High School Sports

Stability in football helps River Ridge’s Kelle Sanders turn corner

River Ridge’s Kelle Sanders is a Washington State University football recruit at defensive end, but will also play quarterback for the Hawks this season.
River Ridge’s Kelle Sanders is a Washington State University football recruit at defensive end, but will also play quarterback for the Hawks this season. sbloom@theolympian.com

When sleep is hard to come by, Kelle Sanders thinks about what a good day would look like.

How many push-ups should he do in the morning?

Which drills should he run through?

How does he — a Washington State University football commit at defensive end, who will also play quarterback this season — help River Ridge High School get on the path to the state playoffs?

What does he want to be — and how does he get there?

“Do this, don’t do this,” Sanders said.

A good day is a good goal for a 17-year-old who has already had plenty of bad days. He moved to Washington in 2005 when his family was displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Financial hardship has uprooted his family, and he’s struggled with focus and direction in the classroom.

“Look at this kid,” said Sanders’ mother, Tina. “He’s had some hard trials, but he’s still standing.”

Since last spring, Sanders has spent his nights at teammate Brayden Anderson’s house. Sometimes on the bed, other times on the couch — whoever gets to the bed first usually takes it, Anderson joked.

“I think he’s dealt with it really well,” Anderson said. “I think he kind of jokes around about it, doesn’t take it to heart, just keeps playing.”

Sanders anticipates staying with Anderson until he goes to college next fall, but he’s experienced enough to know not to count on it.

“You never know what’s going to happen,” he said.

▪ ▪ ▪ 

The water was so high his feet could not touch the floor, so Sanders stayed put. The air mattress he and his brother, Kelton, were sleeping on quickly became a makeshift raft.

Hours earlier, Kelle, then 6, and several family members went to his grandmother’s house in Biloxi, Mississippi, to brace for the incoming storm.

Kelle’s mother, who worked security at a nearby casino, was one of the last to leave her job on the night of Aug. 28, 2005. Kelton remembers going to the grocery store and watching movies that night.

Hurricane Katrina hit the Mississippi coastline the next morning.

“I woke up in the morning — I was sleeping with my brother — and our bed was off to the side floating in water,” Kelle said.

His grandmother, B.V., had a lot of plants in her house. Kelton was the first to notice the water seeping through the floor panels. It rapidly poured in, knocking down the plants and surrounding the family with soil and dirt.

“It was one of those times in your life when you think you’re going to die,” Kelton said.

Tina’s boyfriend at the time was the only person in the house who could swim. He thought about trying to get to a neighbors’ boat across the street, but instead ferried everyone to the attic.

“Right before we go into the attic, we hear a really loud boom — a tree fell on the house,” Kelton said. “If we stay right here, we don’t know what’s going to happen.”

They prayed.

An hour or two later, the water retreated enough for them to leave the attic. They grabbed what shoes they could find, and walked to Main Street Baptist Church, where food and clothing were distributed.

“That’s where everyone else was,” Kelle said. “It was a safe place.”

Katrina’s death toll reached 1,833 people, including 238 in Mississippi. Experts estimate hundreds of thousands of people were displaced by the storm.

The house Kelle lived in, which was minutes from the church, was destroyed.

“The only thing left was the three porch steps,” Kelle said. “Everything else was blown away.”

They’d moved into the house a month before the storm. The washer, the dryer — everything was new, Tina said.

“It was all just taken away from us,” Tina said. “I’ve been dealt a tough hand of cards in my life. But we’re going to be OK.”

The family stayed briefly at the church before leaving. The cars at B.V.’s house couldn’t get them out, but a family friend had a truck. They piled in and drove north to Hattiesburg.

The 75-mile trip took five hours, Tina said. Traffic was backed up with cars trying to flee, and the lines at the gas stations were long. Even if they waited, they were only allowed $10 worth of gas.

Somehow, they made it to Hattiesburg.

“We should have run out of gas, but we didn’t,” Kelle said. “Thank God, we didn’t.”

There are details Kelle can’t remember. But he does remember dismissing fear throughout the journey.

“I didn’t have time to be scared,” he said. “You can’t be scared in that situation because, if you are, you’re going to do something stupid to hurt yourself. I had to stay calm and keep my composure.”

In Hattiesburg, Kelle, his mother, brother and half-sister Kayla shared a one-bedroom apartment with no power with 10 people. Tina’s brother and brother in-law brought them to Washington.

They arrived in Lacey on Sept. 10. Kelle was in first grade.

▪ ▪ ▪ 

He has places to go at night. Sometimes it’s a couch, sometimes it’s a bed, but Kelle said he has never been without a place to sleep.

River Ridge’s student database lists Kelle as homeless, but he doesn’t consider that to be accurate. He transferred from Timberline his sophomore year after his family moved to Tanglewilde, and has never been without a place to stay — whether it’s with his mother, a teammate’s family, or others.

Kelle said his living situation has changed about five times since he started high school. He doesn’t have a concrete number for how many times he’s moved since coming to Washington.

“A lot,” he said. “We move a lot. … I just got used to it. I try not to think about it.”

There have been stretches he has lived with his mother. She has raised Kelle alone since he was 3. His father died of a heart attack at 29.

“I’m a single parent trying to make it,” Tina said. “We’re facing some tough times right now. My home got taken away because I’ve had some hardship, and lost my job.”

Tina said she doesn’t want to be away from her son and is trying to find a stable living situation for the two of them. Kelle said, right now, it makes sense that he stay with Anderson’s family instead of living with his mom and aunt.

“I do want Kelle home with me for school,” she said. “It’s very tough for me right now.”

Anderson’s house — where he lives with his mother and younger brother, Blake, a sophomore at River Ridge — is closer to the high school. Brayden said a two-week arrangement turned into “however long (Kelle) wants to stay.”

There’s a park by the house where Kelle and Brayden, a tight end, practice every play where the quarterback throws the tight end the ball.

“Throwing to him is going to become a lot easier,” Kelle said. “I remember last year, I used to overthrow him or throw too far ahead of him. Now, I’m just hitting him straight in his chest. We’ve got the chemistry down.”

He’s experienced that with other teammates. He spent time with Padric Green’s family last summer, and the two trained together daily.

Tina said her son is, “a very loving kid” and “a leader.” Others embrace him for that.

“If he needs help, he’s going to get the help,” Green said. “That’s what we’re all here to do — to give each other love and support. Who wouldn’t want to give it to Kelle? He’s all smiles and jokes.”

Kelle’s teammates say he doesn’t seem to dwell on hardship.

“If anything, it drives me more, it makes me go harder,” Kelle said. “I don’t have a secure home, but if I keep grinding and make it, I can buy my mom a house, and she can just stay there for the rest of her life.”

▪ ▪ ▪ 

River Ridge coach Steve Schultz decided to become an expert on NCAA academics and core classes. He created a spreadsheet — he jokes he should sell it — to track academic progress, and help his athletes get to college.

Maybe Kelle hasn’t always been a dream in the classroom, Schultz said, but he’s made significant improvements.

“You can actually draw a line when he decided to become a student,” Schultz said. “Luckily, he drew that line soon enough.”

Anderson noticed the biggest change when Kelle got his first scholarship offer from Wyoming last spring. Other offers would come: Eastern Washington, Colorado State, Missouri and finally, WSU.

Green said Kelle’s focus has intensified since he verbally committed to WSU earlier this month.

“He came over and told me, when he committed, that he committed so he could focus on school and get his grades up,” Green said. “I’m seeing him change his academic role, and, out here on the football field, he’s being more of a leader.

“It’s great to see him from when he was young, to where he is now, develop as a man.”

Tina said her son did a complete 180-degree turn in his life.

“I would tell him, ‘Son, you have a talent, and just by having that talent, you have to step up,’ ” Tina said. “‘It’s very important for you to be educated. Schools are going to look at you and say, ‘OK, he can play football, what else can he do?’ 

Kelle said conversations with his mother, River Ridge athletic director Gary Larson and Schultz, among others, helped him turn the corner.

“My eyes weren’t open to the reality that it could actually happen,” Kelle said. “Larson talked to me, Schultz talked to me, all of my teachers talked to me and told me, ‘You have a chance to go to the next level.’ I actually had to crack down and handle my business.”

This after Kelle bounced in and out of academic eligibility his sophomore year.

“He knows what he’s capable of,” said Renee Pittelkau, who taught Kelle’s Algebra II class last year. “He just needs to want it, and I think, at this point, he wants it.”

Kelle likes math. It manipulates the mind and makes you actually think, he said. He likes numbers, and wants to study business management in college.

He’s happy in math class, but sometimes loses focus.

Pitlekau said she doesn’t have it down to a science, but keeping Kelle engaged at school involves dialing in on his strengths, and having one-on-one conversations where his rambunctious personality can be celebrated.

“He likes to be a leader,” Pitlekau said. “It’s all about focusing that leadership quality in the right direction, and giving him the opportunity to be the smart one.”

Schultz said one of the most satisfying things for him about Kelle committing to WSU is how much of a priority the classroom is for coach Mike Leach.

“You can’t miss class with him,” Schultz said. “That’s the structure (Kelle) needs.”

Every day in high school hasn’t been perfect, but now there’s a benchmark to meet.

“The end game of it is he’s going to go to Washington State University, and have his education paid for, and change his whole life,” Schultz said.

▪ ▪ ▪ 

Kelle has always been drawn to football. Tina said he would take footballs to church with him. His favorite channel growing up was the NFL Network — channel 180 on Comcast, he remembers proudly. He now plays for Rise Football Academy.

He’d like to play in the NFL one day.

“I have finally realized my potential,” Kelle said.

Kelle was recruited as a defensive end, but most of his summer workouts have focused on studying to play quarterback. He has previous experience in the position, but will be River Ridge’s starter this season in addition to playing defense.

“I’ve been working on my footwork,” Kelle said. “I’m trying to work as a quarterback and get better as a quarterback so I can better my team. If I’m not there as a quarterback, it shuts the whole thing down as a team.”

Kelle wants to take the program — which finished 10-1 and lost a heartbreaker to North Kitsap in the first round of the Class 2A state playoffs last season — to the Tacoma Dome.

He said the team has built stronger bonds over the course of the last year. That sense of brotherhood and family is important to him.

He just wants to be on the field with his teammates.

“As long as I have cleats, the necessities, that’s all I need,” he said.

Lauren Smith: 360-754-5473, @smithlm12