Long road to St. Francis (Pa.) worth wait for Jeannette’s Gio Vonne Sanders
Gio Vonne Sanders’ name wasn’t high on the list of Division I football programs — if it appeared at all. But given a chance to play at that level, the Jeannette grad didn’t take long to make a name for himself.
In his third game with St. Francis (Pa.), Sanders was called upon to fill in for safety Nick Rinella, a preseason FCS All-American selection by STATS. Sanders (5-foot-11, 185 pounds) picked off two passes to help the Red Flash defeat Merrimack, 42-14, and earned Northeast Conference Defensive Player of the Week honors.
He has appeared in all three games for the Red Flash (2-1), starting two, and is third on the team with 15 tackles.
Sanders took the long road to Loretto but said it was worth the wait.
“I’m not sure I would have envisioned it this way,” Sanders said. “I took a detour and had all those experiences. But it’s all I prayed for and asked for, and I’m glad it worked out.”
The “detour” Sanders talked about began when no Division I schools made him offers for football. He said he had plenty of Division II offers, but that wasn’t what he was looking for.
Determined to make it to the “big time,” Sanders turned to his other sport, wrestling, and landed a scholarship to Pitt. After two semesters there, he realized he missed football, so he transferred to Lackawanna, a junior college, to play football in hopes of padding his resume to get an offer from a big school.
Sanders was only a couple weeks into training camp when St. Francis came calling. Red Flash defensive backs coach Bishop Neal said the St. Francis staff had its eye on Sanders while he was at Jeannette. The problem was, Neal said, the team had no scholarships available for defensive backs at the time.
That changed a couple years later, and Neal said he believed Sanders could fit in right away.
“He’s a playmaker, first and foremost,” said Neal, himself a former Red Flash DB. “Another thing was he tackled really well. With him being a wrestler, he knows all the body positions he needs to be in to take somebody down.”
Sanders redshirted last season but still made an impression on the coaching staff with his work on the scout team. Neal said Sanders shares characteristics with recent Red Flash defensive backs Lorenzo Jerome, who made the San Francisco 49ers’ opening-day roster in 2017 and is a member of the CFL’s Calgary Stampeders, and Jermaine Ponder, who was in camp with the Pittsburgh Steelers this summer.
“He reminds me most of those guys in his attention to detail,” Neal said. “They had that mentality that they are here to get better, and they attacked it that way.”
Sanders’ efforts showed up on the field right away. The two-interception game might have led to an NEC award, but Neal said he was most impressed with how Sanders played against second-ranked James Madison in Week 2.
Though the Red Flash were no match for JMU, Sanders stood out, recording nine tackles. By following that with two interceptions against Merrimack, Sanders proved he quickly has evolved into the playmaker the coaches envisioned.
“Now he just makes plays and doesn’t really have to think about what he’s doing because it’s like second nature to him,” Neal said.
Maybe he isn’t playing at an FBS school, but Sanders said he is ecstatic with his situation at St. Francis. He is playing football at the Division I level, and that is all he ever wanted.
“It’s not always about the division you are in. It’s about doing what you love, and I wanted to play football,” he said. “You always look, and you see the big games and the atmosphere and what comes with being at the big D-I.
“But it matters what you care about, and that’s what’s important.”
Chuck Curti is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chuck by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .