Weslye Saunders wasn’t quite ready to give it up yet.
The former South Carolina football star had been out of the NFL for a few years. He’d gone from the Gamecocks to the Steelers to the Colts, and had spent some time focusing on his major, journalism, and a few other things.
“I started to figure out my own body a little bit more,” Saunders said. “I started to practice more holistic methods of how to take care of my body, which transformed my energy and just my body shape completely. Even though I haven’t been playing football the last couple years, I did learn a lot about vitality and health going to Tony Robbins conventions.”
But that wasn’t a substitute for the game.
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“Anything I could do to stay busy but still say around the realm of football,” Saunders said. “That’s what my goal was.”
Saunders was part of South Carolina’s 2007 football signing class that remains the highest-ranked in Gamecocks history. The former top recruit years removed from his time in Columbia was back on the gridiron this spring, going to training camp with the Birmingham Iron in the Alliance of American Football.
After going through camp, he ultimately didn’t make the final cut announced Thursday.
“It was kind of unexpected,” Saunders said. “I did my thing in camp and I kind of had a good rapport with the team.
“Coaches told me to stay ready, and there’s the opportunity I could get picked up by another AAF team before the conclusion of the season.”
Saunders was with the Steelers in 2011, and after getting released in 2012 he landed with the Indianapolis Colts and spent parts of that season and the next two with them. In 33 professional games, he caught 10 passes for 90 yards.
He came to Columbia as a four-star two-way player, and the 6-foot-6, 260-pounder ended up on the Freshman All-SEC team as USC’s No. 2 tight end. He had 151 yards that year, 214 the year after and 353 as a junior when he took over the top spot from Jared Cook.
In the gap between being let go by the Colts in December of 2014 and catching on with his new team, he focused on himself and looked a little toward another passion: His father was a longtime columnist in Raleigh, N.C.
It helped carry him through that time.
“Writing is in my blood,” Saunders said. “It’s something that comes natural to me. It’s also a way to ease my mind sometimes.
“Just trying to stay busy and also thinking about what my future holds outside of football when I’m finished with this.”
He said he interned for Fanatics Inc., SBNation in Washington, D.C., and NFLPA in California. He also does charity work with the non-profit Silent Victims of Crime in Miami.
It has been more than four years since his last game. During the time between, he saw friends and teammates stop getting calls from teams, move on to other things.
But he held on just a little more. Even the setback with the AAF won’t fully deter him.
“When you’re passionate about something, you don’t have to be pushed,” Saunders said. “The vision will pull you.”