The commercial used to say, ``It's gotta be the shoes,' but with Anthony Saunders, it's more like the stride and the attitude.
The senior running back at Western Guilford now officially holds two state career records, is tied for two more, and has a realistic shot at a fifth and possibly a sixth.The big one came last week, when he needed only 15 yards to become the all-time leading rusher in state history. He piled up 303, pushing the record to 7,086, which he will keep adding to as long as the Hornets stay in the 2-A playoffs. They open their quest for the title tonight with a home game against North Johnston. If they advance to the championship game, he could surpass a mind-boggling 8,000 yards.
If Saunders is impressed with any of this, he barely shows it. Now that the main record is out of the way, he wants to get down to the business at hand - winning a state championship. Western has come tantalizingly close the last two years, losing in the semifinal round. Those memories have left him hungry for the title.
The records are fine, but they're not the main focus for Saunders. He realizes they may be a temporary part of the landscape.
``It'll be something special that I'll be proud of, not that I'll brag on it or anything,' he says. ``But a state championship is something you can always keep. They can't take it away from you.'\
At 6-feet-2, 215 pounds, Saunders is an imposing sight carrying the football. But he doesn't run with the long, loping gait of most big backs.
``He's big and powerful, but he takes small steps and changes direction well,' says his coach, Charlie Griffin. ``He runs with these choppy steps instead of long strides that you expect from a big runner.
``That condensed stride allows him to make consistent yardage. He's too strong to tackle high, and those small steps keep him from being tackled low.'
So who influenced his running style? Someone in the NFL? A teammate somewhere along the line?
Neither. It's just his way of getting from point A to point B.
``I guess it's natural,' Saunders says. ``I never noticed (how he runs).
``When I see (a tackler) coming, I react to whatever he's going to do. I either juke him or run over him.'
In his first couple of years, it was mostly running over people. Now, Griffin says, Saunders can do more with a hole.
``He can turn on a burst of speed now when he hits an opening.'
That probably comes from his work in track. He was a member of Western's state 2-A championship 4x100 relay team. After running the third leg all year, track coach DePaul Mittman switched him to the anchor leg for the finals.
``I figured if Coach Mittman put me at anchor, he saw something that would work,' Saunders says. ``We were underdogs, and winning was a shock to all of us.'
Naturally, a runner with numbers like Saunders has compiled is the object of much recruiting attention. He's academically qualified and is being courted by schools like North Carolina, Notre Dame and Michigan, among others. But he's in no hurry to make a decision.
``It's not a big deal,' he says. ``Sometimes a coach will call and I don't even feel like talking to him.
``I'm not sure about when I'll make a decision. I haven't even taken any visits yet. When I do, it will be based on location, education and playing time.'
Griffin says Saunders ``has a tremendous inner drive, but he's not cocky. He keeps it within, and is never one to brag.'
In his first couple of years in high school - freshman year at Asheboro before he moved in with his aunt and cousin Melvin Saunders and transferred to Western - Saunders was like a lot of other teenagers, both in football and off the field.
When he began to get involved in the activities at Mount Zion Baptist Church, things changed. His maturity and responsibility are now such that people around school - football players and non-athletes - seek him out for a word of advice.
``I always try to find something good in a situation,' he says. ``Before, it was like I didn't care. It was all about me - I'm the one getting the yards. Now it's about helping others.
``It's not like I know everything, but I'm someone who will listen. I don't joke around (when people come to him). If I don't know the answer, I'll tell them and try to help them figure out a solution.'
When Saunders first started going to Mount Zion, he was there ``just to be there,' says the Rev. Kevin Lee, the youth pastor at the church.
``In the two-and-a-half years I've been here, I've seen him grow, mature, become a leader, become bold,' Lee says. ``He comes to Bible study, he always makes himself available to our outreach activities. He's real quiet, but a good role model.
``I think things started to change for him when he finally committed to accept Jesus Christ. His values and morals began to change then. It's awesome to hear him talk about how he used to be and the things he used to do.'
Lee has about 20 high school seniors in the youth group at Mount Zion. He says Saunders is the model ``for using God to show you what's best for you (in a college choice). He tells me he's still praying about it, waiting to see where the Lord wants him to be.
``It's good to see the seeds that you've planted start to grow. It encourages you to keep doing it.'
Lynn Simek, a Latin teach at Western, has mentored Saunders and is impressed with his demeanor.
``The kids respect him so much, and the faculty does, too,' she says. ``He's soft-spoken and modest and always polite.
``He puts himself last, and that's something you very rarely see in a high school athlete. He's very remarkable in the way he treats others. He handles praise and adulation without letting it turn his head.'
One of the courses Saunders takes is an information highway class on African-American history. It originates at Dudley, with students at Southern Guilford and Western participating via computer and TV hookup.
``He encourages every kid in the class,' Simek says. ``Everyone says he makes the class better. He knows the answers and always contributes.'
Thomas McCollum, a senior offensive tackle, has blocked for Saunders for two-and-a-half years. He is equally impressed with Saunders' football ability and what he means to the team.
``He only needs a small hole, but we try to bust a big hole and let him run through,' McCollum says. ``He tells me if I make at least one crease, he can gain yardage.
``He encourages us to make a better block if we screw up. And we help him out by picking him up and patting him on the back.
``He's what you call a big brother, or an uncle. He does what he can to help everyone out with their grades.'
Setting the rushing record meant just as much to Western's offensive line as it did to Saunders.
``They tell me they'll make a good block, or they'll get one next time,' Saunders says. ``I pat them on the back and they congratulate me. They mean a lot to me.'
With the accolades Saunders receives, someone could draw the conclusion that he's almost ready for sainthood. Not quite, either on the field or off. Even he admits that, although he usually goes with the flow, he has his ups and downs.
In Western's game against Graham, Saunders needed 160 yards to break the record but gained only 145. He lost his temper on the sidelines.
``I got frustrated with everyone asking me (about the record),' he says. ``I yelled at a couple of my players, which wasn't right. That's the only time it's happened this year.'
Last year, in the semifinal game against Clinton, Saunders fumbled on a 2-point conversion late in the game and the Hornets lost 21-19. But he has tried to turn that into something positive.
``You always think about what you could have done,' he says. ``I fumbled last year and I think about it even now sometimes. I can use it as motivation - to run harder and hold onto the ball.'
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