LOGAN, Utah – If anyone knows the value of hard work, it’s a collegiate student-athlete. When they accept a spot on a team, they recognize that they are signing up for a full-time commitment. They are expected to put in all the necessary time for their sport – practice, film study and team meetings – along with keeping their grades at the university standard.
Aggie seniors Cameron Sanders and Terrell Thompson have taken different paths through their college careers, but have both gone through similar experiences that have helped them recognize and appreciate the need for hard work in their lives.
Sanders, a safety from Oklahoma City, Okla., began his time at Utah State with a redshirt season. He used that year to better himself and his football skills.
“It took a lot of focus. I spent a lot of time in the film room really studying and learning, figuring out our system,” Sanders said. “I was just always there, on and off the field, constantly learning and taking care of myself.”
In the end, he was grateful for the extra year he had to learn and prepare.
“When you’re a freshman, you have this mentality that you can do everything. There’s a lot more to this game than what you see on the field,” Sanders said. “My redshirt year helped me out a lot. I was a knucklehead kid. That year taught me a lot and made me better.”
Since then, he has used that extra time to turn himself into a smarter, better, more beneficial player.
“I just tried to get better every year. I was blessed to have that redshirt year rather than playing as a true freshman. I’m glad I had it. It prepared me to be that much better every year,” Sanders said. “I didn’t look at it as being here for a long time, I just looked forward to coming out every game, ready to play.”
For Thompson, a linebacker from Aurora, Colo., the first major realization of the work that was needed to succeed in college football also came in his first season at Utah State. However, for him that was after two years at a junior college. In his time at Glendale Community College in California, he thought he had figured it out, only to be slapped in the face with it when he got to Logan.
“It’s just as hard, but it’s a full-time job here. At junior college, you go to practice or the game and then you’re off and done. At the Division I level though, you have to work hard every day. You constantly have to pay attention and take in what people tell you,” Thompson said. “Everything I know I learned here. I’ve learned to be grateful and take what’s been given to me. You can’t let things pass you by.”
Just as Thompson thought he had his chance to show Utah State what he was all about, he went down with a season-ending injury in just the third game of the 2011 season. With another year on the sidelines ahead of him, he knew he had to make the best of it and use it to his advantage.
“That injury changed my life. I didn’t have that many injuries before I came here, so that one really changed me. Knowing I had to sit out for the rest of the year, I really didn’t know what to do or how to handle it. I kind of just sat and watched,” Thompson said. “(Former Aggie safety) Walter McClenton told me to work on what I wasn’t good at, not what I was good at. I was in the film room everyday. I learned to take care of my body. It was a chance to really focus on school.”
While many may use it just to their benefit for the next year or their remaining time in their sport, Thompson took it seriously and sees a change in himself that will last forever.
“It was a setback, but now I see it as a good setback. I learned our defense better, and I worked harder in school,” Thompson said. “It taught me to really appreciate where I’m at because not a lot of people get these kind of chances.”
With more time in Logan, Sanders has been a part of the change in the culture of Utah State football. He has been with the team through the ups and downs of the last few years, ending his career with a third-straight bowl-eligible season.
“It’s such a blessing to know what the program used to be and how it is now. We weren’t that good back then, but as the years have gone on we’ve gotten better and better because our guys have bought into the system,” Sanders said. “We believe that we can do it. It feels good and has been a great experience.”
From the day he received his first phone call from a Utah State coach, Thompson knew he had a lot of work ahead of him.
“In February of 2011, I got the call from Utah State offering me a scholarship and it was the happiest moment of my life. I remember that day so well. I was running around my apartment, just so happy, I called my mom, called everyone,” he said. “From that moment on, Coach (Bill) Busch was always on me. He told me that the reason he was hard on me was because I had potential. I just really took that to heart. Coach (Gary) Andersen told me to just trust him, so I did and here were are.”
Though he didn’t know exactly who he was talking to on that initial phone call, Thompson is glad he took the leap and ended up at Utah State.
When I first heard Utah State try to talk to me, I didn’t know who it was. I thought it was Utah at first. I came up here for my visit and really liked it,” he said. “I loved the surroundings. It’s isolated enough in a way that’s good for me and keeps me focused. It’s a great community that comes together. It was a blessing in disguise to come here.”
Sanders was convinced to be an Aggie when former coaches Gary Andersen and Alex Gerke came to Oklahoma City.
“They came to see me play and see my family. They came to Oklahoma and talked to me and my parents,” Sanders said. “I liked what he had planned and what he wanted to do with the program. Coach Andersen told me that if I was good, I’d be able to play. He kept everything straight-forward and honest.”
In his time at Utah State, Sanders has done exactly what has been asked of him. He has had consistent playing time each season, being able to make an impact.
“Whenever someone goes down or something happens, whenever I’m needed, I’m ready,” he said. “I’ll be there to make a play and do what I can to help the team get the win.”
As the team works toward its goals of a bowl win, Thompson and Sanders are solely focused on that, with their individual goals tailored toward the ones of the team.
“I’m just doing my best of staying healthy, playing to the best of my abilities and having a focused mindset. When I’m not on the field, I try to watch what the other safeties and defensive players are doing and learn from them,” Sanders said. “Playing with and for my brothers on the team drives me. Knowing all the hard work we put in and how good we can be if we set our minds to it and play with the best of our ability. It’s for my brothers, my coaches and what we do as a system.”
Thompson is just doing his best to sustain his role and position on the field. As a senior, there is an automatic duty of being a leader, and he is taking that job seriously.
“My role is to be a leader in my position. If they ask me to do something, I should be able to do it with the best of my abilities,” he said. “I need to do it and set the example for the young guys who are coming up. Not everybody gets it, so I want to help however I can.”
Both Thompson and Sanders will graduate this December with degrees in sociology. While they have the dream of continuing their football careers at the next level, the next step is a trip home to take care of things there.
“I’m going to go home and see my family and spend time with my daughter,” Thompson said. “I’m going to train for the next level and get ready for the real world. When I’m done here, it’s not going to be a surprise.
Sanders’ plans are nearly identical.
“I’m going to go back home to see my family and my son CJ and get him situated,” he said. “I’ll train and get ready to try and go to the league. If not, then I’ll just get ready for the real world.”
As they’ve worked their way through their football and academic careers, the lessons of hard work are ones Sanders and Thompson will have with them forever.
“I was always told that there’s always someone out there better than you, but knowing that makes you work harder,” Thompson said. “Coming here, that’s what I’ve learned. Everyone here has the same goals, but it’s all about who’s working harder and who will put in the time and effort. Everything here is going to set you up for whatever your next chapter in life will be.”