans were on their team's 53-man rosters.
Last year, the high-powered passing attack at the University of Missouri featured a star receiver named Jeremy Maclin, who was just drafted 19th overall by the Philadelphia Eagles last weekend. Also starting for the Tigers at receiver last fall: Tommy Saunders.
Like Mack, Saunders failed to hear his name called on draft weekend. Instead, the Tiger team captain – nicknamed "Mr. Dependable" – signed a tryout contract to compete in the Buccaneers' rookie mini-camp this weekend. If he impresses on the field, he could earn a regular spot on the 80-man training camp roster, or perhaps a call from one of the NFL's other 31 teams.
And then perhaps he'll join his former teammate, Maclin, in the NFL and prove the same thing that Mack demonstrated last year: All you need is a foot in the door.
"I didn't think I was going to be drafted, but I knew however I was going to get there I was going to get a chance," said Saunders on Saturday, dripping sweat from an afternoon practice in sweltering heat at One Buccaneer Place. "It doesn't count until August and the final cuts, and however you get there is fine. That's my goal – little steps and try to get to August."
It wasn't just Maclin that drew the eyes of NFL scouts to Columbia, Missouri this past year. Tight end Chase Coffman was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals in Round Three. Quarterback Chase Daniel was a 2007 Heisman Trophy finalist. Six Tigers in all were picked in the 2009 draft, an unusually high number for the program. It's fair to say that Saunders was a bit overshadowed by all of those draft-bound prospects, despite his 72-catch, seven-touchdown season last year, but he knows that it was far from a bad thing to be surrounded by all that talent.
"We had some great players – Derek Washington, Chase Coffman, J-Mac, Chase Daniel, Jared Perry," said Saunders. "We had a lot of great players. Our attitude as an offense was to take what the defense gives us, and that's what we did. My goal was to try to be the best receiver I could be, regardless of how many balls I'm catching in the games. In practice, I'm catching passes and working on my routes and everything. That was my mentality all through college, to try to be the best receiver I could be."
A former walk-on at Mizzou, Saunders even took to challenging himself in some unusual manners to maximize his potential. In 2006, he decided he would perform 100,000 push-ups before the calendar year was over, and he took to counting them out with a method using a deck of cards. Sometimes he would fall behind and have to devote a day to catching up – such as the Saturday on which he did an incredible 8,600 push-ups – but he made it. In fact, he went past his mark to 100,084 in order to match his jersey number.
"I was trying to get better every day and that was something I could measure," he said. "It paid off – I did 30 reps on the bench press at 225 pounds during our Pro Day."
Saunders is taking that same approach to his first crack at the NFL. He might only have three days, and a total of five walk-throughs and practices – to impress the Buccaneers, but he wants his Sunday to be better than his Friday.
"It's all on my shoulders," he said. "If I just do the right things, regardless of what team it is, if it's this team and they decide I'm a good fit or it's another team, I'm just trying to get better every practice and try to be the best receiver I can be."
On Saturday, he was right in the middle of that three-day process, around long enough to get a feel for how he fit in with the rest of the roster hopefuls but not yet at the finish line. Was his approach paying off?
"I think it's going alright," said Saunders. "I'm picking up the offense. That's really what you're trying to do, just trying to learn how the coach likes to run his routes and the things that are different from college. You've got to tweak some stuff but it's pretty much the same, just playing football and learning the offense. You've just got to try to get better every practice."