The words come spilling out in a torrent, thoughts and ideas and emotions piled upon one another. He expresses the things that matter most – the challenges, the failures, the ultimate resurrection of his career with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats – with an uncommon intensity, with the perspective that comes from living with and learning from life’s mistakes.
Jalen Saunders wants to be seen but does not need to be seen, wants to be heard but does not need to be heard. And knowing that makes all the difference.
It wasn’t always so.
Saunders was selected in the fourth round of 2014 NFL Draft by the New York Jets, despite an arrest for marijuana possession in college. He suffered a seizure while driving to a training camp practice, a health scare that was later attributed to an allergic reaction. Released by the Jets after just three games, he bounced around to five other teams before a 10-game suspension for recreational drugs saw him wash out of the league for good.
He doesn’t make excuses for any of this.
“There was a lot of trials and tribulations, ups and downs. The best way to explain is that I wasn’t taking advantage of the opportunities that were presented to me. It was my humbling period,” Saunders said. “Given all the crazy stuff that’s happened, to have the opportunity to play ball again and not erase past history, but to use it as motivation… I let the people who supported me down and I let myself down.”
Out of the game for almost 18 months, he admits to spending an inordinate, even unhealthy amount of time thinking about what he’d lost. The urge to move on from the game was there, to try and put the shame of failure behind him.
“That part affected me for months: I didn’t know if I was ever going to play football again. I had to really sit and think about it,” he said. “But I didn’t want to let the hardship determine my career.”
A stint in The Spring League – the same showcase enterprise that Johnny Manziel played in – led to an opportunity with the Ticats, who had added him to their negotiation list. Released after training camp in 2017, he joined the practice roster and started for the first time in week three after an injury to receiver Terrence Toliver.
And promptly set the world on fire.
Saunders has played in 23 CFL games racking up 118 catches and 1,856 yards and has at least 50 yards in 17 of those contests. With 42 catches and 686 yards so far in 2018, he is on pace to break Tony Champion’s team record of 1,656 receiving yards in a season and Luke Tasker’s mark for catches (104.)
Yet Saunders does not attract nearly the attention that Tasker and fellow receiver Brandon Banks – who is also on pace to break the catches record – seem to garner.
“I think he’s kind of flown under the radar because of all the guys we have. They get all the hype and he gets his quiet 1,000 yards,” quarterback Jeremiah Masoli said. “The defensive backs all know him, though.”
Both Masoli and head coach June Jones talk about Saunders’ growth as both and player and a person of the last season and-and-a-half. He sees it, too.
“If you have that positive flow of energy, everything around you is going to be positive. If I walk in the locker room, f-this, f-that, that’s my entire mindset. But I come in and I’m like ‘let’s go work, let’s go win’ that goes to the next player and the next player to the whole team buying in,” Saunders said. “There is no special way I did it, no specialist, no book I read. This is all me. I know how to work out, I know how to listen, how to perfect my craft and that’s about all.”
With his entry-level contract set to expire after this season, Saunders could be in line for another NFL opportunity or a more lucrative CFL contract. But for all his willingness to address his past and his present, Saunders steadfastly refuses to discuss his future. He knows better.
“Tomorrow is not promised and if you think about life like that, you’ll seize the opportunities,” he said. “I’m happy with myself and that’s the main thing I was missing in years past, I wanted to impress everyone else.
“Now I’m on a whole different level.”