Rocket sanders has plenty of motivation heading into season, but son r.J. Is what lights his fuse.
ROCKET SANDERS HAS PLENTY OF MOTIVATION HEADING INTO SEASON, BUT SON R.J. IS WHAT LIGHTS HIS FUSE
By Ethan Westerman
Every rocket must have fuel before it can blast off. Raheim “Rocket” Sanders is no different. The 6-2, 237-pound running back for the University of Arkansas is quickly working his way up the school’s rushing record books entering his junior season, doing so while wearing the prestigious No. 5 uniform Darren McFadden once sported inside Razorback Stadium. Sanders’ nickname was given during youth football days, and it’s something Arkansas fans latched onto when they first saw him taking handoffs with a burst of speed as a freshman. Though the label “Rocket” is something that gives Sanders much pride, what fills his tank happens to be a different nickname: “Dada.” While preparing for responsibilities that came with joining the Arkansas football team during the summer following his senior year at Rockledge (Florida) High School, Sanders inherited a much larger duty. In July 2021, he became a father to Ra’Heim Sanders Junior, or “RJ” for short. “He adds a lot of fuel to my fire,” Sanders said. “A lot of people see my football side, but I just want to be a great person for my son.” From the moment RJ entered the world, Sanders found a new purpose. No longer was he solely concerned with his football career, but also with providing the best life imaginable for his son. In a social media post shortly after his birth, Sanders wrote, “From the day I became your dad RJ my purpose has been to love you to grind and protect you with everything in me and I give you my word on that son.” Two years have since passed and that promise has been kept. Though it is RJ who occupies a large portion of Sanders’ drive, another person also spurs his motivation: his mother Shantay Frye. Frye gave birth to Sanders at the age of 18. He was the second-born of four boys. But shortly into his life, Sanders’ father left the picture. The love of a mother who worked countless hours to make sure mouths were fed and that her boys never felt alone propels Sanders’ desire to be the father figure he never had. “She’d never tell us that she was struggling,” Sanders said, “because she was knowing that I was just watching and seeing her struggle. Just watching her do a lot of things, it made me street smart …. She taught me some things that a dad should be teaching me.” Balancing multiple jobs while trying to provide for her sons is something Frye said was only possible due to prayer. “I always say I know there’s a higher power than me,” Frye said. “Because I know there’s no way I made it this long by myself. For the most part, I really can’t even explain it.” Knowing she had little eyes looking up at her made Frye never lose faith. “It was tough, and it was hard. But it was actually enjoyable,” Frye said. “I miss them being that age. It was a bunch of working and grinding, but I just knew I had to do it in order for them to make it. “I just want them to be in a better predicament than I was in. It’s just something that was needed to be done.” Sanders got a jumpstart on watching younger children due to necessity. There were times a babysitter couldn’t fit within the budget. “What’s so crazy is it got to the point where we were watching each other,” Sanders said. “Like she’d leave the house and go to work in the morning and come back later on tired. She was definitely grinding. She had more than one job and just was just fighting.” Frye often relied on Sanders to make certain everything was in order, in large part due to a maturity she saw in him at a young age. “He was such an easy kid, such a good kid,” Frye said. “And I know most people you hear go, ‘Oh, that’s the mom just saying that’ but I’m serious. I can’t even name a time I had to spank this kid. I never got a phone call home from him getting in trouble in school. Honestly, he was just a perfect kid.” She said Sanders has always had a big heart for others and it is something than has grown even more as a father. “I remember a time he was at school and a kid didn’t have a pair of shoes,” Frye said. “And the kid just kept getting picked on. Well, Raheim came home and asked me if he could take a pair of shoes to school for him. He’s just always been that kid. Like, things that he does now doesn’t really shock me because I knew he was special even when he was younger.” However, there was one thing which caused Frye a headache. “The only problem I had with him was attachment problems,” Frye said. “He has a very big attachment. Until about the third grade, he wasn’t able to ride the bus. I had to drop him off in front of the school for the principal or guidance counselor to hold him so I could drive off. That was really the only issue.” When she got spare time, Frye would coach her sons in basketball. As a former athlete herself, she was thrilled to see her boys gravitate toward anything which involved a ball. It was an inexpensive avenue for her to spend quality time with her sons. “Even with the struggles, being with the boys made everything 10 times better,” Frye said. “It made it easier having sports because I helped out with them, so it wasn’t much I had to pay for them to play. So, I helped out with basketball. And Raheim was great at basketball.” It was the sport Sanders gravitated to and eventually he decided to drop football. It was not until his sophomore year of high school that he decided to give the sport another chance. His brother Bryan was entering his senior season on the football team at East River High School in Orlando, Florida, and was able to convince Sanders to join him. What began as a hope to make memories with his brother ended just a few weeks into the season due to a knee injury. “I only played three games or four games,” Sanders said. “I wasn’t going to play; I was going to stick to basketball. But the main reason I played football was because it was my brother’s senior year.” The injury required surgery and caused him to miss basketball season. Sanders’ intention was to not play football again once he recovered and only pursue basketball. However, he was convinced to attend a University of Central Florida football camp during the spring, and his performance impressed those in attendance. “I messed around and went to the UCF camp,” Sanders said, “and my hometown coach saw me.” Conversations there prompted Sanders to transfer to Rockledge and play receiver while also being part of the Raiders’ basketball team. His cousin went to school there, so the appeal to be with a family member was strong. His decision went to plan. “When I transferred to Rockledge, I stayed there because I really liked it,” Sanders said. “And when I dropped my film after my 11th grade year, a lot of schools started calling me. It was crazy. I think Arkansas was my first SEC offer. And after that, that’s when it cranked up.” Amid the pandemic of 2020, the recruiting floodgates opened. However, something was different during calls with the Arkansas coaching staff. Sanders said they cared also about his life. Without ever stepping foot on campus, he committed to the Razorbacks on June 8, 2020, which was his 18th birthday. During his senior season, the versatile Sanders averaged 15.9 yards per carry with four rushing touchdowns while also racking up 391 receiving yards and four touchdown catches. He spent that year also preparing for a new phase of life – fatherhood. When his son was born the summer after graduating, Sanders had already begun taking classes at the University of Arkansas. He was able to be there for RJ’s birth, which made going back to Fayetteville difficult on him. “He was there for I think (the) first week or two, and then he left,” Frye said. “And it was hard. He cried when he left. It was very hard.” Sanders said he did not want RJ to grow up without seeing his father often. He made the promise to video chat multiple times each day and return home at every opportunity to be with his son. “You can tell the days that he is down,” Frye said. “Even during the times that his body hurts, he’ll call and the first thing is, ‘I just can’t wait till I get home and see RJ.’” Football took on a new meaning for Sanders. Things suddenly became more long-term focused. “I just want him to see that with what I’m doing right now, I took the time,” Sanders said. “I want him to understand that the main reason why I don’t see him now how I want to see him and be with him every day is because I was providing for him and my family.” With the busyness of playing college football, being a father and a student, Sanders learned quickly to prioritize how he budgets his time. “I feel like if I have my time management right with first being a dad, I feel like it’s all going to be good,” Sanders said. “It’s really just making a schedule. When I started my first year, I didn’t really make a schedule, but then when I started making the schedule for myself, it is like I’m treating the day right and making each day worth it.” His ability to stay on top of things has not gone unnoticed by Arkansas coach Sam Pittman. “There is (an added maturity) for him, but I’m pretty sure he’s been that way his entire adult life,” Pittman said. “He handles his business in every way possible.” FaceTime calls have become a favorite part of Sanders’ day. Though there isn’t much dialogue due to the young age of RJ, he will sit and watch whatever his son is doing. What gives him joy is each time RJ musters up the word, “Dada.” “When I first started FaceTiming him, I used to call my mom and be like, ‘Dang mom, I don’t know what to say because he’s not talking,’” Sanders said. “So when I’d FaceTime he’d just be looking, smiling and laughing … I’d just say whatever and he’d just react to it. “Now I sit on FaceTime and she’ll just set the phone up and he’ll introduce some crazy stuff. And whenever he says ‘Dada.’ … that makes me like so, so happy.” Sanders said nothing beats when he gets to visit RJ in person and hold him. “He’s always doing something new, running around, talking more,” Sanders said. “It’s crazy.” He enjoys watching RJ go through phases of being drawn to certain things. “Right now, I’d probably say it’s Paw Patrol,” Sanders said. “And he likes football …. I sent him a little Easter basket and I was thinking that he was probably going to like the candy, but then he’s just talking about ‘Ball, ball, ball,’ …. Anything ball-wise, he’s going to pick that over everything.” One recent development brought a smile to Sanders’ face. “After the (Liberty) bowl game in January whenever I went home, now I can say, ‘Down, set, hut’ and he’ll get down there in a running back position and run,” Sanders said with a laugh. “So I feel like he’s a little bit familiar with what I do now.” Frye said her and RJ’s mother have “teamwork” in watching him, adjusting around work schedules to make certain he is always cared for. She loves to assemble outfits for RJ. Frye will surprise Sanders by sending photos of his son in the latest attire she has put together. “I love clothes and just I really love fashion,” Frye said. “Ever since they were little, I have just loved putting things together. I mean, I can go to Goodwill and find a nice outfit and you’ll think it came from the mall. That has always been one of my biggest things. “It’s very fun to dress RJ. He’s so little and so the clothes are cheaper. But I can go to Walmart, and you’ll think that I got it from somewhere else.” Frye said her relationship with Sanders has always been strong, but that as he has grown, it has only gotten stronger. “He’s not the oldest, but in a sense, he’s like the oldest,” Frye said “He’s my consultant. Any problems that I have, he’s the first one I pick up the phone and call. If I’m having a bad day, he’s the first one for some reason to call me and check on me. “And he’s not only my son, but most importantly, he’s my best friend. And I know a lot of parents say, ‘Your kids can’t be your best friend.’ But he’s mostly definitely my best friend.” It is a two-way street. “My mom is like my biggest mentor,” Sanders said. “She raised four boys herself, so she knows how that goes. I wouldn’t say I stress much, but I just only really stress about getting to see him …. But she gets my mind off not thinking about it too much. “She has showed me the routes in life.” Sanders views football as a means to provide a promising future for RJ. “I feel like it’s all about the later on life,” he said. “I feel like that’s the goal, just the later on in life, so that he can be great in the long run.” So when asked what is behind every yard and touchdown to allow the “Rocket” to blast off, a group of people were rattled off. Chief among that list is RJ, Frye, brothers Bryan, Martay and DJ, and best friend Jamari Jones, who Sanders said he considers to be an additional brother. “I like to always remember where I came from,” Sanders said, “and family, that’s my fuel. I am so blessed.”