Some successful athletes look and act like they were born to play ball almost as soon
as they crawl from the cradle. Others don’t start blossoming until grade school or junior
high or even high school. These are affectionately known as “late bloomers." Dean Sanders
was a self-confessed late bloomer.
An unheralded young football player as a freshman lineman at Butler High School in
the mid-1980s, Sanders gradually developed into a solid All-City player as a senior, and
later morphed into a 6-foot-5, 250-pound intimidator in college at the University of North
Alabama. “For some kids, it takes a while for the light to come on," says Sanders. “I guess
I was one of those kids."
By his senior year at Butler, Sanders had progressed to the point where he was voted
All-City by the city coaches. “I heard later that Coach (Paul) Glover at Huntsville High had
a lot to do with that," said Sanders. “I had a good game against Huntsville, and he must’ve
After high school, Sanders received scholarship offers from UNA and Middle Tennessee.
He picked UNA, where he became a 3-time All-Gulf South Conference lineman for head
coach Wayne Grubb. “The coaches did a good job by bringing me along gradually," Sanders
said. “They even asked me if it would hurt my feelings to be redshirted my freshman year.
It didn’t. By my sophomore year, they were saying, ‘OK, it’s time to start showing what
you’ve got.’ " Beginning in 1982, the big kid from Butler turned into the anchor of the Lions’
defensive line. His favorite moment came in 1983 when he scored his first and only career
touchdown in a game against Troy. “Our defensive end blocked a pass, it fell right into my
hands, and I had to run about 35 yards to the end zone," recalled Sanders. As a senior
in 1984, he was voted team captain, was named was UNA’s Most Valuable Defensive
lineman, and was also named honorable mention All-American. His career statistics in
college include 132 tackles, three recovered fumbles, two intercepted passes – and one memorable touchdown. At the close
of the 1980s, he was named to UNA’s All-Decade Team by the Florence Times-Daily.
Following his senior season, the New England Patriots invited Sanders to try out as a free agent in 1985. “I knew it was
a long shot because they had drafted five defensive linemen other than me," said Sanders. “But I wouldn’t give anything for
the experience. The coaches and players treated me with respect. I was a Patriot from March until August. I even got to play
against the Redskins in a preseason game and made two tackles. After I got cut, Coach Raymond Berry wrote me a nice
letter, thanking me for trying out." The ’85 Patriots won 14 games that season and made it all the way to Super Bowl XLII
before losing to the Chicago Bears. Meanwhile, Dean Sanders returned to Huntsville and began working as a professional
cabinet maker, a craft he learned from his father. In 1989, he returned to UNA to complete his college degree, then went to
work for the Huntsville city schools as a teacher and assistant football coach at Lee High School. In 1992, he came back to
Butler as a teacher, assistant football coach, golf coach and softball coach.
Eleven years later, Sanders succeeded Ron Danley as Butler’s head football coach. But by then, both the football program
and the school itself were in the throes of deep decline. Enrollment kept plunging and the football rosters got smaller and
smaller each year. Danley’s team had flourished in the late 1990s and early 2000s during the era of future Alabama star
Kenneth Darby, but then the slide began. After Danley departed following a 1-9 season in 2003, Sanders kept hope alive for
the first four years, winning 18 games and making the playoff s twice. But his last four Butler teams managed only three wins.
“Our kids always played hard and never quit, even there at the end," said Sanders. “What happened was nobody’s fault.
We just didn’t have enough players to compete." Sanders moved over to Huntsville High as an assistant coach in 2011 and
was named defensive coordinator at Columbia High three years later. Butler closed permanently after the 2013-14 school
year, finishing 0-10 in each of the last three seasons. “As a guy who went to school and later worked there for nearly 20
years, it was really tough to see what happened at Butler," Sanders said. “We were great at one time, but I guess nothing
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