On his left arm, Bentlee Sanders has a tattoo that reads, “Life is not forever. Love is.” The Nevada Wolf Pack cornerback knows that better than most.
During his freshman season of high school, Sanders' biggest supporter, his older sister Elese, died of suicide. Two years after that, Sanders’ cousin, Eric, who was one of his best friends, died in a car crash. And two years after that, his grandmother, Nancy, who Sanders calls his biggest motivation, also passed away. It was a trio of losses that has reshaped Sanders' life.
“It sucks to say it, but it's like you can't even cry anymore,” Sanders told Nevada Sports Net. “You’ve just got to roll with the punches. Life sucks sometimes, and you just got to roll with it. They’re up there watching us.”
During the Wolf Pack’s home opener against Idaho State on Saturday, the team will wear a ribbon decal on its helmet to honor Sanders’ sister as part of September’s national suicide awareness week. That decision was made during Nevada’s fall camp when Sanders opened up to the team about his life story.
“The back of the helmet will say, ‘You are not alone,’” Nevada head coach Jay Norvell said. “We would like to recognize national suicide awareness month for people who are struggling. I can't tell you as a head coach how many kids have sat in my office and talked about thinking of taking their life. It's very humbling. A lot of people are struggling out there, and we just want them to know they’re not alone.”
Losing his sister had a huge impact on Sanders. She was his biggest football fan and the person who believed in him the most. He couldn’t eat, couldn’t focus after her death. He wondered if there was something he could have done to change her mind. He distanced himself from others, football being his refuge until he tore a knee ligament several months later, which cost him his sophomore season of high school. After the back-to-back blows of losing a family member and the sport that consumed his identity, he felt like giving up. One of the reasons he didn’t was his grandmother.
“When I was little, we used to be in the pool,” Sanders said of his grandma. “We’d act like it was the last second of the game and she would throw me the ball and I would catch it for a touchdown. We had season tickets to the (Tampa Bay) Bucs games. We had a special bond because we both loved the game of football. And it sucks that she never got to see me play a game in college, but I know she's watching me from upstairs.”
Sanders’ “Life is not forever. Love is” tattoo the sits beside a set of praying hands is dedicated to his grandmother. On his right trap, he has a tattoo of his cousin’s death date. On his left trap, he has a tattoo of his sister’s death date.
“I put it close to my heart because we were real close,” he said.
Sanders’ life story is tattooed on his body, including his hometown of Tampa and the state of Florida on his back. Sanders’ college career began in Tampa where he played for the University of South Florida for four seasons, serving as a key defensive back and return man for the Bulls while making 15 starts. He graduated with a degree in integrated public relations and advertising last fall, and with two years of college eligibility remaining, he set out on a new journey on the other side of the country.
Sanders put his name in the transfer portal and immediately drew interest from Nevada, which made him a top priority. Born and raised in Tampa, Sanders was intrigued by a fresh start on the West Coast. He knew it’d be a challenge moving far from home and away from his family, but he believed that would be the best move for his personal and professional growth.
“I needed to get out of there,” Sanders said of leaving Tampa. “It was a distraction. I said, ‘Let’s try something new on the West Coast.’ And right when I entered the transfer portal, (then-Nevada assistant) Coach (Freddie) Banks was hitting me right away, 100 percent interest on me. We were talking a little bit, and right before I was going to commit I got a text from TCU saying, ‘Hey, would you mind waiting a little bit before committing?’ In my head, I was, like, ‘I'm not trying to be someone's second option, and Nevada was on me from the jump.’”
Sanders said his favorite thing about living in Reno has been his teammates. During Nevada's fall camp, which had to be relocated to Stanford for two weeks due to poor air quality in Reno, the Wolf Pack players spent nights together playing dominoes and cards and trading stories at the hotel. Sanders opened up about his past, and it resonated with his teammates, which led to the decision to wear the suicide awareness ribbon this week. It helped build the bond between himself and his new teammates.
“This means a lot to me because Bentlee is a really good teammate,” fellow Nevada defensive back JoJuan Claiborne said. “I actually roomed with him last week during the (Cal) game. He’s a really good dude. I just think overall mental health of males in particular needs more focus. A lot of times as a football player you get told to ‘Suck it up.’ This is a cool thing that we’re doing to bring mental health into the game of sports. With Bentlee, I definitely know it means a lot to him.”
Added Norvell: “I'm really happy that we can do this and recognize this organization and just bring awareness to it. So many people are struggling, and it's so sad to hear when people feel like they're alone and they're going through problems on their own. The worst thing in the world that you could think is that you're the only one going through it and that you have nobody to talk to.”
Sanders said the adversity he faced during his youth has made him a stronger person and player. Listed at 5-foot-9 and 175 pounds, Sanders is undersized for an FBS starter for a cornerback. But he’s compensated with a lack of size with his mentality. His teammates and the Wolf Pack coaches affectionately call him a “dog” for his aggressiveness and physicality on the field.
“It’s a mind thing, a mental thing,” Sanders said. “If your mental is there, you know you’re the top dog, you might not be the biggest person, but you have heart, nobody can really stop you. That’s how I go about the game.”
Sanders made his Nevada debut in a 22-17 season-opening win at Cal last week, earning the start at nickel cornerback. He had six tackles as the Wolf Pack defense locked down the Bears after allowing back-to-back touchdown drives to open the game by yielding just three points on Cal’s final three possessions.
Sanders feels like he’s found a home at Nevada, a place where he can shine on the field and be valued as a person off it. Given all he’s lost in life, he’s out to gain something feel have thought would be possible — a roster spot in the NFL.
“Life can be short, but football is my life at this point, so I just take it with a real passion and I put 110 percent into the game,” Sanders said. “I'm going to make sure I make it to the NFL. That's my goal, that’s my plan. It has been my plan since I was a little kid.”
Columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @ByChrisMurray.