Being misunderstood can be one of the worst feelings a man can experience. He will try so hard to prove his worth, potential and express he has good character. I spoke with current NFL Free Agent Weslye Saunders about the ups and downs during his NFL career. We also spoke about NFL teams placing a BOLO on him and much more.
Talk about the #whynotwes campaign and where did it come from?
It’s one of those things that came about with the fans on Twitter. I have a pretty decent following from fans in South Carolina, Pittsburgh, and Indianapolis. After I got released from the Colts, a lot of people who knew what I could do who were fans of these teams. I wasn’t a household name, but they knew what I was capable of and became very adamant about getting the word out that Wes Saunders is a great player and great person as well. You know, I had interaction with these guys on the internet, in person and at different events. So the fans coined the term and all the guys are getting signed that aren’t as good as Wes, so why not Wes?
I own up to the mistakes I made earlier on in my career that derailed me for a little while. But, I’ve made up for that. I ended up coming back after those. My story is pretty transparent, anyone who has been following it understands the genuine standpoint from which I come from. It was one of those things where the fans kinda urged me on and gave me life even when I was down on myself and not signing with a team. These fans were like, ‘Why not Wes?’ It came from a fan and we ran with it. I enjoy it because I can use it with a multitude of areas in life. Such as academics, health, and wellness.
Why should another NFL team give you a chance? What can you bring to an NFL Franchise?
I would coin one of my favorite people of all-time. Malcolm X: “No man can change more completely than he who has been at the bottom.” And I call myself the perfect example of that. So as far as a humility standpoint, I’ve gone through things that most people won’t go through in a lifetime by the age of 31. I’ve learned from those mistakes and turned them into strengths of my own from every aspect, mentally, physically to spiritually. I’m one of those guys that can lead by example. I’m very proud to talk about everything I’ve learned and how I’ve overcome my turmoil.
Talk about your time at South Carolina and your wild experience at the NFL combine.
South Carolina was one of those times where it went by so fast, but of course, the ending is what people remember. So I ended up getting suspended my senior year for accepting impermissible benefits from agents and boosters. It was one of those things where it was out of the blue. I was the number one tight end and we had all these expectations and things ended up the way it did, which was unfortunate.
I was able to get an opportunity from Coach Tomlin and the Steelers after not getting drafted. So that was an opportunity of a lifetime. So when my time was over at South Carolina, I went to the combine. I had been training so hard in Dallas, Texas, where I pushed too hard. I ended up having a stress fracture in my foot that (was) caused by myself from overdoing it. Of course, after missing my whole senior season, I couldn’t let everybody know that I was hurt. The word already around was that Wes Saunders was a cancer. I knew my foot was broke, but I was going to go up there and do everything I could and make it do what it do. I could only do so much, so it was one of those humbling experiences, especially because it was Lucas Oil Stadium.
It was one of the lowest points in my life. I was thinking it was over and a year and a half later that’s the home stadium I’m playing in. It was an “everything happens for a reason” moment. Having to go to the combine and answer questions about my character and personality traits. Have to even answer those questions was an embarrassment to my family, to the people who knew and raised me.
What would you tell perceived trouble athletes that are preparing for the draft or that are currently in the NFL?
If you already have a reputation and people already perceive you a certain way, but you know that’s not true, then you can’t do anything but be yourself and turn your ego down. A lot of the times, if you know who you are and have gotten in trouble for some stupid stuff, you want the world to know that I’m not this guy, but sometimes it comes off a little bit aggressive. I had to humble myself and turn my ego down and not snap at people who felt someway about me. I had to understand that I put myself in the position, so it was a reason people were looking at me some kind of way. The only thing that can repair your reputation is time. So, if you can take time, be patient and accept the criticisms that come with it and move forward accordingly, then you will know what mistakes not to make in the future. Then you can teach it to others. That’s when you become wise when you can learn from other’s mistakes. A smart man learns from his own mistakes
Did you embrace your reputation and do you regret anything about your journey?
I embraced it only because the more you fight it the more it sticks to you. I don’t think I would of done anything differently at this point. There are some people that believe the NCAA is exploiting athletes. I was one of those people who did not come from an impoverished family. Basically, I didn’t necessarily need the money, but I saw how the money was flowing to colleges and schools. I have a brain. I was able to think and I was taking economics at the time and people were telling me that my education was only worth so much. But I also saw the dollar signs connected to it. It was one of those things where I thought I was going to stick it to the man. But instead, the man stuck it to me in a major way.
Talk about how and why NFL teams placed a BOLO on you.
The fans had got me amped up on Twitter telling me that we know what you can do and what your capable of out here and you need to let these teams and GMs know. Get out there and show your stuff even if you have to show up at a facility. So I went on the “Why Not Wes” tour and I would go to facilities. My first stop was in Miami with an old coach of mine, Clyde Christensen, in Indianapolis. He was the coordinator in Miami, so I met with him and asked him what I should do. At that point, I was out of the league two years and I was trying everything, but nothing worked. I knew that if I wanted to make some noise I had to get some attention. I asked him was it a good idea. He said, “Wes you can do somethings on the football field that people your size can’t do. You have the ability. You should be in the league.”
From there, I wanted to stop at different teams and areas who knew me. I knew that my best chance of getting back in the league would be reconnecting with coaches and personnel that knew me as a person and knew what I could do on the field. I wasn’t a household name, so I had to start with people I knew. So I started with Miami then Pittsburgh with Coach Tomlin and they were very receptive. Then I flew out to Seattle, where I had some business going on out there. Seattle flew me out for a workout in 2014 and I thought I was going to sign there. Pete Carroll and his staff loved me out there. I spent two or three days out there thinking I was going to sign there. But, it ended up not happening. We never ended on bad terms so the “Why Not Wes” tour came back about. So, I came back by there when I was in Seattle and told them I would be back in town.
The response wasn’t very receptive. They ended up telling one of the guards and I couldn’t get in the gate. I showed with a gallon of water and my cleats, letting them know, “If you need a tight end, I’m ready to go.” A sincere gesture. The gesture was misconstrued and a trespassing warning was given to me…
It was very unexpected and by the time I got back to the east coast. A BOLO was sent to several teams in the league, saying Weslye Saunders is trying to get into teams’ facilities and be on the lookout… It was like a ploy for teams to not give me a chance by making it look like I’m armed and dangerous. I’m not really sure what the purpose behind it was or the intent. But I do know when I talked to Bruce Arians, who was with the Arizona Cardinals at the time, said he received it. So they had been sending it behind closed doors.
Do you think the NFL has tried to exile you?
“I’ve tried everything in my power to not say that, I’ve taken every single route, I’ve sent hand-written letters to every single NFL team, coaches, GMs. This has been years in the making, but I flew to New York to meet with Roger Goodell and tried to see if I had done somethings behind closed doors. Where I might have ruffled some feathers that I shouldn’t have. Just trying to figure it out because I wasn’t getting any workouts… I don’t want to say I’m being exiled but I don’t think I’m being given a fair shake with what my capabilities are. Maybe it’s because I’m not a household name. Like Coach Tomlin told us when I got to Pittsburgh, be who you can afford to be. Some guys can be Antonio Brown and get six, seven and eight chances. Or like Josh Gordon. Some guys don’t get many opportunities and I was one of those guys who thought my talent would supersede anything I did off the field and, unfortunately, I put one before the other.
Why haven’t you given up yet?
“I still have the spirit in me, the spirit is telling me (I’m) still capable and it’s something I love to do. Also, throughout this journey, I’ve learned more about myself and my body. Being away from the game, I’ve learned what to eat and how my body reacts to certain foods and how to maximize my full potential. I’ve lost about 25 pounds since my playing weight at 275 to 250. So now I’m more equipped for what the game requires. One of my favorite phrases is, “if you knock long enough and hard enough at the door you will awake someone.” It’s all about who you know in this business and I learned that very quickly. It’s just about getting in front of the right people and getting the right opportunity and I believe it will happen.
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