Chip Towers | Atlanta Journal-Constitution
ATHENS — Jasper Sanks finally became a pro. It just wasn’t in the arena in which he expected.
Sanks’ game used to be football. Nowadays, it is oil. Specifically, oil drilling. He’s a junior engineer handling explosives for Pro Oil Fields in Houston. In his words, he “blows up stuff” for a living.
He’s married with a couple of kids and has a nice house. He’s a happy, happy man.
But 13 short years ago, Sanks was a very unhappy man. He had come to the University of Georgia from Columbus as one of the top running back prospects in America. He left in 2001, shamed and disillusioned.
Sanks was kicked off the team for violating the Bulldogs’ now-infamous, three-strikes drug policy. His unceremonious ouster came at the hands of coach Mark Richt with two games left in Sanks’ senior season. As a result of that and a less-than-stellar college career, Sanks was not drafted nor did he even have a free-agent tryout with an NFL team.
It’s a slight that still haunts Sanks to this day.
“I’m not pointing the finger because I take responsibility,” Sanks said in a recent phone interview from his home in Richland, Texas. “But I do know this: There’s no way possible that not a single NFL team, after the pro day that I had, is not going to give a 6-1, 225-pound tailback from the University of Georgia at least a shot on the practice field. It’s just a mystery.”
Sanks believes certain Georgia coaches blackballed him with NFL scouts in the days leading to the 2002 draft. More likely, it was the accumulation of on- and off-field failures that he compiled during his four years in Athens that cemented his fate.
In any case, Sanks’ rise and fall as a football player — and the triumphant reconstruction project he executed to become an upstanding citizen — is the subject of an upcoming documentary. Will Santana, a young Columbus movie critic and start-up filmmaker, approached Sanks earlier this year about sharing his story. With Sanks’ blessing — and some of his money — Santana is in the process of conducting interviews and gathering archival footage for the movie. They’re hoping for an October or November release.
The working title is a pretty good one: “Inches Away.”
That heading provides the perfect metaphor for Sanks’ football story. It embodies both the fact that Sanks came tantalizingly close to fulfilling his lifelong dream of becoming an NFL player while also referencing the play that ultimately defined his career at UGA: the fumble against Georgia Tech in 1999.
Or as Sanks calls it, “the fumble that wasn’t.”
A loose ball ‘that changed a lot of lives’
Sanks was the Georgia tailback who carried the ball with nine seconds remaining in the controversial game on Nov. 27 that year at Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium. With the score tied at 48-48, he took a handoff from quarterback Quincy Carter and plunged into the line at right guard. The ball came loose, Tech recovered inside the 1-yard line and the Yellow Jackets went on to win 51-48 in overtime.
Never mind that subsequent replays would later show that Sanks’ knee was down, and the play should not have been ruled a fumble. The SEC officiating crew that called the game was suspended the next week and fined. But a Georgia loss to Tech went into the books for a second consecutive year, and Sanks’ legacy as a Bulldog was cast.
“That play is like a symbol for my career,” Sanks says with a sigh. “I was labeled as having a fumbling problem based on that one play, and I only fumbled three times in my whole career. It was devastating. I still can’t believe they missed it.”
Said Jim Donnan, Sanks’ coach at the time: “That play definitely changed a lot of lives, I can promise you that.”
It did. Two years later, neither Sanks nor Donnan was at Georgia.
That is not to say that Sanks doesn’t have a sense of humor about it. Among the minutiae involved to pull together a documentary film is the work to procure video footage of plays made all those years ago from the entities that still own the rights. Santana managed to raise about $3,200 through private donations to obtain Sanks’ career highlights — and there were some — from the SEC.
But then they ran into a problem. The SEC didn’t have footage of the infamous play against Tech. That, they learned, was owned by the ACC, and they wanted $3,000 for it.
“Three-grand, and all we needed was that one play,” Sanks said with a laugh. “You’d think it’d be free for me!”
Sanks has since acquired the footage for free from a local Columbus TV station, which had him in for a recent interview. He had a mini-promotional tour in the city of his childhood a couple of weeks ago.
But whether Sanks fumbled in 1999 is not why he agreed help make a documentary of his life. He said he has a more important message to deliver.
The star that became a 250-pound enigma
Sanks believes there are lessons to be gained from his journey. He sees his life as a cautionary tale for highly touted recruiting prospects who find themselves revered at a young age, feeling entitled and constantly tempted into making bad choices. He would like to show them the path not to follow.
“I’m not afraid to use my situation as an example,” he said.
Sanks believes there are some social and economic pressures that black males from depressed areas face when they’re identified as elite athletes at a young age, as he was. He spoke of a “drug culture” that exists in such places and that those involved wield power and influence over the community. Usually frustrated former jocks themselves, these ne’er-do-wells seek to gain favor and then control over young prodigies with gifts of drugs and money.
“You’re around it every day,” Sanks said. “I started (smoking marijuana) when I was in junior high and did it all the way through high school. I thought it was normal. There wasn’t any drug-testing in high school.”
But there was at Georgia, and that ultimately proved to be Sanks’ undoing in Athens — once he got there.
One of Sanks’ early foibles was in failing to attain freshman eligibility at Georgia. Recruited to UGA by Donnan and his staff over Jamal Lewis of Douglass High (who ended up at Tennessee), Sanks had to attend a prep school in Virginia (Fork Union Military Academy) to meet entrance requirements. Consequently, he arrived in the late spring of 1998 rather than the early summer of ’97.
“That hurt him,” Donnan said. “Any time a guy has to go that route, that can be tough. … When he came in, he wasn’t the player that he was coming out of high school, and he admitted that.”
Sanks showed up overweight and over-hyped. He was weighed nearly 250 pounds, 25 over his playing weight.
“He was friendly in the locker room, got along with just about anybody,” former teammate Jon Stinchcomb recalled. “But, candidly, on the field we didn’t get to witness the special talents that had garnered such high praise and got him there.”
Sanks fought a weight problem the rest of his college career, as well as competition from a parade of talented tailbacks the Bulldogs brought in every year. Among the players with whom he battled for playing time were Olandis Gary, Patrick Pass, Verron Haynes and Musa Smith, all of whom would play in the NFL.
Three-strike code: ‘That’s quitting on a guy’
Meanwhile, the bad habits Sanks formed in Columbus were ever-present. He first ran afoul of UGA’s marijuana-use policy under Donnan, then received a third strike with a positive test late in his senior season under Richt. He missed a final shot at redemption against Tech, the last regular-season game against Houston and a bowl game against Boston College in Memphis.
“We went by the policy; I guess we can leave it at that,” Richt said. “I liked Jasper. You know, he was a guy trying to find his way. He was trying to win a job, trying to get playing time, trying to learn a new system. I didn’t have any problem with him on the field as far as effort and that kind of thing. But when you hit strike three, there’s really nothing I can do.”
Georgia fans have seen that policy at work a lot over the years. Most recently, starting safety Josh Harvey-Clemons was dismissed in February for what sources confirmed to be a third violation of the marijuana-use code. He transferred to Louisville.
Sanks is still at odds with UGA’s three-strike conduct code. He said he falls more in line with the disciplinary philosophy that Alabama coach Nick Saban espoused during SEC Media Days in July.
Saban said he doesn’t dismiss players because “there’s not one player since I’ve been a head coach that I kicked off the team that ever went anywhere and amounted to anything and accomplished anything, playing or academically. That’s not always the answer. Discipline is not punishment. Punishment is only effective when it can help change somebody’s behavior.”
Sanks thinks it’s wrong to boot players with drug and alcohol issues.
“To me, that’s quitting on a guy,” he said. “It’s one thing if you’ve got a guy breaking into things. But the drugs thing, that’s an addiction, that’s a problem. It’s a precondition. It’s not a problem that just occurred in college. Drugs are usually something that started before college, and it’s usually hereditary.”
A journey from rental cars to oil fields
Sanks believes only “the grace of God” kept him from heading down a destructive path after he was jettisoned from Georgia. “Much good has come of me, but that’s rare though,” he said. “If you go back and look at some guys who’ve had similar situations to mine, they end up in jail or dead.”
Asked how he managed a different fate, Sanks said: “I just said to myself, ‘I blew my chance to play professional football over this; I’m not going to to blow my life for it.’ That’s when I said, ‘It’s time to man up.'”
Sanks received a bachelor of science degree in management from the University of Phoenix in 2006. He was managing an Enterprise Rent-A-Car store in Houston soon after when a regular customer with a corporate account asked if Sanks might be interested in working in the oil business. He interviewed a week later and was hired on the spot.
Having worked his way up from entry level, Sanks is training to become an engineer with Pro Oil Fields. He works 14-days-on/14-days-off shifts in southwest Texas preparing wells for production. When he’s off, he said he hangs at the house with wife, the former Kristine Keese, a UGA volleyball player, and their daughters Savanna (3) and Kayla (1).
“I have no hard feelings for the University of Georgia, for Mark Richt, for anybody,” Sanks said. “I love my Dogs. No, I didn’t make it to the (NFL). But I feel in the end I still won. I’m a family man. I’m successful in my craft. I’m so blessed. If I could rewind time and they said you can play in the NFL or have the life you have now, I wouldn’t trade it.
“Now I just feel like I need to get it out there. That’s why I want to do this documentary. I want guys to see the reality of this, to not take things for granted, to feel like you’re untouchable. I want to give back. If I could make a difference for even one or two guys in high school or college, it’d be worth it.”