Whether it involved delivering a speech while standing on a chair to inspire a trailing Ohio State team in the 2019 Big Ten Championship game or speaking on police brutality while standing on a truck bed, C.J. Saunders has left his mark in ways touchdowns and receiving yards never could.
The graduate senior wide receiver has scored six points in his Ohio State career — a career that he hopes will extend for a sixth year of eligibility in 2020. Despite a rather quiet playing career, the walk-on-turned-captain has used his voice to impact the Ohio State football team.
“I’m thankful that I was raised to be able to go to work every day and treat people with respect, and I think that’s just a testament to my family and the program itself,” Saunders said Aug. 19 after being named a team captain.
Since his selection as one of the team’s leaders, Saunders has not shied away from using his voice. His leadership mixed with the instilled value of respecting others was especially on display June 2 at a student-athlete organized “Kneel for Nine” event in honor of George Floyd.
Along with graduate senior linebacker Tuf Borland, Saunders spoke to a crowd of Ohio State student-athletes that came together to protest police treatment of black Americans. While having the opportunity to speak to the crowd, Saunders admitted that as a white man he will never know what it’s like to be black in the United States.
“I do know what it’s like to have black best friends, I know what it’s like to have black brothers and sisters, teammates and coaches whom I’d do anything for,” Saunders said.
Following a June 1 protest near Ohio State’s campus, Saunders was arrested along with three friends for violation of curfew. A day later, he voiced the importance of being prepared for strict policing of the curfew.
While heeding warnings of the consequences of staying out past the curfew, Saunders encouraged the right to peacefully protest.
Saunders also acknowledged the platform he and other Ohio State athletes have been given.
“We have this unique opportunity to let ourselves be heard, to come together in moments like this and create change,” Saunders said.
The outspokenness shown by Saunders in the midst of a societal issue was foreshadowed by the leadership he displayed within the game of football.
Saunders was the first walk-on to be selected team captain since linebacker Joe Burger in 2016. Burger and Saunders’s careers have taken similar routes as walk-ons-turned-captains, largely due to their outspoken nature and leadership abilities rather than their play.
“You can tell that these guys respect hard work, they respect and really give a lot of credit to the way he’s gone about his work every day, the way he handles himself, his character,” head coach Ryan Day said Aug. 19. “C.J. hasn’t played a whole bunch around here. What matters is how he works in the weight room, how he practices, the way he handles himself off the field, the classroom.”
Saunders walked onto the program in 2016, a season in which he received snaps in just one game and didn’t have a single catch. He saw an uptick in playing time in the 2017 season, in which he snagged 17 catches for 221 yards and a touchdown.
His 2018 campaign saw his role in the offense diminish, as he hauled in just 10 catches for 73 yards. However, he saw an increased role as a specialist for the Buckeyes as he returned eight punts.
As a knee injury sidelined Saunders for the 2019 season, it did not diminish his impact on the team from a leadership standpoint. This was put on display at halftime of the Big Ten Championship game.
A sluggish start for the Buckeyes had allowed Wisconsin to take a 21-7 lead at the break. Saunders used the break as an opportunity to lift his team up and give a rousing speech that electrified Ohio State to go on a 27-0 run in the second half and take the game 34-21.
Saunders told his teammates that they had a simple choice: either flip the switch and pull themselves back into the game or sulk in their struggles, lose, and look back at what could have been.
“I had something on my heart that I wanted to share with the team, and just felt it was the right time to say what I needed to say, and hopefully impact my team in a positive way,” Saunders said Dec. 7.
In what has been an uncertain offseason due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Saunders and Ohio State are still looking to receive clarity on Saunders’s future with the program. The captain’s sixth year of eligibility is yet to be approved by the NCAA, and while Saunders’s on-field performance may not be crucial to Ohio State’s success, the leadership a player like him provides would help the team in 2020, Day said.
“We need that leadership and maturity because we do recruit a lot of young talented guys. But you don’t want to have an immature group when you go play those bowl games in January,” Day said Feb. 5.