After completing an All-American career at Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa. back in 2016, former Lake Catholic standout running back Richie Sanders wasn’t quite ready to hang up his cleats.
The 5-foot-8, 190-pounder arrived in Germany this week to prepare for his first season of American football in Europe with the Ingolstadt Dukes, a German League quarterfinalist last season.
“What I am looking forward to most out of this experience, as far as football, is continue to be the player I have always been and improve,” Sanders said. “I stayed ready to play. I never gave up staying fit and active. I’m looking forward to seeing how far this team can go with my help and also the opportunity that could possibly come from just playing one season.”
Sanders, an All-Ohioan at Lake Catholic, where he still holds several rushing records, spent five years at Mercyhurst.
He was even more successful there as he became the first Laker in program history to win the conference’s Freshman of the Year award. He closed out his career with multiple school records including 4,909 career all-purpose yards and 1,953 career kickoff return yards.
Sanders rushed for 2,112 yards on 421 carries at Mercyhurst, despite battling through three surgeries in five years.
“It was tough on me to battle through adversity, keeping the mindset of still being a football player and not giving up,” Sanders said. “Discipline and consistency, I’d say, helped me the most. There were times I wanted to give up. I didn’t think I still had what it takes to keep up with college ball, but I had the right people in my corner keeping my spirits high, faith strong and just flat out continuous motivation to overcome those adversities and continue playing football.”
Sanders used a medical redshirt in 2012 and missed the first half of the 2013 season before seeing action as a sophomore. He then sat out the 2014 season and then played in the final 22 games of his college career.
As a senior, he was named first team Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference as a running back and earned second team All-America honors through the Don Hansen Gazette and the American Football Coaches Association. He also was named to the Don Hansen Gazette Super Region Team.
“I fought hard to be better and do better each practice and each game and hard work does pay off,” Sanders said.
Now, he has another chance to prove he belongs.
That opportunity began with a simple Facebook message he received shortly after completing his career at Mercyhurst.
“I returned home to just work and get my life together,” Sanders said. “I received a message from a staff member on Ingolstadt asking if I was interested in playing pro football overseas. At first, I thought it was fake, but being the person I am, I was curious and responded.”
Ingolstadt made signing Sanders a top priority and he didn’t hesitate to accept the team’s offer.
“It took me only a week to decide that I wanted to travel overseas and pursue football once more after I gave up hope of ever playing again,” he said. “Playing pro European football means just as much to me as playing for the NFL because I was still on a team’s radar. I am still physically and mentally capable of playing and whatever opportunity I receive to play ball is still a blessing and huge deal to me. Getting this contract restored the faith and hope I lost of being a football player and cancels out the doubt I had whether I was not good enough for the league.”
Sanders isn’t going to waste this opportunity.
He trained hard and will continue to work hard for the season and his future.
“I’m going to juice up my football resume, get better on the field and if the chance comes to play for the League or the CFL, playing overseas could definitely help with that,” he said. “But, I am human. I’m traveling to a country I have never been to before so I’m also soaking in the moment I have experiencing life outside of football and outside the United States. I’m going to enjoy my environment, take trips, explore and have the most exciting fun I can possibly have while still having the ability to play ball.”
Sanders touched down in Bavaria, a state in Southeastern Germany, earlier this week and immediately experienced a touch of culture shock.
“Everywhere I go I’m being stared at,” he said. “You can tell they aren’t the type (of people) to come out and make conversation, but once you actually talk to them it was surprising to me how accepting and cool they are and the love and respect they have for Americans. I had a guy at the gym say he was born in the wrong country. He sees so many movies about the U.S. and he wanted to be a part of that culture. I’m considered the foreigner but the people here are so open to talk and learn and ask questions, it makes it easier on me and the other Americans to feel somewhat comfortable being in a different environment than our own.”
Sanders shares an apartment with several other players from the United States and two members of the team from Belgium and Serbia.
He’s excited to learn more about his roommates and the other players he’ll get to bond with this season.
“What I’m looking forward to most from playing and living with guys from other countries is how different we are and similar at the same time,” he said. “Language, culture, beliefs religion; it’s cool and interesting to me. It gives me more of an understanding and also an appreciation of life. Learning to accept everyone for who they are, where they come from, and what they believe and such will bring a greater experience and a greater opportunity to learn more outside of my own life and what I was raised to stand for and believe.”
Despite his willingness to learn about and experience another culture, make no mistake, Sanders is on an extended business trip.
“What I aim to accomplish is to be that top dog athlete on the field,” he said. “No, I am not cocky, but I am confident I will go out and show my butt off, not only for the team but for my family and country I made the choice to leave behind to pursue my football dreams. If ever an NFL team or CFL team comes knocking on my door, yes, I will take that opportunity. The sky is the limit. You only get what you put in and I plan to give my all and put in a lot of blood sweat and tears until I cannot play anymore.”
Ingolstadt opens the season against the Allgäu Comets on May 12.