But he did, and he’s better off for it.
The 19-year-old’s path to Washington began three years ago, just before his freshman year of high school. What started as a temporary stay with his father, Harold Sanders Sr., turned into a permanent move and a new home – albeit with another family, the Witts.
“It was a new city, a new start, a new school,” Sanders said. “I knew I had to make a change. It’s been great. (The Witts) felt I should be here, and it turned out well.”
Karen and Roy Witt have taken Sanders as one of their own after he befriended their son, Jonathon. Sanders is a running back and two-way player who has mostly played defense for River Ridge since injuring his shoulder, and Jonathon Witt is a tight end.
No matter where or who the Hawks are playing, you’ll find the Witts cheering on their boys.
“I’m a crazy football mom,” Karen Witt said.
HARD LIFE IN EAST ST. LOUIS
Sanders, who has had the nickname P. Wee since he was an infant, grew up in the rough-and-tumble East St. Louis, Ill., which sits in Illinois, directly across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Mo.
At 14, he became a member of a gang that sold drugs, broke into vehicles and roughed up those wearing the wrong color of clothing. Skipping school was frequent. He admits he wasn’t the greatest student; homework took a back seat on most school nights.
His left ear has a large scar from when another teen hit him over the head with a pipe during a fight.
“I knew I was doing bad things,” Sanders said.
In the summer of 2007, Sanders visited his father in Lacey. Soon after, he met Jonathon Witt in the River Ridge weight room, where Witt was working out with the football team.
A friendship was forged, and Sanders was on his way to starting a new life.
His father, who is serving time in the Thurston County Corrections Facility, was arrested that fall, leaving Sanders to live with his dad’s girlfriend, a woman he barely knew.
The situation did not last long. She dropped him off at his uncle’s house in Lakewood in November. Just a freshman, he was at a crossroads in life. He could go back to East St. Louis or find somewhere else to live.
That’s when the Witts offered him a place to live.
“Jonathon wanted to know if (Sanders) could come stay with us if he needed to,” Karen Witt said. “We prayed about it.”
‘BLESSING IN OUR HOUSEHOLD’
With the Witts, Sanders enjoys having his own bedroom and bathroom. Chores – and discipline – are handed out, and his relationship with Jonathon is like any between siblings.
“Having him is like having another brother around,” Jonathon Witt said. “They treat him the same way they treat me.”
Schoolwork comes first in the Witt household. Sanders also attends church at the Tacoma Christian Center with the Witts, and regularly reads the Bible. During the holiday season, he volunteers to serve meals and hands out Christmas presents.
“He’s been a blessing in our household it’s amazing,” Karen Witt said.
Now a senior, Sanders has enjoyed good health and his best season. He’s become a player who leads by example with his play on the field, coach Steve Schultz said.
It’s quite a change from the person Schultz met in the summer of 2007 – that quiet kid he saw in the weight room, sitting on a stationary bike, wanting to play football.
“It’s been a lot of direction from (the Witts’) end of it, and extra support on our end,” Schultz said. “A lot of the credit goes to P. Wee.”
Schultz saw potential in Sanders in 2008. Sanders ran for over 200 yards and scored four touchdowns in a junior varsity game against Centralia.
“Everything clicked,” Schultz said, “and I knew he was going to be a solid player for us.”
With a 5-3 record and a game tonight against Centralia, River Ridge must win and get help to keep its playoff hopes alive.
Sanders, who has rushed for over 300 yards, is now mostly playing defense after separating his shoulder against Tumwater. He has 29 tackles, including 15 solo, a forced fumble and an interception.
“It feels great,” P. Wee said. “You get a lot of comments about the football team and more comments in the (school) hallways.”
ON THE RIGHT PATH
Sanders has undergone many changes in three years.
He doesn’t have any contact with his incarcerated father, and he prefers it that way. His mother, who has come to visit, has insisted he stay put.
Sanders will be the first among three older siblings in his family to graduate from high school, something that might not have happened had he remained in East St. Louis. He said he only keeps in touch with one friend from back home.
“The stuff I’m going through right now, and what they’re teaching me, is so I can have the same mentality to do things right and stay focused,” Sanders said. “It’s really changed me a lot.”
College is a possibility. He has flourished in his time with the Witts, and they’ve helped him prepare for the next stage of his life.
Whatever that is, the Witts will be there providing support and a home.
“He’s a part of our family forever,” Jonathon Witt said.
Meg Wochnick: 360-754-5473 firstname.lastname@example.org