ATHENS -- Dominick Sanders has many motivations.
He yearns for the father he barely knew. He feels for his brother since he’s no longer able to play football. He remembers what it was like to be doubted as an athlete coming out of high school at Tucker.
Sanders has done his part to excel with everything he has been asked of since arriving at Georgia. Five games into his sophomore season, the starting safety said he’s coming into his own with what the Bulldogs want to do defensively.
“I feel I’m more comfortable than I was last year as a freshman,” Sanders said. “A lot of stuff is easier than it was. Playing hard and having that high work ethic has been my main thing this year.”
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It hasn’t always been easy for Sanders, who carried a heavy burden on his shoulders as a youth. How he has grown through the years has helped shape him into who he is today.
And what motivates Sanders on Saturdays has certainly helped out his teammates.
“He’s very passionate about the game,” junior defensive back Quincy Mauger said. “He’s a competitor. I love playing beside him. He definitely makes the players beside him better by the way he competes.”
THE FATHER HE NEVER QUITE KNEW
Sanders said he was only 6 years old when he stepped off of the school bus to learn the news from his mother.
His father, Johnny Morris, was found dead in a bathroom. Morris’ death was drug-related, which devastated Sanders. It forced Sanders to grow up quickly as he felt he needed to help his mother and siblings however possible.
“After that, it had me thinking that I’m going to have to step up and be the man of the household,” Sanders said.
Sanders still thinks about what could have been with his biological father.
He never received any at-home coaching. He never got to look into the stands to see his father’s reaction after making a big play.
One of the main reasons Sanders plays the game is for the father he never truly knew.
“Throughout the week I just think about him,” Sanders said. “I picture him watching over me. That just gets my blood going. I just tell myself every game I’m going to execute, and I’m going to do it for him.”
Sanders is usually reserved and quiet. When Sanders opened up to reporters about his father, it was news to Georgia head coach Mark Richt.
It gave Richt some insight as to why Sanders plays the game with so much passion.
“I learned a little bit more about him, what motivates him and what makes him tick,” Richt said. “He is a very serious guy, a very determined guy. He showed up on a mission, and you see it -- a mission to be mature, be responsible, be the guy coaches can count on, do everything in his power to play. Why he does that, I guess we learned a little bit more about that.”
PLAYING FOR HIS BROTHER
Sanders’ older brother, Chris Sanders, was once a promising recruit out of Tucker. He earned a scholarship to Georgia in 2011 but was dismissed a year later after violating team rules. It was alleged Chris was involved in the theft of a teammate’s belongings, alongside Nick Marshall and Sanford Seay. All three players were kicked off the team.
In 2014, Chris ended up at Baylor following junior college stints at GMC and Eastern Arizona College. When it seemed Chris was finally going to live his dream, a shoulder injury cut it short. Chris is no longer playing football.
He’s still at Baylor working on his master’s degree.
“He’s another one I think about,” Dominick said. “Every night I have on Fridays, he talks to me and says he sees himself in me; play by play he thinks of himself as if he’s in my shoes. And I think to myself, ‘I wish my brother was playing, too.’ It’s another thing that motivates me.”
When Dominick was in high school, he worked at Matthews Cafeteria in Tucker to help out his family. He would balance maintaining his grades in the classroom, being on time for football practice and making sure he was reliable at work. Dominick used the job to help his family with some extra money.
With Chris in college, he would do the same, sending home money whenever he could.
“We set goals,” Dominick said. “Working hard, doing anything we can to feed my little sister and my mother.”
PROVING THEM WRONG
Sanders’ top two motivators are family related. The third involves the perception of him was out of high school.
“I had people telling me I was never going to play,” Sanders said. “The rankings, the stars, they kind of bumped into that little boat of, ‘He isn’t going to play; he’s a little two-star.’ ... I had to show them wrong. It never brought me down. I had to keep my head straight. It boosted me up to keep going hard at what I was doing.”
Sanders might not have been considered a blue-chipper, but he did hold plenty of offers, including Georgia Tech, Auburn and Missouri. He said his first SEC offer was Arkansas.
Georgia didn’t get on him until Jeremy Pruitt became the program’s defensive coordinator in January of 2014. When Pruitt arrived, Sanders’ name was on Georgia’s recruiting board but behind other defensive backs. Pruitt changed that and reached out to Sanders shortly after.
The rest, as Sanders said, “fell into place.”
“He had nine interceptions his senior year in high school,” Pruitt said. “He tackled well. He played high school quarterback. I liked the way he played the game. He was a very instinctive guy. He had good toughness about him.”
Sanders earned early playing time and has started every game since he’s been on Georgia’s campus. Motivated to play this game, it’s easy to see why Sanders has been successful so far.
“I have that mentality of working hard, not quitting on anything,” Sanders said.