An FCS national champion with South Dakota State on Jan. 8, former Glenwood Ram Caleb Sanders is the epitome of a quiet, reserved leader who puts in hard work.
From an early age, Sanders was shaped by how he responded to the death of his father when he was seven years old.
Always in competition with his older brothers – Cody, six years older, and Kyle, who was a closer competitor at just two years older – Caleb’s mom, Angela Griffin, said he grew up wanting to show he could keep up with his brothers.
“When his dad passed away, I don’t know that Caleb was really into sports (then),” Griffin said. “It definitely affected him, and we always tell him that his dad’s looking at him from heaven and that whenever he’s had a big win (or) loss, that he’d be really proud.”
Griffin added that getting into sports and aiming to do “whatever anyone asked of him” was a positive outcome from the loss.
“The loss of a parent could go just the opposite way and not be a positive influence,” Griffin said.
As he continued to develop, Sanders began to show his abilities from an early age.
“I kind of knew from watching Caleb in middle school track that he has a special ability. He was a pretty big kid but he could also run,” Glenwood head football coach Corey Faust said.
Once Sanders reached high school, he “really took to lifting weights” from his freshman year.
“He just had a passion to pick up anything and lift things,” Faust added. “He was really consistent at coming in the morning as well.”
Rams athletic director Jeff Bissen added that initially, it wasn’t clear Sanders would stand out.
“I would say as a freshman in high school, I don’t know if you wouldn’t necessarily realize that he had the potential to go on to be a successful student athlete at the next level,” Bissen said. “But when he got to be maybe a sophomore, junior, he was continuing to work hard in the weight room and set himself apart a little bit from other people in his class.”
By the time Sanders was a junior, he combined a “different motor” with the shy, fun-loving personality to emerge as a leader who Bissen said “people enjoy being around.”
From his coaches – Adam Buthe, defensive line coach at Glenwood, and Brad Asche, who coached Sanders in football and wrestling, both of whom Sanders said impacted him the most (along with Faust) – the defensive lineman really burst onto the scene as a sophomore for the Rams varsity team in their season opener against Red Oak.
Buthe, whose job was to break down the defensive line, was stunned by what he saw from the young Sanders.
“I couldn’t believe how much of an impact he was as just a sophomore,” Buthe said. In the coaches meeting after, he asked, “‘Did anybody notice Caleb, the way he just dominated the line?’ Because in the game, you notice it, sometimes they don’t even get the tackle but they just dominate the line of scrimmage, and I remember seeing and I knew right then and there, this kid’s gonna be special.”
Both coaches also emphasized the translation of football onto the wrestling mat and wrestling onto the football field, especially in the mentality needed to win, which is exactly what Sanders did as state champion in 2018.
“A lot of people would defer, and he would just look over to the corner and smile, like, ‘I’m gonna win this match by a point, it doesn’t matter, you can’t stop me,’” Asche said.
“I think the two definitely translate to one another,” Sanders added. “One part is just being able to be scrappy, and being able to get off blocks, especially with the alignment. Being able to work with and use your hands. And then in awkward positions, being able to work your way out of those positions. Having a wrestling background definitely made me more comfortable in some of those situations.”
Sanders was on the football field for almost every snap – “every snap that was meaningful” Faust tacked on – and was a key part of qualifying Glenwood for their first trip to the playoffs in a while with his durability.
“His durability, being strong and being able to do that at our level, playing every snap at a high level, both sides of the ball is pretty rare,” Faust said.
The Rams were able to return to the playoffs in his junior year, when they achieved a 30-27 win over Carroll to reach the state semifinals at the UNI Dome, which Sanders said was his favorite moment at Glenwood.
After graduating, Sanders made an immediate impact at South Dakota State, finishing fifth on the team in tackles for loss with seven and playing in all 13 games as a true freshman.
The starting nose tackle in 2019, Sanders began to establish himself as a dependable force in the interior of the Jackrabbits’ defensive line.
Then in his junior season in 2020-21, the six-foot-one tackle led the team with five sacks and finished third with seven tackles for loss as the Jackrabbits reached the FCS National Championship but fell to Sam Houston State 23-21 during the spring playoffs.
The Jackrabbits fell a step earlier in 2021, and the losses when being close are what made this year’s triumph even more special for Sanders and his teammates.
“It was definitely special after being so close multiple times in the past,” Sanders said. “Especially getting the first one for the program I think will definitely be something that we remember obviously for the rest of our lives. Even the guys that came before us, I know how excited they were that we finally got one.”
Battling through adversity, specifically injuries on the defense, South Dakota State won 45-21 over North Dakota State in Frisco, Texas on Jan. 8.
“We just learned to rise above it and that there’s no excuse for not being able to perform regardless of who’s out there,” added Sanders, who finished with 9.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks.
Seeing Sanders win the national championship made Faust “really happy” to see the hard work pay off, while Asche said it was “surreal.”
“It was great to see his hard work and dedication, everything finally get paid back,” Ashce said.
“It’s awesome,” Buthe added. “And I think he’s very well deserving. And honestly, it’s not a surprise he’s had success. He’s an extremely hard worker. He was always a very humble, pretty quiet kid but he always was so reliable and never missed workouts. Never heard him ever make excuses.”
Glenwood athletic director Jeff Bissen hopes the success for Sanders proves two main points of impact locally: people will find you (athletes), and good things happen when you stick around, as proven by Sanders and Lewis Central grad Max Duggan, who finished second in Heisman Trophy voting and led TCU to the FBS National Championship Game.
“No matter how good you are, people will come find you,” Bissen said. “Oftentimes we think we need to play at the highest level. In reality, if you’re good enough to play at the next level, people are going to find you.
“If you look at Max and you look at Caleb, they got a pretty good story and they have a really good experience. But in the age of the transfer portal, those guys stuck around for four or five years and just really tried to be the best version of themselves. They bought into the team concept.”
Sanders also wanted to advise local athletes that as an “undersized D tackle,” size doesn’t matter.
“I was still able to get all the accolades that I was and just continued to work to get better every day, regardless of what physical limitations I might have because of my size,” he said.
As a product of southwest Iowa, Sanders hopes the recruiting coverage increases and that misconceptions about the level of competition are shattered.
“People might think that’s a lesser place with lesser talent,” Sanders said. “Council Bluffs, that’s a pretty big area, but there’s always kids in small towns that can play and hopefully they see that.”
Moving into the future, Sanders hopes to make a professional team this spring, and Asche expects him to reach that goal and be successful.
“I hope he gets invited to the NFL Combine so he can actually show people (his talent),” Asche said. “If you give him a chance, he’s going to work.”
Asche added that his own son and many of the younger kids around Glenwood look up to Sanders.
In his post-football future, Buthe can see Sanders, an early childhood education major at South Dakota State, being a teacher or coach.
“When I watch him play football on TV, I just know if somebody gives him a shot, I think it’ll pay off,” Buthe said. “Beyond those days if it doesn’t work out, after that career, I think he plans on teaching and I do think he’ll get active in coaching. Probably football and I don’t know about wrestling or not, but yeah, I think football would be a big part of his life for quite a while here.”