A late evening phone call from a former Bear to Bradley Central football coach Damon Floyd turned into an opportunity for the team to get a look at where they could be in a few short years.
Former Bradley football star turned Tennessee Volunteer Austin Sanders spoke to the Bears before Friday's practice telling the group to continue to strive to be the best they can be on and off the field.
"He called me last night around 10 or 11 o'clock and asked what time we were practicing. He wanted to come by for a little while," Floyd said of the visit. "For me as a coach it's pretty special when you've got somebody at the University of Tennessee, but when he comes back to town being a Bradley Bear is still important to him. Wanting to spend some of his leisure time here with us, that's pretty special."
The visit by the big Volunteer continues what has more or less become a new tradition at Bears practice — the visiting of a former player.
"We've had a former player, maybe not of Austin's caliber obviously, but a former player at every practice we've had since we've been back from dead period. Tucker Bolton came by yesterday, Rue Goldston and Justin Houston have also been by. It's pretty neat that those guys think enough of Bradley to come back," Floyd said.
Sanders related the visit was something he wanted to do before the Volunteers start fall camp next week and personal time becomes hard to come by.
"We start up camp Thursday so I thought I'd come back and see the team. Everybody tells you how important it is to come back and visit your high school program and see how the players are doing. It means something to them and it means something to me," the Mr. Tennessee Football award winner said. "I figured I'd come back and say, ‘hey’ to everybody and see how they are."
The big lineman obviously impressed the former coaching staff in Knoxville, but said he is stoked to be playing for the group of coaches now leading the Volunteers. The move to the college level is tough, but exciting. At the same time it's good to get a look back at how it was to help solidify an appreciation for how things are now.
"I'm definitely glad to be where I am. There are really no words for how exciting it is to play at the next level. College workouts are totally different than high school," said Sanders. "To come back and see the same things you went through, the same warm ups and drills, it's something good to remember and something you will never forget. It's a great feeling to be back to see all the guys you played with before."
Sanders said the group of coaches now in Knoxville are a group who mean business and accept nothing but a best effort.
"They are awesome, man," Sanders said with a wide grin. "We've been busting it all summer, getting really strong and staying in shape. We've been bonding and the whole team has been getting after it. I've been doing pretty good."
When asked if he thought Butch Jones and company are the right people in the right place, Sanders was quick with a positive reply.
"Oh, yes. Definitely," he said without hesitation. "We've got strength coaches flying around every day and coach Jones is always with us every Wednesday with the team meetings. Every time we see him he's always saying, ‘hey.’ He's definitely a coach for sure. He knows what he's doing. We're just glad to be there."
Although personal time with Jones is not something that happens every day, Sanders has had the chance to chat with the man who will be his main boss for the next four years.
"Maybe twice. We don't talk too much just because he's the head coach and he is always busy with meetings and everything. But, when we get to talk we talk about football and how I'm doing. He's not just a coach, he tries to be that father figure to you," said the former Bear.
"He is definitely the coach Tennessee has needed for a while. He knows what he's talking about. He knows the game and that is something Tennessee needed."
Sanders pointed out incoming Volunteers will not be handed a helmet with the traditional orange stripe. One of Jones' philosophies is to put freshmen coming into the program in helmets with a black stripe.
Players will earn the orange stripe on their helmets. It is something not to be handed out arbitrarily, but something to worked for and envied. The stripe turns to orange only when the "big brother" assigned to the freshman by the coach feels the newby is ready to be a real Volunteer.
"Freshmen, we wear black instead of orange stripes because you have to earn your stripes in his program. That's what we've got to do. We've got to earn our stripes. You've got to want to play at Tennessee," Sanders said emphatically. "When you are a recruit you can't be like, ‘Oh, I don't know if I want to go to Tennessee.’ You have got to want to play for Tennessee or you are not going to do well."
On the Bradley practice field, Floyd and the Bears were warming up for Friday's round of practice. Since adding shoulder pads, Floyd said the actual difference in preparation has been marginal since full contact to the ground is relatively rare.
"Once we got shoulder pads on it's pretty much like full pads. It is very rare that we, even when we have (practice) pants on that we take anybody to the ground," he said. "A lot of this stuff these guys have already proven in the spring. We're not going to rely on many young people. So for us, it's pretty much like we've got full pads on right now."
As for early season progress, Floyd said things are pretty much as expected.
"As a coach I don't know if you are ever progressing like you want to. I told the team that. I am never satisfied and I hope it's something they understand," he said. "We reinforce I'm not their friend, I'm their coach and we are going to push them to the best of their ability every day. We're not going to take anything less."
Before getting on with practice, Floyd reiterated how good it was to have Sanders come back to campus for a visit with the Bears.
"He spoke to them a little bit and told them how fast it (high school) does go by and make sure they go hard because if they have plans to go to the next level they are going to go even harder," he said.
"He was going to leave a little early before we started practice but I asked if he could stay around five or 10 minutes to make sure these other guys get to him. It does mean a lot to them. When they see somebody like Austin and see this is still important to him, it's pretty special."