MOSCOW, Idaho – As he headed off the field after practice to a team meeting Thursday, with his father sitting in the Kibbie Dome stands watching, Idaho senior running back Isaiah Saunders must have been consumed by the universal fear – a parent on the loose telling stories about him.
The stories ranged from the fact he was an easy child to raise; to tales about youth sports; to expressions of pride in Saunders’ parenting and academic abilities; to recounting the saga of a tour of the country’s cardiac physicians to ascertain from the Mayo Clinic that a suspected heart condition that might have ended Saunders’ Vandals career as a 2,000-yard rusher was unfounded.
The tales spread beyond the roughly two decades that comprise Isaiah Saunders’ life, because Walt Saunders also has some history with the University of Idaho and the Kibbie Dome.
From 1991-93, he was a reliable wide receiver in a career that was overshadowed by UI Hall of Famers Kasey Dunn and Yo Murphy. More interesting is his reflection that as a kid coming from rough circumstances but ready to grow up, he was fortunate enough to find an institution prepared to help him do so. John L. Smith was Idaho’s coach at the time.
“I told John L. to his face – I truly believe he was my second dad,” Walt said. “Idaho taught me things I didn’t know I was learning. After I graduated from here, a year later I was a police officer. A year-and-a-half later, I bought my first house.
“I did everything I could to resist it, and he’ll tell you that. But I got more than I thought I did.”
His recollections about life as a Vandals player 25 years ago are a compelling endorsement for playing football at a time when the game’s physical toll is calling it into sharp question.
“It’s nice to come back, to see, hear and smell things that are all too familiar to me,” Walt said.
The memories include game anecdotes, but those are overshadowed by recollections of unassuming day-to-day events that turn a group of players into teammates and lifelong friends.
The Kibbie Dome has been remodeled considerably since Walt last played there.
“They have the same benches,” he said, looking around at the yellow plastic seats surrounding him. “I remember because of how often I was in trouble and had to run them.”
During spring ball in 1992, he and a teammate, Ron White, ignored an order to the players not to go out on the town.
“We went to a little, out-of-the-way place in Pullman,” he said.
It wasn’t unknown to Vandals assistant Ronnie Lee, who had played for Washington State. The Idaho players ran into Lee while Walt had a pitcher of beer in his hand.
“What could I do?” Walt asked. “I told him, ‘Coach Lee, you want a drink?’ ”
Lee took him up on it, he said, but the next day Saunders and White were running stairs.
Walt returned to Moscow from Northern California this week for Isaiah’s Senior Day when the Vandals play Montana on Saturday .
He came partly because he decided early in life he was going to be a father involved with his four children. Partly, though, it may be because on his own Senior Day he walked onto the Kibbie Dome turf alone.
“I had no father, and my mother was not able to make it,” Walt said. “I always promised myself whatever it is my children were doing, I would be there.”
After the team meeting, Isaiah returned and tried to limit the damage his dad could do to his personal reputation as an adult. But he also said he remembers hearing the Senior Night story, and he remembers a father who worked at night as a police officer and corrections official so he could attend every one of his kids’ Pop Warner, basketball and softball games.
“If he was tired, I never knew,” Isaiah said. “Whatever sport I decided to play, he trained me.”
Despite his easygoing nature, Isaiah made an admission.
“When I was in high school, it sucked working out with him,” Isaiah said. “I was a teenager and thought I knew everything.”
Complaints about Moscow winters and how different they are from weather in their Northern California home are anecdotes Walt and Isaiah share.
When an uncertain sound in a stethoscope during a routine physical during Isaiah’s freshman year sent them to cardiac specialists around the country, they ended up at the Mayo Clinic, in Rochester, Minnesota. Isaiah was pronounced healthy and cleared to play football, but it was winter, and 56 degrees below zero.
“I must really love you,” Walt told Isaiah.
Walt also disclosed the origin of his son’s name. While at Idaho, he was in an advanced statistics class with the wife of former Vandals linebacker Ernest Sanders, who had become a police officer in Pullman. Their young son, Isaiah, often accompanies his mother to class.
“He and I struck up a great friendship,” Walt said of young Sanders. “We became great buddies.”
When their third child was born, Walt and Yolanda Saunders named him Isaiah.
“Everybody thought it was Isaiah from the Bible,” Walt said. “I’ll take that, but yeah, well, actually it was Isaiah from Pullman.”
Having a father who played football helped inoculate Isaiah from the fickleness of fans, especially their enduring love for backups. Walt played with Idaho’s all-time leading quarterback, Doug Nussmeier, the 1993 Walter Payton Award winner as the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision player of the year. Still, there were fans who were convinced the Vandals were playing the wrong guy, Walt said.
Walt’s time in Moscow also enabled him to give Isaiah a valuable insight about the culture.
“I told him how nice the majority of people are here,” he said. “That took me completely off guard.”
His own life experience suggested smiling first in a personal exchange was a sign of weakness. He didn’t want his son to take that attitude to Idaho.
“There are going to be people staring you in the eye, smiling and saying, ‘Hi,’ he told Isaiah. “The majority of people here are so naturally nice.”
Walt also had some advice for Isaiah about playing Montana. In a game against the Grizzlies, Walt was knocked briefly unconscious on the first play.
His head buzzing, he made it to the sidelines and managed to hide his condition from trainers and coaches until the cobwebs cleared after the first series. He played the rest of the game, until he caught a screen pass late in the fourth quarter. A teammate missed a block.
“The defensive back destroyed me,” Walt said. “I had two concussions in the same game. I told Isaiah, ‘Those guys will hit you.’ ”
Isaiah said he hadn’t heard that story.
“I probably omitted it,” Walt said. “But given the fact you’re playing them, I thought it was something you need to know.”
In December, Isaiah will graduate with a master’s in public administration. He and his fiancée, Brianna Smathers, have a 6-month-old son, Ezekial.
Both events please Walt immensely, but Isaiah said he’s leery about letting his son play football.
“Grandpa can’t be the only one in the family with a Big Sky Championship,” Walt said.
Three Saunders generations will be on the field for Senior Night, a culmination of Isaiah’s athletic and academic careers, and a nod to his new family.
From his experience as a player, Walt said he impressed upon Isaiah that he should play every play as though it is his last. As a parent, he should not just raise his children, but enjoy them.
“That’s how I know he’s going to be a great dad,” Walt said . “He’s having fun with it. Enjoying it.”
Of course, he has a role model for that.
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