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December 24, 2010

Ace High: Sanders' Dad Switches Loyalties

Tracy Sanders was demonstrative and definitive.

"Well, I can answer that real simply," he said on Thursday evening. "I'm pulling for Ace. I'm pulling for him and the Carolina Gamecocks."

Although there was still a bit of lingering surprise.

"But I must also admit, I never thought this would ever be a situation," he followed. "When I got the news, when I heard from Ace, that they were going to be playing Florida State, I thought he was kidding. Had to call his mom because I couldn't believe it was actually happening."

The Chick-fil-A Bowl matchup was announced and Sanders' dream/nightmare situation was true -- already. He knew that someday his loyalties would be called upon, but to have to answer it this soon nearly floored him.

Sanders is a Florida State alum, a player good enough to start even on those talent-rich teams of the late 1980s. A cornerback who played on the opposite side of the field than a flashy superstar in the making also named Sanders -- some guy who called himself "Prime Time" -- Sanders turned his time as a Seminole into a brief NFL career, then a solid World Football League/arena football career before helping his alma mater, Manatee (Fla.) High School, as an assistant coach.

While at Manatee, one of his favorite players was a 5-foot-7 wide receiver also bearing the Sanders surname -- Ace Sanders, Tracy's son. Boy shares dad's whole name, but the nickname stuck after Tracy decided to shorten it due to Ace's first-born status.

Ace grew up a Seminole, reveling in his dad's history with the school and friendships with the coaching staff. "Ever since I was small, it's always been Florida State, Florida State," he said. "I used to get real upset when they lost to any team."

But when the colleges began coming around to recruit the son, Tracy noticed a startling lack of interest from his alma mater. FSU nibbled, but never offered Ace; when South Florida, Rutgers and West Virginia came calling, Tracy began to realize that his dream of seeing his son play for his old school was not going to come true.

"They didn't recruit him at all," Tracy said. "Needless to say, that was a big disappointment for me."

Still, Tracy supported his son and wherever he would end up, so when Ace came home and told his dad and his mom, Twanda, that he wanted to visit South Carolina, Tracy said sure. On the visit, the parents met coach Steve Spurrier, a familiar name to FSU fans, and the topic came up.

What would happen, Spurrier asked, if Ace signed with the Gamecocks and they had to play Florida State someday? Who would Tracy cheer for?

"I'm thinking, 'That ain't never going to happen,'" Tracy said. "But I said, 'I'm going to go with Ace.'"

Only one year later, he had to put up or shut up.

He chose the former.

"I sincerely am on Ace and coach Spurrier's side now," Tracy said. "I have a lot of South Carolina paraphernalia now. Those are what I'm wearing now."

"He's Carolina-down!" his son crowed at the last practice before breaking for Christmas.

Ace called his dad about the matchup when it was announced and Tracy felt a few emotions. Before, it was really easy to say he would always pull for his son if the matchup ever happened; now, it was here.

He thought about all the times he and his son had talked with longtime coach Bobby Bowden; how former FSU stars that had grown up around Ace, like Bradenton's Peter Warrick, had mentored his son. He also thought about when he played against USC -- Sanders played the Gamecocks in some of the last games in the series.

From 1985-88, Sanders played USC three times and won all of them. Convincingly. The Gamecocks were hammered 56-14 in Tallahassee in 1985, when Tracy had two tackles; he picked off a pass and raced 20 yards in a 45-28 triumph in Columbia in 1986; and he had four tackles in a 59-0 pasting in Columbia in 1988, still the Gamecocks' worst home loss.

Tracy remembered a few of those moments -- the names of Robert Brooks and Sterling Sharpe came back to him -- and USC remembers the losses, as well as three of the names on those coaching staffs. Wally Burnham, Brad Scott and Skip Holtz, plus a volunteer assistant named Mark Richt, were on those teams as well.

But that was a long time ago. The present is what his son, who sports No. 9 (his dad wore No. 16 before Chris Weinke made it famous) is doing.

Ace is one of four freshmen who were deemed worthy enough to play right away in his first season and galloped 53 yards on a reverse the first time he touched the ball. Tracy missed the first game, but was there for the others; it's been quite a thrill watching his namesake play in the big time.

"I got the opportunity to see him up closer and personal," as one could almost see the wide smile through the phone line. "Really a proud moment."

Now it gets to be ratcheted up a bit. Ace is already part of one of the firsts in USC history, the initial SEC East champion in school history, and wants to complete his freshman year as part of one of only two teams to win 10 games.

There's also the matter of showing Florida State what it could have had.

"I got to talk to the wide receivers coach when I was getting recruited, he said they like taller receivers," Ace shrugged. "I don't got any hard feelings toward any of them."

Dad will be front row-center in Atlanta on Dec. 31, wearing USC gear and cheering for Ace as he and the Gamecocks attempt to knock off his former school. Son will be on the field as USC's primary punt returner, plus a slot receiver who caught 24 balls for 300 yards and two touchdowns this year while winning freshman All-SEC honors.

No matter the result, a team close to Tracy will be dealing with a loss afterward. The elder Sanders wasn't hesitant when asked -- he hopes it's the team that wears gold with its garnet, not black.

"I would not be disappointed at all," he said. "I told him, 'Ace, I hope you score against them. Let them see what they missed.' That's whose side I'm going to be on and cheering for. That would make it a perfect new year."

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