SWISSVALE, Pa. — Santa Claus didn’t come to Miles Sanders’ home.
There were presents when the Eagles rookie running back and his siblings descended from the stairs of their two-story, red brick house on Christmas mornings. But the Sanders kids were under no illusion about who had purchased and placed those gifts under a tree.
Their mother had, and her pride and the forthright way she reared her children meant that they would forgo certain youthful artifices.
“I never taught them about Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny,” Marlene Sanders said. “First of all, I’d say, ‘Santa Claus is too fat to come down a chimney and we don’t even have one.’ I was never into that. I would tell them, ‘I worked very hard to buy your Christmas gifts.’”
Sanders was a single mother raising three boys in this borough outside Pittsburgh and discipline wasn’t necessarily a forte. Instead she would threaten Miles and his brothers, Brian and Kobe, with facts to keep them out of trouble and, for instance, from having their own children far too early.
“I raised them by scaring them,” Sanders said. “I taught them real facts like, for instance, you know how parents say, ‘Birds and bees have sex?’ I’d tell them that’s not true, boys and girls have sex.
“I’d say, ‘If you go out and have kids, half your check is going to belong to her.’ You have to raise them tough because there was no man in their life to give them that type of stuff.”
Miles had positive male role models growing up, but his mother wore both parental hats. Even before her divorce, Marlene was the one with the stable employment. She would later have to supplement her job with Allegheny Public Housing with other work to make ends meet.
Miles and his brothers — and briefly before she left for college, their half-sister, Ashley — hardly wanted for the necessities. Some might say that Marlene spoiled them. But only in that she helped finance their interests: specifically, Brian and Kobe in the arts, and Miles in football.
And Miles’ interest would pay dividends: The Penn State standout was drafted by the Eagles in the second round in April, and will be fighting for the top spot on the depth chart when training camp begins on Thursday.
In Marlene’s eyes, football was initially for enjoyment to keep Miles off the streets. His first coach, however, saw it differently.
“After his first year, I told his Mom, ‘He’s going to the NFL,' ” said Craig Williams. “He just had that it. Some things you can coach. Some things you can’t coach. He had that it. Even at 7, he didn’t mind working hard. He didn’t even dislike drills.”
Miles is in many ways like his mother, a Jamaica native who experienced culture shock when she emigrated to America as a teenager. He has her broad shoulders, athleticism, and work ethic.
But Miles is also a product of the manufacturing region in and around Pittsburgh — “A drinking city with a football problem,” a popular local saying Miles’ half-sister Ashley echoed. It’s an area that loves its Steelers and birthed some of the greats of the game.
He’s a product of Swissvale Flashes Youth Football and the Woodland Hills High Wolverines. Both were successful programs and Sanders benefited from their legacies. Woodland Hills’ George Novak is a local legend and his teams would yield 13 future NFL players.
Sanders’ goal was to become No. 14, although he had seen others — some even with comparable talent — fall short of their goals because they had become distracted.
“I just wanted to be different, you know?” Sanders said. “I wanted to do anything I could to be the best at anything there was, do anything I could just to stay focused.”
You have to venture downtown to really see how Pittsburgh has transformed into a technology hotbed. But the city and its outskirts are still dotted with empty steel mills and vestiges of a bygone era. Like any metropolis, it has urban decay and neighborhoods plagued by drugs and violence.
I just wanted to be different, you know? I wanted to do anything I could to be the best at anything there was, do anything I could just to stay focused.
Wilkinsburg, where the Sanderses first lived, borders some of Pittsburgh’s toughest neighborhoods. And while Swissvale’s median income is middle class, it’s only a short ride from those mean streets.
“Miles saw the streets, he saw the areas that were poor,” said Larry Whiteherse, Sanders’ high school running backs coach. “But he never followed in those footsteps.”
He was too clever, according to Whiteherse and others. And while some outsiders may question the singular focus for his future, when the Eagles selected Sanders in the second round of the draft three months ago, he had accomplished his sole objective.
“Football was Plan A, B, C, and D, which is why he’s successful,” said Williams, who coached Sanders with the Flashes. “He had a vision. He had a goal. When you have a vision and a goal, there’s no Plan B. People who have a Plan B don’t usually succeed because you’ve already said to yourself, ‘Well, if this doesn’t work out, I’ll do this.’
“He was like, ‘No, the NFL is where I’m going.’ ”
Marlene (née Johnson) had to start over when she followed her single mother from New Kingston, Jamaica, to Pittsburgh. She enrolled in Sacred Heart, an all-girls Catholic high school, and immediately encountered new reality.
“In Jamaica, we don’t see color. I didn’t know there was a difference between white or black,” Marlene said. “So when I came here it was like a big change for me, learning [the issues] between the races. I dealt with that in high school because there were only five of us [black girls] in the whole school. But it kind of toughened me up.”
She met Brian Sanders, a musician, when she was studying at nearby Robert Morris University, and in short time began caring for his infant daughter. They married and Brian Jr. came soon after, but it was seven more years before Miles was born.
While the other Sanders kids are rail thin like their father, Miles was born an athlete.
“He’s just always been very built,” Ashley said. “I have this picture I took when he was 2 years old, and I recently took it out, and he was cut.”
Said Marlene: “Coach Craig always says he got my shoulders."
Marlene ran the sprints in high school and would joke to her kids that her father, who she said she has never met, was probably Jamaican track star Usain Bolt. Brian Jr. was also a quick running back, but Miles’ combination of speed and size made him a natural.
Miles was the mischievous middle child, always getting into trouble for breaking things or running off. When he was 2, Ashley was supposed to watch him during her cheerleading practice, but he disappeared.
“I’m panicking. I’m running around the whole field trying to look for him. And when I actually find him, he’s on the field with Brian’s teammates running with the football,” Ashley said. “You know how toddlers are, they’re not that fast but you can’t catch them. So here’s this 2-year-old in diapers dodging everyone.”
In Brian’s telling, Miles put his helmet on and started tackling his teammates.
Kobe arrived two years after Miles, but their parents split soon after. It was a difficult time, according to Ashley, but Marlene never wavered and continued to raise her as one of her own.
“I don’t even consider her my stepmom. She’s my mom,” Ashley said. “There’s no other way to put it.”
Marlene had been working for public housing as a counselor before the divorce, but the commute downtown became too demanding, and when a field job as a property manager opened up, she jumped at the chance.
There was more flexibility, but Marlene would also pick up odd jobs like telemarketing, and Ashley and eventually Brian would often be responsible for watching the younger ones. They played street ball outside their home on Columbia Avenue, at the base of a steep hill, but they never ventured far, per Marlene’s orders.
After Ashley left for North Carolina A&T, it was just the four of them. Marlene’s staple Jamaican dinners, like curry and jerk chicken, became ever more frequent.
Brian Sr. started another family, according to Marlene, and his contact with his sons since has been minimal. She wasn’t actively searching for father figures, but Williams, Miles’ first football coach, became a mentor.
“They just clicked and he’s a good guy,” Marlene said of Williams. “He raised his family well. He was a positive influence. He wasn’t the drinking, weed-smoking type. So I kept him in our life.”
Williams, who spent 20 years in the Navy, brought the discipline of his military training to coaching. If you were late, you did bear crawls. If you cursed, you did push-ups. If you didn’t practice, you didn’t play.
“I believed in discipline over anything, even X’s and O’s,” Williams said. “All my years of coaching kids knew that you come to practice on time. If you’re not early, you’re late. Even through high school — no cussing. I don’t want to hear the N-word.”
Man among boys
Marlene moved her family from Wilkinsburg to Swissvale, in part to get them into the Woodland Hills School District. She initially knew little about football, but when Williams started Miles on the offensive line as a 7-year old, she called the coach and asked if he would change him to running back.
“I think I noticed how all the running backs were getting all the love,” Marlene said. “They were like the star.”
Williams didn’t move him over at first.
“I could see that he could run. He hadn’t been practicing and you could tell,” he said. “He didn’t like to hit the hole. It would be big enough to fit a Mack truck through and as soon as he got to the line he would bounce it outside.”
But the next year, Miles was in the backfield. His jersey number changed from No. 98 to No. 1. A star was born.
“That’s when and that’s where,” Marlene said, pointing to a now-overgrown football field, “he became ‘Boobie.’ ”
Miles didn’t pick up the nickname — given to him by an assistant coach because of his physical similarities to the actor who played Boobie Miles in the movie Friday Night Lights — until high school. But he first became a phenom with the Flashes.
As an eighth grader, Miles was so good, he was getting called up to the Woodland Hills freshman team. But he wanted to stay back and play one more year with the youth team.
“He wanted to stay because he was the best on the field. But his mom had me talk to him,” Williams said. “I said, ‘You should be the best. You’re a man amongst boys in this game. But you’re not going to learn anything. You’re going to stay stagnant. You need to play ninth-grade ball so you can play and get ready for varsity.’ ”
Playing varsity for a perennial winner was the goal. Woodland Hills won almost from the start despite its challenges.
In 1981, a federal court order aimed at desegregation created the Woodland Hills School District. It blended 12 municipalities and took three high schools and merged them into one. The communities were racially and economically diverse.
A legal battle persisted for years, and many remain critical of the ruling. Some point to recent racially charged incidents as proof of its failure. But Woodland Hills High is still chugging along as the student body has gone from predominantly white to black and enrollment has declined.
Novak, the legendary head coach, was there from the start. He was lured away from Steel Valley to lead the Wolverines football team and be athletic director.
“The first year, everybody said it wasn’t going to work,” he said. “The band had over 300 kids in it. There were 90 cheerleaders. And the football team started winning and it brought all the communities together. After that season they didn’t talk about the merger, they talked about Woodland Hills, and we became a school.”
Pittsburgh-area high school football is deep, but Novak quickly built a winner. Woodland Hills won five WPIAL titles and finished state runner-up three times during his 30 years. By the time Miles came around, Novak and Whiteherse had coached their share of stud running backs.
But Sanders nearly beat out the incumbent starter in ninth grade. And when the senior transferred just a week before the season, Sanders got the nod before the opener against powerhouse Upper St. Clair, becoming only the second freshman running back in school history to start in his first varsity game.
“That Wednesday we tell Miles, ‘You’re starting and, oh, yeah, against one of the top programs around here,' ” Novak said. “He was fine. He worked hard. But we had a freshman guard and it was a raw team.”
Sanders said he finished with 17 carries for 6 yards.
“I was like, ‘I don’t know if this sport’s for me,’” he said. “I was pretty frustrated, but I was also eager to get better.”
He did and rushed for 641 yards and 12 scores that season. But he broke out as a sophomore, and when he faced Upper St. Clair again, he scored three touchdowns on his first four carries.
Sanders had so much success over the next three years that he often didn’t play into the second half. He averaged 11.4 yards in his last two seasons.
Toward the future
The Sanders family had moved to Forrest Hills, about a mile from the high school, by this time. But Marlene continued to drive Miles in the mornings and pick him up after practices at “The Wolverena,” Woodland Hills’ 12,500-seat stadium, where she would serve pasta meals before Friday night games.
Novak retired two years ago, but he still has the keys to the stadium, and when players showed up for a recent offseason workout they hugged the former coach. The walls outside the home locker room are lined with photos of former Wolverines, and Novak made sure to point out those would go onto the NFL.
There was Hall of Famer Jason Taylor. Future Hall of Famer Rob Gronkowski. Steve Breaston. Sanders worked out with Breaston when he would return, walked by those pictures nearly every day, and used them as inspiration.
“He saw it every day,” Whiteherse said. “He saw his goals and his future ahead of him.”
But it was also the many others who didn’t take advantage of their talent or got sidetracked for various reasons who motivated Sanders. His cousin, Josh Powell, was a promising running back at Woodland Hills before him, but he suffered a head-on collision and a fear of future injury kept him from playing again.
Novak recalled players who were of equal talent, but they lacked Sanders’ ability to avoid trouble. He was a coach’s dream in many respects.
“When you spoke to him it was always, ‘No, sir. Yes, sir,’ ” Novak said.
As Sanders’ prospects grew, football and school became his primary responsibilities. Between the coaching and the national camps he was being invited to, he lasted just one week working at Sbarro in the mall.
“That was his only job,” Marlene said with a laugh. “He was like, ‘I can’t do this.’ He couldn’t do it because of his schedule. Football was so demanding. As soon as any place asked him his schedule, he never got the call back.”
Getting the necessary grades for college wasn’t an obstacle. It’s one reason Penn State, where Sanders ended up, and many other schools offered him scholarships as early as his sophomore year.
“It wasn’t a fight with him,” said Erin Wall, Sanders’ 10th-grade English teacher.
He wasn’t a sit-in-the-back-of-the-room student, nor was he a front-of-the-room one either.
“He’d just pull up a chair and sit next to me, for extra help and attention,” Wall said, “or just to mess with me.”
Sanders returns regularly to visit Wall and his former coaches. In February, he cut a $1,000 check for the football program. A mural of Woodland Hills’ NFL products had recently been put up in the athletic department meeting room. New football coach Tim Bostard, standing next to a bag of cleats Sanders donated, pointed to the space reserved for the new Eagle.
It’s easy now, but most from Sanders’ hometown said they weren’t surprised by his exploits last year in State College. When Woodland Hills lost in the district semifinals in his final high school game, Sanders sat alone crying when Whiteherse said he felt compelled to pull him aside.
“I said, ‘Good things are yet to come. Remember that.’ And he was like, ‘Coach, you’re right. They’re yet to come,’ ” Whiteherse said. “He stopped crying, the frustration was over, and he was looking toward the future. He understood that it was in many ways just the beginning for him. That’s how smart Miles is.”
He was ready. He had been prepared. His mother made sure.
“When people say he’s a mama’s boy, he is because he’s loved, but it’s not because I never taught him how to be a man,” she said. “I taught him right from wrong, good from bad, the real stuff.”
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