Cedric Saunders, a former Buccaneer player, understands the transition from college star to NFL hopeful
When Cedric Saunders first appeared in a Tampa Bay Buccaneers' media guide, in 1994, it was on page 127. One paragraph, ten lines, no picture – a quick blurb in the section labeled 'Rookie Free Agents.' Veteran and draft choice bios ended on page 125.
Seven years later, Buccaneers' communications staffers are again preparing a Cedric Saunders bio, this time for the staff section in the front, under the title Director of Player Programs. That's the position Saunders assumed just two weeks ago, succeeding Kevin Winston, who followed Herman Edwards to the Jets earlier this spring.
According to Saunders, it is his humble NFL beginning – represented by those 10 quick lines – that makes him perfectly suited for this second position with the Buccaneers.
"When you come in out of college, you're that guy, that number-one guy getting all the publicity and accolades," said Saunders, who was a star tight end at Ohio State, earning second-team all-conference honors. "Then, when you come into the NFL and, in Week 13, you still haven't dressed for a single game, that's hard for some guys to deal with. You're not coming in as that popular player; you've got guys in front of you who have been in the league and are established veterans. I remember how that was."
The Buccaneers created the Player Programs department in 1997 when it brought in Winston, whose brother, Lamar, handles the same duties for the Kansas City Chiefs. Among the services Saunders will offer players as the new director of player programs are assistance in continuing education, insights on post-football careers, guidance with community service involvement and, in general, help in adjusting to life in the NFL.
Saunders, who used last weekend's mini-camp to get acquainted with as many of the team's 80-plus players as possible, is looking forward to the challenge.
"It was always a desire of mine to be able to help the younger players," he said. "I thought this would be a great way for me to get into the NFL and help the young guys adjust to the transition from college to the NFL. With the personal experience I have at that, I thought I would be able to do a good job of it."
The average NFL career lasts less than four seasons. For every Randall McDaniel, there are many, many talented players who follow a career path more like the one Saunders experienced.
Though he was an undrafted free agent in 1994, Saunders, a Sarasota native, opened enough eyes in training camp to be brought back the following summer. This time, his downfield receiving skills – he left Ohio State as the 14th-leading receiver in school history – earned him a spot on the practice squad and, by mid-November, a call up to the active roster. He then saw action in three games, though he was not thrown a pass.
Tony Dungy took over the head coaching job in 1996, and Saunders made the team again, but was injured and released after two weeks. After sitting out the rest of '96, he went overseas to give the World League (now NFLEL) a crack. Upon returning to the states, Saunders decided it was time to hang up the cleats and move on.
His first step was return to school and finish up the final two quarters for his degree. That quickly accomplished, he was at a new door that many young players eventually open. Like many of those before him, he combined his education with his experience to remain involved with football.
"I had a sociology major and a communications minor and I was thinking, 'What do I want to do?'" said Saunders. "So I actually started teaching and coaching high school football."
When the Kansas City Chiefs offered him an internship in the scouting department, he decided to give it a try. After just one summer as an intern, he was offered a full-time position, which he held for two and a half years until the Buccaneers contacted him about their newest vacancy. Having witnessed the work of Lamar Winston with the Chiefs, Saunders knew he was interested in this area of the NFL.
So Saunders took the next step in his football path. It is that winding trail, from the Bay area to Ohio and back, to Europe and back, to Kansas City and back, that gives Saunders the perspective he needs to deal with current players' issues, and the legitimacy that will make them listen.
"The most important thing, as they come in, is to have them focus in on what it's going to take to be an NFL player," he explained. "I'll help them understand how you're supposed to go about your responsibilities, how you separate your off-the-field stuff with coming to work everyday, how to handle it when you're not as successful as you were in college.
"Also, you had that 10-week season in college. You hit 10 weeks here and you realize, 'Wow, I've still got six weeks left, maybe 10 if we're lucky. You have all of that, and then you still have to deal with off-field stuff. You may have a family, kids, whatever, and you have to balance that with playing in the NFL.
"I'll help them through those times. When things are down, where do you go from here? When things are good, how do you handle that, as well?"
Things are certainly good for Saunders right now, and getting better. As if a new job near his hometown wasn't enough, Cedric and his wife, Bashi, recently welcomed the birth of their first child, daughter Reegan, in March. Cedric and Bashi met in Tampa while Saunders was on the Bucs' roster.
That's one relationship that obviously made his first stay with the Buccaneers worthwhile. The success of his second stop at One Buccaneer Place will depend on how well he forms new bonds in the locker room.
"That will be the most important part, forming relationships with players and getting them to understand that I'm here to help them," said Saunders. "I want to help them adjust to this league as well as they can, and make them aware of the things that they have to look forward to once their careers are over."