Brandon Beane tried for years to bring Emmanuel Sanders to Buffalo.
The Buffalo Bills’ general manager offered the veteran wide receiver a contract last offseason, and when Sanders asked for a night to sleep on it, Beane traded for Stefon Diggs.
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Sanders was close to joining the Bills in 2019, as well.
“We thought when he got traded from Denver that it was either going to be the 49ers or the Bills,” Sanders’ financial adviser and Buffalo native Derek Bock told The Buffalo News, “and I just told him, ‘You’ll love the community, the people here.’ Emmanuel’s really ‘family first.’ I know everybody says that, but the most important things are his wife, kids and his granny. So the community, the people here, I just knew he’d love it once he got a taste of it.”
Bock has been selling Sanders on Buffalo for far longer.
Bills rookie defensive end Greg Rousseau has always worked hard, but his résumé is concise. He’s had exactly two jobs: helping run bounce house rentals for kids’ parties in South Florida and playing professional football at the highest level.
Their relationship dates to the end of Sanders’ tenure with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the team that drafted him out of SMU with a third-round pick in 2010 and the Bills’ opponent in the 2021 season opener Sunday at Highmark Stadium, where Sanders hopes to make his regular season debut with his third team in as many years. He was limited at practice this week and is questionable with a foot injury.
Sanders, 34, signed with the Denver Broncos when he first hit free agency in 2013, choosing to team with Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning. He went on to post three consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons, appear in two Pro Bowls and helped the Broncos win Super Bowl 50 against the Carolina Panthers, when Beane and Bills coach Sean McDermott were with the Panthers. Sanders is the only current Bills player with a championship ring.
Beane and McDermott took the reins in Buffalo in 2017.
The Broncos came to town in Week 3 and had some down time the day before the game.
“That was my first time kind of selling Emmanuel on the city of Buffalo,” Bock said. “I got him and his teammates, we went out on the boat, showed them the city from the harbor. They didn’t think Buffalo was that beautiful. But they had a whole different perspective when they left.”
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Denver traded Sanders and a fifth-round draft pick to San Francisco on Oct. 22, 2019, receiving a third- and fourth-round selection in return.
He was leaning toward signing with the Bills when he hit free agency in 2020, Bock said, until the Diggs deal went down. He then signed with the New Orleans Saints, teaming with future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees to chase his fourth Super Bowl appearance and second ring.
Sanders set a career high with 12 catches for 122 yards in a victory against the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 5 on Monday Night Football. But Brees was playing through major foot and shoulder injuries, then missed four games with 11 cracked ribs and a collapsed lung.
Sanders finished the season with 61 catches for 726 yards and five touchdowns in 14 games, one of the worst statistical outputs of his 11-year NFL career. He was released as a cap casualty in March and signed a one-year, $6 million contract with the Bills.
Bock rejoiced, then got to work.
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“He’s been talking Bills all the time,” Sanders said. “He’s a die-hard Bills fan. Loves the Bills. Grew up here. And so the fact that I’m here now is kind of cool, because we got a house out here. He took care of everything. Literally, like it was turnkey when I moved in.
“It was a big-time bonus to have him out here.”
Lucas Luetge, a childhood friend from Texas and relief pitcher for the New York Yankees, spoke with The Buffalo News this summer during a visit to play the Toronto Blue Jays at Sahlen Field and said he endorsed the idea of Sanders signing with the Bills.
“He kind of gave me a heads up,” Luetge said, “because I called him to see once he got released by the Saints and asked, ‘What’s your plan?’ He’s like, ‘I’m talking to a few teams. I talked to Josh Allen and he kind of gave me his pitch to come join him.’ So I kind of had a clue. I was like, ‘Man, that would be great.’ I gave him my advice and I’m really happy for him.”
Allen wasn’t the only Bills player to recruit Sanders to Western New York.
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A pair of All-Pro receivers made their pitches.
Diggs called, as did Cole Beasley, Sanders’ college teammate at SMU, helping to convince him to come chase a ring in Buffalo.
“Everybody’s ready to go and everybody knows the expectations well,” Sanders said. “They played in the AFC championship last year and obviously want to make it to the Super Bowl, but not only make it to the Super Bowl, win a Super Bowl. And that’s every team’s goal, is to try to win a Super Bowl every year. But some organizations are kind of rebuilding, just trying to figure it out. But this isn’t one of those organizations. We know exactly what we’re aiming to get and we’re working to try to attain that.”
‘Passionate about this’
Sanders making his Bills debut against the Steelers, like reuniting with Beasley, is another one of those full-circle career moments.
Lotulelei, who opted out of the 2020 season, has a calf injury that will sideline him for the Bills’ season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“Mike Tomlin was like a father figure to me there,” Sanders said. “I’ll never forget the words he told me once I parted. Just every time he turned on the film, he just wanted to see me dancing and having fun and being the player that I am. So I’ll never forget that.”
Sanders was mostly a reserve during his four seasons in Pittsburgh, initially joining a receiving corps that included Hines Ward, Mike Wallace, Antwaan Randle El, Arnaz Battle and fellow rookie Antonio Brown.
Sanders’ second season ended in bitter disappointment when he was carted off the field with a broken foot in the second quarter of a Super Bowl loss to the Green Bay Packers. He had surgery the next day. Two months later, doctors discovered a stress fracture in his other foot. Then he injured his knee.
But in time, his star continued to rise.
The 5-foot-11, 180-pound Sanders set what were then career highs in his final season with the Steelers in 2013, finishing with 67 catches for 740 yards and six touchdowns. He started 10 of 16 games.
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“That guy has performed at a high level for a long time in this league,” Tomlin said. “I think a catalyst for his performance is his toughness. He’s one of those guys that’s really tough. We probably have a better understanding of that than most. He’s wiry strong. I think that’s one of the reasons why he’s had the consistent success that he’s had over an extended period of time in his career.”
Sanders has amassed 662 catches for 8,619 yards and 47 touchdowns and been named to two Pro Bowls in 11 seasons.
But the statistics and accolades don’t paint the full picture.
“You look at what he did last year in kind of switching through a couple of different quarterbacks,” Allen said. “He had a lot of success last year. And obviously, throughout his career, he's been one of the best receivers in the game. Watching him on film is fun. He's still got a lot of juice left.
“And the way that he gets in and out of breaks. The way that he breaks down. And just his ability to route run. And then you throw that in with the continuity that he has with Beasley in being college teammates. Being able to find concepts that he likes and be able to incorporate them into what we’re doing here, he’s going to have a really good year, and we’re excited to have him. He’s going to help us out a lot.”
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On paper, Sanders appears to have replaced John Brown as the Bills’ No. 2 wide receiver, between Diggs and Beasley, who stars in the slot.
But he wasn’t necessarily signed to line up on the outside and stretch the field.
Gabriel Davis can fulfill that role when the Bills line up four wide, while Sanders’ route-running ability, particularly out of the slot, should offer the offense a different dynamic.
“I played two years with Emmanuel at SMU and there he was actually only a slot guy,” Beasley said. “His last year there, he asked (coach) June (Jones) to move him to outside to get some film, but there’s really where he kind of reigned supreme, was in the slot. Separation guy. Anytime you can get away from DBs, you’re going to be pretty good at wideout. So he brings a lot of juice and energy to this team and I’m excited to get to play with him once again. It’d be the coolest thing ever if we could kind of put this thing together and get a Super Bowl together.”
Sanders is the oldest player on the roster, born about six months before defensive end Mario Addison.
But with age comes experience, and Sanders sees it as an advantage and opportunity to become a role model, having modeled himself after some of the league’s greats.
"What he provides our team is another veteran that's been around it," McDermott said. "He's been in three and has won one Super Bowl in his career. So, that brings something to our locker room, it brings something to our team."
It’s a natural aspect of a career arc that’s spanned more than a decade, he said.
And he’s still having fun, like Tomlin instructed.
“It’s just in you, right? I don’t have to think about it because I’m doing what I love to do,” Sanders said. “This is what I love to do, dude. I’m passionate about this. So it’s fun in general. It’s fun to get up and work out and chase a goal. That’s just fun to me. It’s fun to go out and go against 27 (Tre’Davious White) and see Josh throw the ball and see Stef go crazy over a play. This is what we love to do. And I think that when you want to talk about organizations and just a football team in general, that’s what I mean about fun. You’ve got a group of guys that’s passionate about what they do.
“And you would think that everybody’s passionate about it, but nah. Some people are just good at it. Passion and good are two different things. And so I think that in this building we’ve got a lot of guys that’s passionate about what they’re doing and they want to be successful and they’re having fun doing what they love to do.”
‘Why I chose Buffalo’
Sanders tore his left Achilles in December 2018, missing the final four games of the season.
But eight months later, he was first in line in the tunnel to take the field for the Broncos’ preseason opener. He appeared in all 17 regular season games in 2019 between his time with the Broncos and Niners and averaged nearly 14 yards per reception after the trade.
“What he taught me goes back to confidence,” said Luetge, the Yankees' pitcher. “We were both rehabbing together. I was rehabbing my elbow and he was getting over Achilles one offseason. He kind of told me about the mental stuff he did with his mental coach and like just sitting there and self confidence, pumping yourself up.
“He said that he’d go in those salt bath tanks, and just tell himself for like, 20 minutes, ‘I’m the man. I’m a Pro Bowler. I’m the best receiver in the league.’ And honestly, I took that from him and started doing that myself. Everybody here is talented. Everybody knows that. You got to have confidence and believe that you’re the best to get that edge.”
Sanders was born and raised in Bellville, Texas, a town with a population of fewer than 4,000 people.
He was raised in his grandmother’s house, eating ketchup and mayonnaise sandwiches and sleeping on the floor with about a dozen family members.
“I watched what he had to go through growing up,” Luetge said. “It wasn't an easy life. He was living with about 10 different people in a trailer house.”
His mother passed away in her sleep in 2011. She was 41.
During his time with the Steelers, Sanders bought his grandma a house with a swimming pool.
After joining the Bills, on the first day of mandatory minicamp in June, he recounted his story in front of his new teammates.
“For me, believe it or not, I’m not a big talker,” Sanders said. “I talk, but I be chillin’. So I told myself, ‘I’m going to get in front of the team just to speak, just to talk,’ and so I just told them about myself. Sometimes you’ll go a whole year and you don’t even know anything about a guy. So I made myself vulnerable.
“I told them about my family. I told them about my kids, my wife. I told them about where I’m from, how I was raised and I just talked about my career. And I told them pretty much why I came here. Why I chose Buffalo. And so just to let the guys know me and what I’m about and what I’m willing to do and what I’m willing to put on the line, because it’s hard to play with a guy you really don’t know.
“All the teams that I’ve been on, that have made it to the Super Bowl, we’ve had those off-the-field-type conversations in which you get to know guys, in which you grow.”
They’ve also had the talent to reach the sport’s grandest stage.
Bock, his longtime financial adviser, has been in Sanders’ ear about Allen for some time.
“Over the years, him being a receiver, I just kept telling him, ‘We finally got a quarterback here. Don’t sleep on Buffalo,’” said Bock, who first connected with Sanders when another client who played for the Steelers was looking to lease Sanders' house.
“Everything aligned this time around. And last year, it was fun, because he’d text me after he’d watch some of the Bills highlights or watch some of the game tape, and he’s like, ‘Wow.’ He was impressed with the offense. He was impressed with Josh, and just with what the Bills were building here. It was a no-brainer after he tried to chase another Super Bowl with the Saints last year, and it didn’t work out.”
Nearly 20 years ago, Bock co-founded a boutique wealth management firm with Thomas Volpini now called HighTower Buffalo.
Advising pro athletes is just a portion of their business. But it’s satisfying.
And helping a longtime client settle in Buffalo was particularly gratifying, considering Sanders could be a piece that helps get the Bills to the Super Bowl for the first time since their run of four consecutive AFC titles in the early 1990s.
“We haven’t had (a dominant stretch) for 20-some years,” Bock said, “and I think as a city we’re just starting to relive some of those days, maybe with a better outcome.”
In March, on the day Sanders arrived in Buffalo to sign with the Bills, he made a jarring gaffe during his introductory video conference, saying he preferred ranch with his wings.
“We grabbed lunch right after he was done with what he had to do out at the stadium,” Bock said, providing a new form of guidance, “and he did a little video.