Why Not Wes? Former Steelers TE Weslye Saunders tells his story

Some have called him psychotic while others think he’s crazy. But if there’s only one thing Weslye Saunders can be accused of is, it’s being crazy for the game of football.

The former Pittsburgh Steelers and Indianapolis Colts tight end has fought through adversity throughout his career. Though his current methods to obtain employment may seem unconventional, understanding his back story paints a broader portrait of persistence and a never give up attitude.

The rise and fall of Weslye Saunders began with an ankle injury which sidelined him for his senior season at the University of South Carolina. Saunders could have returned for that lost year but instead acted on advice to enter the NFL Draft. A year earlier he was considered to be one of the top tight end prospects coming out of college, and all signs pointed to having his name called in the early rounds of the rookie selection process.

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However, further setbacks on Saunders path to the pros would be insurmountable obstacles for any lesser of a person. The tight end would begin conditioning for the NFL Scouting Combine at Olympian Michael Johnson‘s training center. On one fateful day, Saunders was working out with Hall of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin when one of those setbacks struck in the form of a bone fracture in his foot. Rather than have surgery and miss the Combine, Saunders rehabbed his injury in an attempt to show the world what he was made of. It was a Catch-22 scenario for former Gamecock: workout with an injury or skip the drills entirely. Opting to show scouts what he was made of, Saunders went with the first option, rather than have others steal his opportunity, or perceive he was avoiding the event.

Unfortunately, Saunders could not complete all of his scheduled drills due to his broken foot and had to quit after a couple of the exercises. He further hobbled his way into South Carolina’s pro day, where Steelers tight end coach James Daniel put the six-foot-six, 260-pound prospect through the paces.

I also performed on with a broken foot. The Steelers came down and showed a lot of interest. (Laughing.) I certainly remember the tight end coach, James Daniel, came down and we ran some drills with him. He was fully aware that my foot was broken and he didn’t take it easy on me not one bit. He’s an older guy, kind of old school, and I know he was watching how I handled myself under such excruciating pain and under the pressure. I think I did a good at that because a few months later I ended up signing on with the team.

Even with interest from several teams, Saunders would watch as three days of the NFL Draft would pass without one of those teams announcing his name. Still, he never gave up hope, and would eventually receive a call to come to camp nearly two-and-a-half months later.

That call came from the Pittsburgh Steelers, and it came two days before players were to report to their training camp at Saint Vincent College. Saunders would go from sitting out his senior year of college, having his draft eligibility shift from “no” to “yes” (due to a discrepancy in his filing), and breaking a bone in his foot, to being undrafted and given a moment’s notice to join the Steelers.

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All it took was that short window for Wes to maximize his opportunity. The tight end would enter training camp without any other team workouts to making the final 53-man roster as the team’s third tight end on the depth chart. He would appear in all sixteen games for the Steelers as a rookie, receiving limited playing time in multiple tight end sets. Saunders would catch half of the eight passes thrown in his direction, including a difference-making touchdown which lifted the Steelers to victory over the Kansas City Chiefs.

But Wesley’s story would face more hurdles going forward. A zero tolerance policy which required a specific exemption for a prescription drug found in Saunders’ system saw the player facing a four-game suspension to start the 2012 season. As the tight end approached his reinstatement date, he grew overconfident that someone would be released from the current roster to make room for his addition back to the team.

Todd Haley came along and decided that… after that four-game suspension was served, I knew everyone knew how much I had been working. It was a fault of my own, a little overconfident, trying to figure out who was going to get cut upon my arrival back onto the squad.

Nobody assumed it would be me. After the Thursday night game with Tennessee, that Friday, Coach Tomlin informed me that they were releasing me.

As fate would have it, Saunders would return to Indianapolis, the scene of his combine fallout. Bruce Arians had moved on from being the Steelers offensive coordinator to serving in the same capacity for the Colts and offered Saunders a spot with the team just days following his release from Pittsburgh. He would step right into a role with Indy, before running into another suspension for the same issue he faced with taking the controlled substance Adderall. To their credit, even without Bruce Arians (who had left to take the head coaching position with the Arizona Cardinals), the Colts maintained their patience as Saunders sat out eight games during this hiatus.

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Ultimately, the team would move on with Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen following the 2014 season: the last time Saunders would suit up for an NFL franchise. Yet, injuries, miscues, and misunderstandings didn’t dissuade Saunders from continuing his dream of playing professional football. Over time, however, calls to front office personnel failed to land the tight end another opportunity, and the free agent formulated a new approach to draw attention to himself.

That approach is now known as the “Why Not Wes?” campaign. Saunders began traveling to team facilities, filming his exploits on social media where fans either encouraged or poked fun, at his attempts to catch on with another team.

However, the different approach is anything but non-sensical. Saunders turned to veganism, dropping weight and body fat to transform into the best shape of his life. Weslye is also leveraging the campaign to prove any perception of him being a problem player is ill conceived. He acknowledges mistakes were made while pointing out he’s never had any run-ins with the law.

If Wes were guilty of anything, it would be his love for the game. Traveling out of pocket, he’s been welcomed in Miami and Pittsburgh, while equally being shunned in Tampa and Seattle. (The latter issued him a year-long restraining order with a threat of jail time should he return.) Saunders also participated in a little-publicized spring league featuring veteran players who, like Wes, were trying to get one more shot at playing in the NFL. The scouts took notice of the tight end but still haven’t offered a contract.

Still, that hasn’t stopped Saunders from being persistent. And that’s what #WhyNotWes is really about: persistence and perseverance. The campaign has become bigger than the player, encouraging others not to give up on whatever goals they hope to achieve.

The #WhyNotWes campaign started with some fans that were hashtagging different things. They were saying “Why Not Wes?” because he’s doing a lot more than certain people who got into trouble for a lot more and who seem to have been given a pass or a chance to prove themselves.

I’m trying to convey to the teams my maturation physically and mentally. I do understand that just calling or emailing a team, or having my agent call is not enough. I want them to feel my energy, I want them to feel my vibe. I want them to look in my eyes and realize this isn’t the same 23-year-old who made those stupid mistakes.

I hate to ever think in the future “What would’ve happened if I tried a little harder?” No one knows if this is going to work or if anybody’s even paying attention. I do know the sincerity of it is in my heart… when you’re passionate about something, you don’t have to be pushed to do something. It pulls you. I feel like I’m being pulled to do this right now. The fans are giving me so much love and so much energy. I can’t stop now.

In the end, Saunders realizes that’s all he can do as well. There are certain elements which are out of his control. If his persistence pays off, he may end up on an NFL roster. And if he doesn’t, at least Weslye Saunders can look back at this time of his life with no regrets; and honestly, say he gave it his all.

Listen to the full interview with Weslye Saunders

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