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Purpose from service: Time as Marine paves way into coaching ranks

By Richard Greene | Published Wednesday, November 8, 2017
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Life of Service

LIFE OF SERVICE – After a stint in the Marines, Clay Sanders has dedicated his life to serving others and now coaching and teaching in Chico. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

When Clay Sanders graduated from Springtown in the spring of 1994, he followed his dream of playing college football to Tarleton State in Stephenville.

On the field, Sanders was ready for the rigors of college football. Off the field, he admits he was less prepared.

“Starting out, I was a decent football player and had the opportunity to go to several colleges. Academically, I was not prepared or disciplined enough,” Sanders recalled.

To Sanders, football and his goals on the gridiron had defined him. And suddenly, it was gone.

In 1996, Sanders started a different path that would soon give his life a new definition and purpose as a servant of others. It’s one that continues today as a football coach and teacher at Chico. To him, it traces back to joining the Marines and spending four years in the ranks.

“It took a kid that thought the world cared how many touchdowns he scored and thought that’s what defined a guy,” he said. I thought that’s where value is placed. The definitions weren’t there yet.”

“I confused goals with purpose,” he said. I got football taken away from me and took it for granted. Then I got to go into the Marine Corps and served. It defined my goals and purpose more – especially going over to Bosnia and seeing the destruction there and seeing the hurt. It flipped. Goals used to be the main deal, and purpose fit in there somewhere. Now purpose is the priority. What are you going to do to be part of the solution and not the problem?”

While not taking a direct route to the military, he descended from a long heritage of service. His father served in Vietnam and grandfather in World War II.

“I always had a respect [for service],” Sanders said. “But I knew I wanted to be a football coach and teacher and knew I had to go to college. When that route didn’t work out, I talked to someone I looked up to, and he’d served in the Marine Corps.”

Sanders considered joining the Navy, but a recruiter familiar with his football career convinced him to join the Marines.

After enlisting, he went to basic training in San Diego. All his training for football prepared him for the mental and physical rigors of boot camp. After basic training, he went to Camp Lejeune, N.C., for combat training. He volunteered for the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which was assigned to carry out six-month long humanitarian aid missions in war-torn Bosnia.

The experience of being in a combat zone and seeing the destruction made a deep and lasting impact on Sanders.

“It’s a humbling experience. It’s so funny; you come back here, and your electricity goes out for an hour or your cable doesn’t work because of a storm and we throw a fit about it,” Sanders said. “There you are seeing families that are losing loved ones and children. Their houses are in rubble. You realize real fast we are very blessed to be in the country we are in.”

While Sanders explained the military was serving the role of mediator in the region, there was an active war underway around them.

“They were trying to kill each other, and we were saying, ‘let’s stop this,'” Sanders said. “When you see a bullet fly over your head, you still want to go home to mom real fast. It becomes real. It’s not a video game or a movie. Your senses start going into hyperalert.

“There’s things I saw I don’t have the need to talk about. It’s disgusting to see humans do that to each other.”

Sanders finished his active duty and left the Marines in January 2000. Well past the age of most college football players, he felt a burning desire to still play and fulfill his initial dreams. He also thought if he was going to coach, he needed to see his dream all the way through.

“If I’m going to be in a position to coach young men and women and teach them, you have to max out your full potential,” Sanders said. “I didn’t want to be that guy that said, ‘I could’ve played, but I didn’t sacrifice or push myself. I knew I needed to play college football. I knew I still had the ability to do it.”

To pursue his dream, he first went to Arkansas State to walk on but ended up coming back to get his two-year degree at Weatherford College and then take some classes at the University of North Texas.

He was then recruited to an NAIA school in Kansas by Tabor College. The coach, Mike Gardner, knew Sanders’ first sergeant.

It was the perfect fit for him.

“With the strong leadership I was blessed to have in the Marine Corps, he carried that over in the same type of manner,” Sanders said. He’s by far the best football coach and leader that I’ve been around in my life. He took a program over that hadn’t won in 50 years, put Christ in the center of it and put brotherhood and family around that and we won two conference championships.”

During his time at Tabor, he was lined up next to players five to eight years younger than him. His teammates respectfully called him Grandpa, Pops and later Colonel Sanders.

“It’s an unique story and awesome experience being 26 or 27 years old and still playing college football,” Sanders said.

“I wouldn’t have had that opportunity without the Marine Corps. I tried it the traditional way, and it wasn’t meant for me. The Marine Corps humbled me and refocused what I’m supposed to do on this earth and how to do it the right way. It’s about living a servant lifestyle and serving your fellow man.”

Entering his chosen profession as a football coach, Sanders found himself longing to join programs facing obstacles, rebuilding efforts or other challenges off the field in stops at Brookshire Royal, Garrison, Venus and Houston Kinkaid.

He later took the head coaching job at the Episcopal School of Dallas and within 18 months took a program coming off an 0-30 stint to a state semifinalist.

He took three years off from coaching to work in the corporate world and spend time with his daughters.

Last year he was talking with Chico High School Principal Randy Brawner and found out about the opening for the softball coaching job at the school. Sanders’ wife convinced him to apply.

He soon found himself interviewing with Chico Athletic Director Lane Wilson for not only the softball coaching job, but also the defensive coordinator job and landing the roles.

This fall he’s proved a perfect fit in Chico.

“He’s been a great addition,” Wilson said. “He’s pretty disciplined. You can definitely tell his military background. It’s paid off in the coaching profession.”

Sanders said his heart has never been “so full” being in Chico.

“There’s no doubt I’m where I need to be,” he said.

Working with his players, Sanders has tried to pass along the values and lessons he’s learned.

“The core values they teach you in the Marines are honor, courage and commitment,” Sanders said. “Looking back on it, those three things are what every human should have.

“Moving from the military to college, I knew the formula of how I wanted to leave my legacy and serve especially the youth of America and give back. The way to do that is take those core values and carry it over to coaching.”

As Veterans Day approaches, Sanders is proud of the opportunity he had to serve his country. But it’s not something he puts on display. He points out he doesn’t own a Marine hat or shirt.

“It’s an honor that I carry with me,” he said. “But I don’t talk a lot about it. It was something I felt like I had to do. It’s something I wanted to do and be part of something bigger than myself.

“There’s a lot better people that served and sacrificed more than I ever did,” he said Many lost their lives. You never want to lose sight of that or not appreciate that.”

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