Westover running back Shannon Saunders smiles and waves to the crowd during his signing ceremony Wednesday with Missouri Southern State University. (Staff Photo: John Millikan)
ALBANY — Westover running back Shannon Saunders was looking for a fresh start.
His beaming smile as he slipped on a Missouri Southern State University hat on Wednesday in front of family, friends and teammates in the Westover Media Center let everyone know he found the perfect place to get one.
Saunders, who ran into legal trouble earlier in his high school career, signed a four-year scholarship with the Division II program in Joplin, Mo., where he will continue a football career that is bursting with potential.
“I think getting away will be a good thing, a fresh start from all the drama and all the things that happened down here in Albany,” said Saunders, who was indicted for rape and aggravated assault back in 2011 and was suspended from the football team but eventually rejoined the Patriots in 2012 after the charges were dropped. “There were a lot of emotions and there were a lot of things I had to do to forget about what happened and move on to the future and my career.”
Saunders’ return to form began during his senior year with the Patriots when he rushed for 1,026 yards and scored eight touchdowns and helped lead Westover to its first region title in school history.
“We saw him mature a little bit each year, and his senior year he stepped into a leadership role for us,” Westover coach Octavia Jones said. “The guys looked up to him. He was able to overcome all that adversity. We are extremely proud of him and glad he has the opportunity to fulfill his dream.”
Missouri Southern State is a member of the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association, and the Lions finished the 2013 football season 7-3 and ended the year with an upset victory against nationally-ranked No. 6 Pittsburgh State.
It’s a program that Saunders is excited to be a part of and a place where he can focus his attention on one position.
“I have been playing running back since I was little, but when I came here to Westover I was playing linebacker, too,” said Saunders, who was also offered a scholarship from Tuskegee (Ala.) University. “The (Missouri Southern State) linebacker coach was recruiting me, but he said he wants me to play running back. So I guess I will be playing running back when I get there.”
Saunders also played special teams for Westover, and Jones believes his former three-way star can thrive by focusing on a single position.
“He gets a chance now to focus on one position instead of playing multiple positions,” Jones said. “Now he can get used to playing that role at running back and following his leading blockers and things of that nature.”