A four-week absence from practice and games still awaits him, but the second-year veteran wide receiver said it was a positive to return. Jaguars Head Coach Gus Bradley ran to him and hugged him “like a son.” Teammates greeted him with hugs and smiles.
They were, Sanders said, special moments.
“That meant a lot,” Sanders said Sunday afternoon. “They (his teammates) kind of kept me going through everything. They were very supportive and when I first stepped foot onto the facility (Saturday), it was all love. It always feels good to know people love you.”
Sanders, who missed training camp and the first three preseason games dealing with personal issues, rejoined the team at EverBank Field Sunday and worked on the side during practice at the Florida Blue Health and Wellness Practice Fields. He will serve a four-game suspension at the start of the regular season for violation of the NFL’s substance-abuse policy.
Sanders said the absence during training camp was tough at times.
“I kept in contact with a lot of the guys and got to watch here and there,” he said. “It’s tough being away from something that you love. But when you see people succeeding on the field, it makes you feel good. It made me feel better.”
Bradley has said Sanders may play in the team’s preseason finale against the Atlanta Falcons Thursday at EverBank.
“(Sanders was in) great spirits,” Bradley said Sunday, two days after the Jaguars’ 13-12 loss at Detroit in the third game of the 2014 NFL preseason. “He was in the team meeting. Guys were excited to see him. … You know Ace. His spirit is great. The team felt it right away.”
Bradley said he had stayed in contact with Sanders mainly through text messages during his absence, and that he spoke with the wide receiver upon his arrival.
“He feels like he’s in really good spirits,” Bradley said. “He knows he’s not where he needs to be, but he’s better than where he was. I know he’s got a lot of things going on right now, so we’ll help him with that.”
Sanders said it’s his understanding his status for Thursday will depend on conditioning.
“I’m striving to be out there Thursday,” Sanders said, adding that he conditioned three or four times a week without catching footballs during his absence.
He also said his big adjustment will be to the North Florida heat.
Sanders, who will begin serving his suspension following the preseason finale, will be able to attend meetings and be around his teammates during that period.
“I’ll still learn everything,” Sanders said. “I just can’t be on the field.”
Sanders said the absence helped him rethink his approach in practice and in games.
“I thought about a lot of stuff – plays I might have left on the field, plays I might have took off in practice,” he said. “I just started appreciating it more. It makes me want to make every play like it’s my last play, whether it’s in practice or in the meeting room. It just upped my motivation.”
Bradley and General Manager David Caldwell said at the time of Sanders’ suspension – when he and the team made the mutual decision for Sanders to miss training camp to address his issues – that they expected Sanders to have a role with the team this season. Sanders said Sunday he believes he would have stepped away from the team during camp even without assurances from Caldwell and Bradley.
“I’m confident I can come and compete,” Sanders said. “As far as getting my life in order, sometimes you have to take a backseat. I’m still going to be living when I’m done playing football.”