BamaInsider - After tough road, Trey Sanders is in position to shine for Alabama
football Edit

After tough road, Trey Sanders is in position to shine for Alabama

The details are still foggy from that frantic afternoon in North Florida. Umstead Sanders has a hard time recalling much of the car accident that turned his younger brother’s life upside down last November.

He remembers being at the wheel and feeling the jarring impact of a vehicle t-boning into the passenger side of his car. From there he has some memories of groggily turning to his right to see the aftermath of the collision out of the passenger window. The next moment, though, is one he’ll never erase from his memory.

“I look over and I see my brother, and he’s passed out,” Umstead said of Alabama running back Trey Sanders, who received the brunt of the impact from the front passenger seat. “The first thing you think is like, ‘Oh man, he’s gone.’ At that time, I just start freaking out.”

Trey regained consciousness in a matter of seconds much to the relief of his older brother. However, his cries of pain were an obvious sign that something was very wrong.

From there, things go blurry again. There were the blaring sirens and flashing lights of the ambulance. Umstead also watched as his brother was carried out of the car through the back seat. Trey then had to be life-flighted to Bay Medical Center in nearby Panama City.

Upon arriving at the hospital, doctors discovered that he had a broken pelvis, soft-tissue injuries and internal organ injuries. He was later to UAB hospital in Birmingham, Ala., where he was treated by hip trauma specialist Dr. Clay Spitler.

Umstead also remembers the look on his brother’s face when he found out the extent of the injuries. Then a redshirt freshman, Trey had already missed the entirety of his first season on campus after fracturing his foot during the fall camp of that year. The former five-star recruit had arrived at Alabama as the top-rated back and No. 3 overall player in the 2019 class but saw his promising career begin to slip away thanks to a second straight season-ending setback.

This wasn’t going to be just any recovery either. Unlike typical sports injuries, the damage suffered from Trey’s accident required a much more complex rehabilitation process as team doctors needed to let his non-orthopedic injuries heal before even considering continuing the running back’s career.

“It was something that if he didn’t come back, we would all understand,” Alabama rehabilitation director Jeremy Gsell told reporters in September. “It was something that even the doctor that fixed him said, ‘I don’t really see this in athletes.’ ... None of us really knew what to expect.”

According to Umstead, taking football off the table was never going to be an option for Trey. Knowing that, he delivered a message to his younger brother.

“This is another obstacle in the road that we just going to have to jump over,” he told Trey at the time. “You’re always going to face stuff in life, and it’s up to you if you want to jump over that hurdle or just leave it. The one thing about life is if you leave it, you’re going to have to jump sooner or later. So let’s go ahead and get this obstacle out of the way and get back to it.”

Umstead moved in with Trey during the first six to eight weeks of the rehabilitation process, helping his younger brother with everyday tasks while he was still wheelchair-bound. Reunited, the two passed time by playing video games, going out to eat and discussing their dreams — the most popular of which being to be successful enough at life to allow their parents to retire.

For Trey, the plan was to do that by making the NFL. And when times got especially hard, Umstead was there to remind his little brother that dream was still very much a possibility.

“Just making sure he's keeping his head on straight and just telling him that his name will be called,” Umstead said. “I just wanted to make sure he was ready at all times. I’m always just trying to help him be great, just making sure that he can do anything to the best of his ability. He knows I’m always by his side.”

Originally dejected by his second major injury in as many years, the adversity quickly fueled Trey. According to Umstead, the accident had served as a humbling moment, reminding the young running back not to take anything for granted.

“I think it just made him want to grind harder,” Umstead said. “It really put some fire under him. He knew that he would have to work very hard after the injury to get back from the injury, and the process kind of improved him.”

Ten months of excruciating rehab sessions later, Trey finally found himself back on the football field. The redshirt sophomore back scored his first career touchdown during Alabama’s season opener against Miami, making a nice cut on his previously injured hip before bouncing to the outside for a 20-yard score. That carry was one of eight for 41 yards as he led all Tide backs with 5.1 yards per carry on the afternoon.

However, despite the promising return, he struggled to earn carries in a loaded backfield. Trey’s workload began to decrease as the season continued. He carried the ball seven times for 30 yards with a fumble the following week against Mercer before failing to make an appearance during a trip back to his home state of Florida. From there, he tallied just 12 combined carries over the following six games.

Undeterred he kept his head down and waited for his turn.

“I talked with him a lot during that time, and our message was always, just keep grinding,” Umstead said. “He never really showed frustration or talked about it. It was like he was just waiting for his time. He knew that once his name was called, he was going to be ready for his time.”

Ironically, Trey’s opportunity has come about due to a series of injuries to Alabama’s other backs. Jase McClellan suffered a season-ending knee injury against Ole Miss on Oct. 2, while fellow sophomore back Roydell Williams did the same during the game against New Mexico State on Nov. 13.

Last week, Trey took over for Brian Robinson Jr. after the starting running back pulled a muscle in his leg during the fourth quarter of Alabama’s comeback win over Auburn. While the five-star back put up modest numbers, running for 23 yards on 10 attempts and recording two receptions for 12 yards, he was able to show off his athleticism, hurdling Auburn cornerback Roger McCreary on a 5-yard run in the fourth quarter.

“I think Trey has been through a lot,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban said Thursday. “I think everybody knows the adversity that he's had to overcome with an injury, car accident. And I do think that it took a while for him, A, to get confidence in himself physically that he could go out there and do the things that he's capable of that he could do in the past.

“But I also think that the opportunities he's had to play this year, the role that he has, a more significant role now, has also helped him develop confidence. And knowing that we trust and believe that he can go out there and play well and do a good job I think is also something that always helps a player in terms of the responsibility and accountability that he takes to go out there and do his job well. I think he's done a good job of that for us, and we have a lot of confidence in him moving forward.”

Thursday, Saban continued to list Robinson as “day-to-day” while stating the fifth-year senior would be evaluated in practice before the team makes a decision on his availability for this week’s SEC Championship Game against Georgia. If he is unable to go, Sanders would not only net his first start but would also be the only available scholarship back for the Tide.

“He knows what he has to do,” said starting left tackle Evan Neal, who roomed with Trey during their time together at IMG Academy. “He knows the opportunity. He knows what’s in front of him. He’s prepared. I’m excited for him, happy for him. If He gets the opportunity to go out there and do his thing, I’m going to dang sure block my heart out for him.”

Umstead is also expecting big things from his younger brother in the event he gets extended playing time over the weekend. After all, he’s seen him run through everything else life has thrown at him over the past year.

“He’s been waiting for this opportunity for a while now, and he’s ready for it,” Umstead said. “When he gets in his groove, you’ll know. When he gets going and gets comfortable, it’s going to be back to the old Trey.”

Alabama Crimson Tide running back Trey Sanders. Getty Images
Alabama Crimson Tide running back Trey Sanders. Getty Images