Notre Dame WR commit C.J. Sanders ready to star for the Irish

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

C.J. Sanders has thrived in the positions his parents allowed him to pursue.

His first major audition as a child actor landed him a spot in a film nominated for six Academy Awards. His first sport, football, gave him a path to his future.

All Sanders wants to do now is take advantage of the opportunities from those past decisions. That’s why he bought his mother a car when he turned 18. That’s why he committed to Notre Dame months before he planned to make a college decision. That’s why Wednesday, Sanders will sign his letter-of-intent with the Irish.

“It's going to mean a lot to me,” said Sanders, a four-star wide receiver prospect. “Everything is bigger than football. Football is just my platform. There's a lot of things outside of football that I'm able to experience.”

“ND is the perfect place for me. It has great football, great academics and great people there. I feel like I fit in perfectly. I can't wait to be a part of it. Being around the people there is going to make me a better person and be ready for the real world.”

Maturity came early for Sanders. He was just six years old when he was asked to portray a young Ray Charles losing his sight in the movie “Ray.” It was his first real acting job, something he wanted to try after seeing his mother attempting to enter the acting world herself.

“He ended up going to an acting coach twice to get the lines down and then we heard that he had gotten it,” said his mother, Stacie McCall Harris. “It was pretty shocking because he hadn't done much. He had only been in front of the camera and done some modeling.”

Sanders had just finished kindergarten in Nashville, Tenn., when filming the movie in 2003. He formed his acting chops in the shadow of Jamie Foxx, who won the Academy Award for Best Actor after the film debuted in 2004. Sanders bugged his mother for months waiting for his first movie to release.

"It was huge,” McCall Harris said. “During the filming, we knew the movie was going to be big. We knew that Jamie would probably win an Oscar from the performance on set. We knew everything everybody had put into performing in the movie. ... It was overwhelming.”

As the film gained critical acclaim, Sanders saw his stock rise instantly. He moved to Los Angeles with his mother at the advice of Foxx and Taylor Hackford, the movie’s director, to pursue other opportunities. At one point, his mother said, he was working on a movie, a TV show and a commercial in a short time span.

In the coming years, Sanders would earn spots in single episodes of “Judging Amy,” “Cold Case” and “Grey’s Anatomy.” He landed a recurring role in the fifth and final season of “Six Feet Under.” He even briefly moved to Canada to film a season of “Saved.”

Sanders soaked up his accomplishments but admitted he didn’t truly understand the unlikely success he encountered until a few years ago. “Ray” launched a short career in acting and opened doors he didn’t know existed.

“It helped me meet some really cool people,” Sanders said. “Coming from Tennessee to California, it allowed me to be diverse in being around a different crowd and learning how to talk to different people and communicate. I'm really blessed to be in the position that I'm in. It's been a great ride and I know it's only going to get better from here.”

Falling for football

Acting was his mom’s thing, but football was dad’s realm. Sanders’ father, Chris Sanders, played at Ohio State before being drafted by the Houston Oilers in the 1995 NFL Draft. His wide receiver career lasted eight years as the team transformed into the Tennessee Titans. His mom had athletic prowess herself. She played basketball at Michigan from 1990-93.

C.J. Sanders played his first season of football when he moved to LA with his mother, who had been separated from his father since 2002. Her son had yet to turn seven, but McCall Harris thought he was going to be special on the field.

“His first day of practice, I knew,” McCall Harris said. “It was his first time having pads on and running. I called his dad and told him he's going to be pretty good. He was running fast, running over people, and he was scoring touchdowns. That year and the year after, he would probably score anywhere in between three to five touchdowns every game."

C.J. Sanders insists he knew football would be a significant part of his future during his first season.

“I knew for years to come that's what I wanted to do,” Sanders said. “I knew that was going to be my platform."

He idolized his father and some of his teammates: Eddie George, Samari Rolle, Steve McNair and Derrick Mason among them. Reaching the NFL didn’t seem like an impossibility.

“Being around them all the time allowed me to be more serious,” Sanders said. “I was kind of mature for my age. Being around them helped me mature at a fast pace and know what I wanted to do."

As his acting career slowed down, Sanders choose to focus on football. But his mother worried that he felt obligated to play the same sport as his father. His football connections increased when his mother married Corey Harris, whose 13-year NFL career included a Super Bowl XXXV championship with the Baltimore Ravens.

“One of the reasons I named him C.J. was I wanted him to have his own personality, his own goals and dreams,” McCall Harris said. “I didn't want him to feel the pressure of following in his dad's footsteps. That was first. I knew it was inevitable growing up with his dad playing football and then having a stepdad who played and won a Super Bowl.

“Really, he's almost surpassed all of us together. His dad's definitely had a big influence on him.”

Sanders credits both his father and Harris as motivators in his pursuit of a football career.

"They've gone through a lot of the stuff I'm about to go through,” Sanders said. “They've shown me where work ethic can take you. I've enjoyed it. I'm blessed to be where I am. It's been awesome. They reached the highest level, so I'm just trying to get where they are and just enjoy it.”

Choosing Notre Dame

Three seasons of high school football at Brentwood Academy in Nashville earned Sanders scholarship offers from schools across the country. Visits to Ohio State, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Duke and Stanford all preceded a trip to Notre Dame in May 2014.

Both he and his mother sensed a fit in South Bend. Returning home from the visit, the two discussed the possibility of committing. McCall Harris encouraged him to make a decision if everything felt right to him.

“I just didn't want him to wait too long. I know sometimes you can dangle them along with this team or that team. But it's really more pressure than fun if you think about it.”

Later that day, Sanders verbally committed to the Irish. She didn’t think he would pull the trigger so quickly, but she fully supported his decision.

“My mom always told me, when you know, you know. They never pressured me to go to any school,” Sanders said. “I had no intentions of committing so early. I thought I was going to commit closer to signing day. I felt it and after that I just made the decision. I'm a man of my word so I never changed.”

Sanders excelled in his senior season at Sherman Oaks Notre Dame. Despite the bump up in competition level, the 5-foot-9, 176-pounder still racked up impressive numbers as an offensive weapon and return specialist. He recorded 734 receiving yards, 560 rushing yards and scored 19 touchdowns.

Sherman Oaks Notre Dame head coach Kevin Rooney said Sanders made the transition to his program seamlessly. He didn’t bring with him an ego in the locker room and performed on the field.

“He was very important to how we did,” Rooney said. “He's exceptionally quick. He's hard to tackle. He's fast. He catches the ball extremely well. He does everything well. We used him in a variety of ways to get the ball in his hands.”

When he signs with Notre Dame on Wednesday, he will do so as the No. 24 wide receiver in the 2015 class according to 247Sports. Rivals ranks him No. 37 at the position. He will have a chance to compete for time as a slot receiver and a punt and kick returner in the fall.

“I expect to come in and contribute. I see myself making plays on offense,” Sanders said. “Whatever they need me to do, I'm going to work my butt off and just be the best I can be.”

Sanders has entered the phase of his life where he’s no longer just taking advantage of the positions his parents put him in. He’s feeling out his own path and making decisions of his own. So when his mother told him to not buy her a Mercedes-Benz with the money from his child acting career – money that was made available to him on his 18th birthday – he did it anyway. It’s his turn to do the spoiling.

"I am so excited (for signing day),” McCall Harris said. “I don't think I've slept, because I'm waiting for that day. So it's like until you sign the dotted line, is it official? We were just saying the other day: We've been in this since he was six. This has always been his dream to go to college for free.”

“He always says, 'Mom, I want to make you proud.' I told him, 'Son, you have done that and beyond.'”

tjames@ndinsider.com | 574-235-6214 | Twitter: @TJamesNDI

Wide receiver C.J. Sanders is set to sign with Notre Dame on Feb. 4, 2015. (Photo Courtesy of Los Angeles Daily News)