UNION MILLS — As Devin Saunders trudged off the cold field at West Central last Friday night, the South Central sophomore found his mom amid the crowd of Satellites fans gathered by the gate in front of the locker room.
"She came up, I gave her a hug, she said I did a good job," Saunders said. "I almost started to cry. It was like tears of joy that I got to play. It was great."
The wait, nine weeks in length, was tough, but it was absolutely worth it.
"The feedback was good," Saunders said. "Even during the game, everybody was helping me. I always look at it from the team aspect. I don't look at myself. When I got to play, I gave it my best. We did good as a team. I did my role as a lineman to blow up that line."
A transfer from LaCrosse, Saunders had an 'F' in Spanish last spring, and the grade carried over with him to S.C. Athletics Director John Haggard tried to get his eligibility restored, to no avail.
"I love the team, I wanted to be out there and play," Saunders said. "It was really tough. It was really sad sometimes."
Coach Buzz Schoff first heard of Saunders back in the summer when Haggard told him.
"You're usually skeptical of transfers, especially kids who come from a school that doesn't have football," Schoff said. "I really didn't know what to expect. I found out he had played a little bit. He came out and he wasn't bad at all."
Back in about fourth grade, Saunders played South Central Pop Warner.
"When I was a little kid, I was like, 'If I don't get the ball, I'm done,'" he said. "I didn't understand the goal of football."
A nomadic youth included three years at Wanatah Elementary and a year in Valpo. During seventh grade, Saunders lived with relatives in Alaska, where he also played football. He had hoped to continue playing at South Central when he returned to La Porte County for eighth grade, but wound up at LaCrosse.
"I really wanted to come here, it just didn't work out," he said. "I was invited to the team group chat. I wasn't fully into football yet, so people were saying, 'Who's this person?' I'm like, 'I'm coming this year.' They were so pumped to see when I pulled up on the scooter."
Pulling up to the field on his sister's scooter during the summer, Saunders earned the moniker "Night Stalker," after the motorcycle club in La Porte.
"Instantly, everybody on the team likes him," Schoff said. "He's yelling and screaming all the time, getting everybody excited."
Despite the academic issue, Saunders was so happy just to be there that he fully invested in the football team even though he wasn't able to play on Friday nights.
"He was OK with that," Schoff said. "He was able to practice, so if we needed a guy at practice, he'd jump in and say, 'I'll do it.' At Hanover Central, a kid left his helmet at home and he gave him his. I said, 'He didn't have to do that,' but he said, 'He's playing, I'm not, I want him to have it.' He's been a really good teammate."
As much as Saunders wanted to play, he never saw the first nine weeks as a sacrifice.
"Every day, I came to practice and gave it my all," he said. "My mentality is to bring up teammates. I was just glad I got to come here, practice with my teammates and go to the games."
Then comes last Friday. Not only does Saunders make his debut, he is put into the starting lineup at defensive tackle, all 5-foot-9, 170 pounds of him.
"I tell him, 'OK, you're starting,' and you could see a switch turn. He was a little more zoned in," Schoff said. "He said, 'OK, I'll do whatever you tell me to do.' If he's not worried about (his size), I'm not worried about it. He came up to me (Tuesday), 'So what should I do?' I told him, 'His responsibility is to be you. Do what you do every day out here and you'll be fine.' He played really well, which is why he's playing again."
The task will be much larger, literally and figuratively, tonight when SC takes on Culver, featuring a power running game behind a huge offensive line.
"It's going to be a big challenge. I'm trying to build up my legs," Saunders said. "When we saw them the first time, I told the team we can actually take that game and use it for this one. Maybe if we get a good game going at the start, we can try to keep it going. All the practices I did, when I didn't get to play up until last week, I took them and put them into that game. Now I'm putting this week's practices into this game. When I'm on that line and they snap the ball, I'm going to give it my full 100 percent, even if the guy's 100 pounds bigger than me."