football

WHERE ARE THEY NOW? Jasper Sanks

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JASPER SANKS (L to R): Highly-recruited prospect; Georgia's leading rusher in 1999; and, now, married to former UGA volleyball player, Kristine Keese.

Besides legendary Herschel Walker, he remains arguably the most highly-recruited signee in the history of Georgia football. However, mention the name Jasper Sanks to UGA enthusiasts and, unfortunately, most associate the Bulldog from 1998-2001 as being more so a “bust” than a serviceable back.

As a senior at Carver High School (Columbus, Ga.), Sanks—a supposed “can’t-miss” prospect—was not only recognized as both a Parade and USA Today All-American, but named the top offensive prospect in the entire country according to The National Recruiting Advisor, the “Rivals” of that era (future two-time All-American and three-time All-Pro LaVar Arrington of North Hills Senior HS in Pittsburgh was named the top defensive prospect). Nonetheless, Sanks’ troubles as a member of the Bulldogs began when he was first forced to attend Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy in 1997 because of academic reasons. For the next four years at Georgia, the one-time highly-touted tailback was distinguished by being out of shape, injured on occasion, his costly fumbles including the infamous “phantom fumble” against Georgia Tech in 1999, and ultimately being kicked off the team towards the end of his senior season for receiving a third strike against UGA’s marijuana-use policy.

Personally, I have always felt Sanks’ reputation as a “bust” is a rather ridiculous and unfair assessment. His Georgia career may not have quite developed as many envisioned, but Sanks did gain 1,651 rushing yards during his Bulldogs career (including an underused freshman season when he carried the ball just 10 times), which was more than Keith Henderson, Ronnie Jenkins, and Horace King—all considered Georgia greats—gained during their collegiate careers. And, in gaining 130, 147, 156 rushing yards against South Carolina, Central Florida, and LSU, respectively in 1999, Sanks is one of approximately just a half-dozen different Georgia players in history to gain 130+ yards in three consecutive games.

Since getting kicked off the team and becoming disenchanted with Georgia football 14 years ago, Sanks has since turned his life completely around, while only recently becoming associated with the program again. From his home in Richland, Texas, our interview from late last week:

PG: Jasper, in the wake of Georgia’s National Signing Day, I think it’s kind of fitting to bring up your recruitment from two decades ago. When did you first realize that you were a “big deal”—a very much-hyped high school prospect?

JS: My sophomore year in high school, I played AAU basketball, so I had done some traveling; however, I essentially hadn’t been anywhere outside of Columbus, Georgia. So, when Blitz football magazine, which mostly was about the NFL, came to do a piece on me around my senior year, I didn’t really think anything of it. But later, I was in Walmart with my mom one day, and I see a Blitz magazine with Brett Favre on the front. I opened it up, flipped through it, and there I was pictured and written up in a few-page spread. I think that’s when it kind of hit home that maybe my recruitment was a big deal.

PG: You obviously committed to Georgia, and you actually committed rather early in the process, but was there any other school which almost signed you?

JS: Absolutely, LSU. I had gotten real close to assistant coach David Kelly (running backs coach), when he recruited me while at Georgia [until 1996]. I really liked the guy. Coach Kelly had been under Coach [Ray] Goff, but then went to LSU and was under Coach [Gerry] DiNardo. LSU sent a Learjet over to Columbus and flew me and Rohan Davey (highly-recruited quarterback from Miami; later, second-team All-SEC at LSU in 2001 and member of New England Patriots, 2002-2004) over to the school. Rohan committed that weekend, and I was so close to doing so, as well. Even though LSU had in its backfield [Kevin] Faulk, Rondell Mealey, and Cecil Collins would come around then too, I liked my chances [of playing for LSU].

PG: Then, why did you ultimately decide on Georgia?

JS: I was a Georgia boy from Columbus, and knew deep down LSU just wouldn’t be the right school for me. And, man, there’s something about the ‘Red and Black.’ I had met a lot of good people there, and UGA just seemed like a really good fit.

PG: If you don’t mind, I’d like your feedback concerning some of the “issues” you had while at Georgia. First off, you often seemed out of shape, while seemingly never quite fitting into Georgia’s offensive scheme.

JS: Yeah, well, first off I want to stress that me being out of shape was all on me. My only excuse is that I didn’t fully realize the conditioning part of major college football. In high school, I played football, then basketball, followed by track, and then the cycle was repeated, so I stayed in shape year round. It suddenly wasn’t like that at Georgia. As far as me not really fitting in the offense, I played in high school and was recruited as an every-down and between-the-tackles, downhill tailback. But, I get to Georgia, and nothing against Coach Donnan and Coach Richt (Jasper’s head coaches while at Georgia)—they’re both great coaches—but they preferred to feature a back who was more of a scatback-type than a big tailback, feature someone more so like a Warrick Dunn at Florida State than a Pooh Bear Williams (Dunn’s teammate at FSU, who weighed at least 240 pounds his entire collegiate career). In fact, Coach Richt moved me to fullback at one point. Anyway, I guess it was a “timing” thing more so than anything; I couldn’t control the amount of carries I got.

PG: Jasper, it would be remiss if I didn’t ask about your “non-fumble” in ’99 against Tech (Sanks’ fumble, which was clearly not a fumble confirmed by TV replays, occurred with Georgia and Georgia Tech tied at 48-all while the Bulldogs were driving for the winning score. The Yellow Jackets were erroneously given possession of the ball following the fumble, and would eventually win 51-48 in overtime.). That fumble followed a costly fumble against Florida four weeks before, and suddenly it was decided that you had a fumbling problem.

JS: Yes, and actually I’d lose another fumble in that season’s Outback Bowl (the three fumbles were Sanks’ only ones in nearly 400 career touches). But, I’d like to say that I really only fumbled twice in my career because it’s hard to count the one from the Tech game. Anyone that saw it knows that it wasn’t a fumble—just an unfortunate situation of being involved in a bad call made by the officials. I’ve been asked a lot if I blame Coach Donnan for not kicking (Donnan could have attempted a game-winning field goal instead of running Sanks towards the end of regulation), or blame anyone else for that loss, but I blamed only myself. I beat myself up over it—I really did. What’s kind of ironic is right when we broke the huddle, our center, Miles Luckie, said to me, “Hey, don’t fumble…” The play happened so fast. I was totally down and under the pile, and they (Tech defenders) were tugging at the ball, so I just relaxed and let it go. So, when [the officials] said it was a fumble, I was devastated.

PG: I remember when Coach Richt kicked you off the team for your third marijuana offense. But, after a few months, you were allowed to participate in Georgia’s Pro Day, and you showed up in your best shape since maybe high school. By all accounts, you had a remarkable Pro Day, but didn’t even get a tryout with an NFL team. There was a rumor, and I stress rumor, that the fact you showed up in great shape after getting dismissed might have ruffled some feathers, so to speak—that a Georgia coach or two might have “black balled” your chances for a career in the NFL. Can you expand on that at all?

JS: Again, I first want to accept full responsibility that I smoked marijuana and got kicked off—that was my choice, a really bad choice. But, after I made that choice and got kicked off, I decided to make the best of my situation, so I got a trainer and started training right away for a shot at the NFL. My weight dropped from about 250-255 pounds to 230. Just before the Pro Day, my agent’s phone was blowing up, especially calls from the Miami Dolphins and Pittsburgh Steelers, who both told him that I should be expected to go in the fourth or fifth round [of the NFL Draft]. I showed up in really good shape, and I remember Coach [Neil] Callaway (offensive coordinator) telling me that some scouts really liked me, so to make my Pro Day really count, which I did. I had a really good Pro Day, so much so a scout with Cincinnati [Bengals] asked me to stick around afterwards [to undergo additional drills]. But, this is all I know: As soon as Pro Day was over, the phone calls to my agent suddenly stopped; he did not receive a single phone call. Here, I was a 6-foot-1, 230-pound tailback out of the University of Georgia—a school with a history of running backs actually having better careers in the league than in college—who might have gotten in trouble with marijuana, yet all those scouts and coaches who had showed interest in me before and during the Pro Day knew of my past. I then have an awesome Pro Day. But, after all that, I don’t even get a shot at the NFL? To me, it’s hard to believe I didn’t even get a single tryout.

PG: So, do you have any regrets attending and playing football at UGA?

JS: Actually, my only regret attending the University of Georgia has nothing to do with football—that my career wasn’t as good as everyone hoped. Originally, my plan was to play both football and basketball for the Bulldogs. In fact, when I got to Georgia, Coach [Tubby] Smith already had my locker and my jersey ready for me; he showed them to me. But, let’s just say, I was talked out of playing basketball. I regret not giving basketball a try while at Georgia.

PG: It seems like one can take a lot of lessons away from your, let’s say, “journey.” With that being said, what would you tell a highly-touted recruit just before he started college? What would you say to a young Jasper Sanks back in the late 1990s?

JS: The number-one thing is to not take the sport of football and the college experience for granted, like I did. In high school, I got away with a lot of stuff—a lot of stuff. I got away with it, felt invincible, and believed that just my ability and talent alone would overcome any lack of work ethic, and I was going to the NFL. It doesn’t work that way on the college level. I stress to treat every single day in college—every practice, and every class in a classroom—like it could very well be your last.

PG: I heard that there was a documentary—Inches Away—being made by a filmmaker from Columbus about your life story. Tell me about Inches Away.

JS: The simple answer is that I was “inches away”—so close—from fulfilling my dreams, including playing in the NFL. The point of the documentary is to share my experiences—my mistakes—so the next young athlete coming up can see and learn from them. The documentary is not necessarily only about choices made concerning football, but choices made in life. When I go back to Carver High School, or the Boys Club in Columbus, I talk to the kids about “choices.” I tell them that in high school and college, I made choices to smoke marijuana and to party, and not choices to work hard in the classroom, to stay after practice, or to watch game film. The documentary can hopefully educate, motivate, and inspire others so hopefully they won’t fall inches away—that they can fulfill their dreams.

PG: And, you are married to a former Georgia volleyball player, Kristine Keese, who lettered the exact same years at UGA as you did. I’m guessing you guys met at school?

JS: Yep, I met her in study hall. She walked by one day and I said, “well, dang, she’s out of my league…” I began chasing her—chased her forever—and stayed persistent. Finally, after two years of chasing her, she agreed to go out with me. Next thing you know, we’re married with two kids. We have two daughters: our oldest, Savanna, is four years old while our youngest is Kayla.

PG: I read somewhere that you had the most interesting of jobs: an engineer handling explosives for an oil company in Texas. Are you still doing that?

JS: No, I got out of it. The hours were tough on my family, and then the company wanted me to move to Odessa (located roughly 400 miles east of Richland). That industry (oil) is tough now; lot of guys I used to work with are now unemployed. Now, I drive for UPS. I like working for UPS; it keeps me in shape (chuckling)… But, actually, although I feel like I’ve been running away from it, I think coaching football is my calling. A few years back, I came close to being an assistant coach at Westbury Christian School (Houston, Tx.) when I was hooked up with the school’s head coach, Charlie Ward, through Coach Richt. But then, the oil company called me and kind of gave me an offer I really couldn’t refuse. I love football, and think my “football IQ” is up there (high). To be a great coach, you have to be able to not only coach, but recruit; not all coaches can do that—get on the kids’ level and recruit. When I was recruited, that’s maybe the number-one thing I looked at: coaches who “got” on my level when recruiting me. I think I can do that, and relate to these high school kids.

PG: What’s your association now with the UGA football program?

JS: I love Georgia football—always have. But, for the longest time, honestly, I didn’t feel comfortable coming back. So, my wife and I have yet to return to a game. However, now that Kirby [Smart] is there, I think things are different. My wife and I are already looking at flights for the fall. We hope to make it to at least three games this upcoming season.

PG: What do you know about Coach Smart that maybe not everyone is familiar with?

JS: Not only did I play with Kirby at Georgia (1998), but we played against one another in high school (Carver vs. Bainbridge in 1993). So, I think I have a pretty good feel for him. For a while now, I’ve thought that Kirby would be a good fit as a college head coach. I think Kirby is going to be the type of coach—and, not all head coaches are like this—that is going to stick it out for his players, or take up for them. I’m telling you, Kirby is sharp, man—always has been. He is what we need to get our program to the next level. I mentioned “football IQ” earlier—that’s what Kirby has, a really high one—and I’m so happy that he is back in Athens.

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