College News & Analysis

“Be a man”: Raheim Sanders on juggling fatherhood while being one of the best running backs in the country

  • Arkansas running back Raheim Sanders sits down for an exclusive interview with PFF.
  • One of the best running backs in college football and the NFL draft: Sanders is my No. 3 returning running back in the country and looks like one of the top running back prospects in the 2024 NFL Draft.
  • They don’t call him “Rocket” for nothing: The speedy Sanders tied for second among Power Five backs last year with 16 carries that went for 20-plus yards.
Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Long before Raheim Sanders was leaving SEC defenders in the dust, he was doing the same to the defensive players in his Rockledge, Florida community. On one run early in his football career, he earned a nickname that he’s carried ever since. 

“When I first got my nickname, ‘Rocket,’ I was probably around seven [years old],” Sanders said in an exclusive interview with PFF. “What’s crazy is the team that I was on was called the Rockets. I scored my first touchdown, nobody touched me. I was fast and showed off a little burst. A little 70-yard touchdown. My head coach gave me the nickname after that.”

That game-breaking speed transferred from the gridiron over to the track. While short-lived, Sanders’ career as a sprinter was enough to show just how insane his juice is.

“In high school, my mom always wanted me to run track,” he said. “But my high school coach always told me that I wouldn’t have time between football and basketball. When COVID happened and we were told we couldn’t go on college visits, I actually did track practice like two or three times. That weekend, I had a meet and I ran the 100-meter dash. They shot the gun and I fell off the blocks. But I kept going and still got first place. That was the only time I really ran. I had to prove something because in high school, I was pretty big. Guys didn’t think I was faster than them.”

The then 6-foot-2, 210-pound high school senior was listed as a four-star athlete in the 2021 class and held offers from major programs like Oklahoma, Florida State and Miami (FL). However, Sanders was more excited about playing against the powerhouses in college football rather than playing for them.

“I always wanted to play against the Alabamas and the LSUs,” he said. “I wanted to change the team I’m on instead of being on a big-name team. I wanted to be around some unknown guys that changed a team. When I first got my call from Arkansas, I was in the restroom getting ready for a basketball game. It was just the feeling over the phone and how much love they were showing that made me want to go there.”

As a true freshman in 2021, Sanders ran for 578 yards on 114 attempts, earning a 74.2 rushing grade in the process. He broke out in a major way this past season, rushing for the sixth-most yards in the Power Five (1,466) and improving his rushing grade to an 87.4 mark. Despite being a bigger back at 237 pounds, “Rocket” tied for the second-most 20-plus yard carries in the Power Five (16).

“Rocket, of course, comes with speed,” Sanders said. “When you get to the next level, it’s not all about the speed though. It’s about knowing what I have in front of me. My first year, I second-guessed myself. [This past season,] I was going for the first move and not second-guessing myself. I was just more comfortable. The more comfortable you are, the easier you’ll learn things and attack them.”

Keeping Sanders focused is a dry-erase board in his room where he keeps his goals. For the longest time, he had one goal written on there:

“Be a man.”

“Being a man is just pouring out your abilities to make the next guy better,” Sanders said. “Being a man is just helping people around you and controlling what you can control in life.”

Now, Sanders has another simple phrase written on his board.

“My main goal is, ‘You can do it,’” he said. “Everybody has bad days where they don’t want to wake up or do certain things. Writing that down keeps me motivated.”

Also keeping Sanders motivated is his young son, Raheim Jr.

“With me not seeing him 24/7, he inspires me in a pretty big way,” Sanders said. “He definitely plays a big part in this. Of course, it’s a lot. But it’s a different type of love when you have a little one. With him in my life, he pushes me more. It’s really just time management. Pouring time into him, pouring time into the game and pouring in time with my family.”

When asked if his son will follow in his father’s footsteps and become a top prospect in the NFL Draft, Sanders’ eyes lit up.

“Oh yeah, oh yeah,” he said with a laugh. “I’ll put my son in every sport but I’m going to fight for football to be the first one.” 

Before Rocket Jr. captivates the college football world in 2040, he’ll have to settle for watching his father’s college and NFL career first.

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