Notre Dame recruit C.J. Sanders' path paved by family

South Bend Tribune

C.J. Sanders understands the routine.

Anytime his name is mentioned, his family’s athletic achievements are quick to follow.

There’s his father, Chris Sanders, the former football and track star at Ohio State who played seven years in the NFL. Then there’s his mother, Stacie Harris, who played basketball at the University of Michigan. And then there’s his stepfather, Corey Harris, a safety for the Super Bowl XXXV champion Baltimore Ravens.

It’s no wonder C.J. Sanders followed in the family footsteps.

“I wouldn't say it was pressure, to be honest,” Sanders said. “I saw it as opportunity.”

He’s made the most of his opportunity so far. A four-star wide receiver prospect, Sanders verbally committed to Notre Dame earlier this month. The desire to make his own name in football got him there.

“Having them in my corner built my work ethic to be top notch,” Sanders said. “Being around them instilled in me what it takes to reach the top. Having them in my life has guided me in the right direction.”

Football always remained a constant as Sanders bounced around with his family. Born in Texas, Sanders moved as a young child to Tennessee when his father’s team, the Houston Oilers, became the Tennessee Titans. At the age of 5, Sanders auditioned for the part of a young Ray Charles and secured his first acting role in “Ray.” Someone thought he looked like Jamie Foxx, the movie's star playing Charles. He and his family moved to California.

Even as a child, Sanders took the job seriously. He had to portray Charles losing his sight at a young age.

“I went to a blind school and I studied the kids,” Sanders said. “I studied their mannerisms and how they act. That prepared me for the role to see from that aspect how everything goes.”

The movie, released in 2004, brought more acting opportunities. A spot in an Oscar-nominated film can do that. After a couple years of small roles in television and movies, Sanders ditched acting. He couldn’t find enough time to devote to his first love: football.

His family eventually moved back to Tennessee — his dad had been coaching high school football there — when Sanders was in eighth grade. He attended Nashville’s Montgomery Bell Academy, where his dad coaches, before enrolling at Brentwood Academy for high school. After his freshman year, Sanders was already fielding offers from Mississippi State and Tennessee.

As he developed into a 5-foot-10, 176-pound junior, Sanders found himself with plenty of options. He made visits to Duke, Stanford and USC and liked what he saw. Then he decided to visit Notre Dame.

His visit to South Bend on May 3 came with little fanfare. He managed to keep reporters in the dark about the trip.

"I kind of did that on purpose,” Sanders said. “I didn't put it out on Twitter or anything. I just wanted to have that weekend for my family to guide my decision. We prayed about it and thought about it.”

A couple days later he offered a verbal commitment to head coach Brian Kelly.

“Everything that Notre Dame stood for — the academic prestige and the respect for the football program as well — that all factored into my decision,” Sanders said. “The things I take seriously, that I take pride in, and what I embody as a person, Notre Dame was a perfect fit."

Soon Sanders will be on the move again. On June 1, he’s returning to California as his mother and stepdad move back out west. He will enroll at Sherman Oaks Notre Dame in the fall for his senior season.

Leaving behind those who helped him develop as a football player in Tennessee was a tough decision, but Sanders prides himself on putting family first. It helps that he can play at one of the best programs in the talent-rich state.

“When I lived in California, I always wanted to go there,” Sanders said. “When I got the opportunity to go back, it was pretty much a no-brainer."

His famous former co-worker might make an appearance at a game this fall. Foxx, who remains close with Sanders, tweeted a public congratulation following his commitment to Notre Dame. Sanders remembers Foxx coming to a couple of his football games as a child and hiding underneath the bleachers to stay out of sight.

“Since I'm moving back, he's going to come to some more games,” Sanders said. “We stay in touch. He's a good family friend and a great guy to be around.”

If he makes it, Foxx might be the only presence that can take away from Sanders’ star on the field. The chance to play in California might seem glamorous, but Sanders sees it as another opportunity to prove himself.

"Tennessee is coming up in football, but California is known for football powerhouses,” Sanders said. “I'm going to be able to prove that I am one of the best. I'm going to have the chance to be around some great competition and I'm looking forward to that.”

Twitter: @TJamesNDI

Wide receiver C.J. Sanders, a 2015 prospect from Brentwood, Tenn., verbally committed to Notre Dame shortly after visiting campus. (George Walker IV/The Tennessean)