LELAND — For for the last 25 years Coach Eugene Sanders has been outside Leland High School most every afternoon changing lives.
“Come on. Let’s go,” he says sternly, with his trademark gruff voice to the players on the Leland High School football team.
It is Thursday afternoon on a sweltering hot August day in the Delta, but Sanders’ message is the same. Year after year. Student after student. His message is always the same.
“We are going to work hard today,” he shouts. “We are not going to have any excuses today.”
Coach Sanders talks to his players with a forcefulness that demands respect. His players know, deep down, he always has their best interest at heart.
“He is such a great coach because he pushes us to do our best. He is so positive and makes us want to do great things,” said Tavion Simmons, this year’s starting Cubs quarterback.
Technically Coach Sanders, 59, is the defensive coordinator on this year’s Leland team, but he has never been too interested in titles. He spent 14 years as the head football coach at Leland, and 20 years as the head basketball coach. Sanders may no longer be the head football coach — Leland alum Ricardo Tigler begins his first year at the helm this season — but the impact Sanders makes is the same.
“There is a season for everything,” he says. “I enjoy being an assistant coach. What I really want to do is be a mentor to other assistant coaches now.
“I want to try and help them have successful careers. I read a book by Bear Bryant a long time ago and he said that you have to be able to change with the times. And, that is what I am trying to do. I am changing with the times (laughter).”
Coach Sanders learned the value of hard work early in his life. He spent a good portion of his childhood as a sharecropper working with his father mostly chopping cotton. On Saturday’s he would then go and work on his grandparents’ farm.
“I earned $50 a week working as a share cropper and it was good money. I worked for good people. I know people say a lot stuff about Mississippi back then, but I never saw it. I was always around good people,” he says.
When he was not helping his family make ends meet as a child, Sanders was one of the best young athletes for many years in the Shaw community. At Shaw he was a star quarterback, a starting guard on the basketball team and a fine-hitting baseball player.
It was in the sport of track, however, that Sanders truly excelled. Sanders was so talented in the 800-meter run that he went on to have a successful track career at Mississippi Valley State University. In the 1984 Olympic Trials in Los Angeles he came just short of making the Olympic Team. He is still proud of his personal best time of 1:45.1.
“I was pretty quick,” he says.
And, while Sanders enjoyed his athletic career, in the back of his mind he knew he aways wanted to be an educator. “I had some really good teachers when I was young, and I kind of saw what I would like to be like when I grew up,” he says.
From a young sharecropper, to a career as a successful educator, Coach Sanders is still making a difference.