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Remembering Don Sanders
CHS Hall of Famer died in December
Former Bulldog star athlete Don Sanders passed away at the age of 80 in December. The 1951 Ceres High grad earned a football scholarship to Stanford and got drafted by the 49ers.

Don Sanders was inducted into Ceres High School's Athletic Hall of Fame in 2009.

The 1951 graduate starred in multiple sports, earned a football scholarship to Stanford and got drafted by the 49ers.

Sanders, 80, passed away in Modesto on Dec. 18.

"The thing I'm really thankful for is I have a great family," Don said in an article published in the Courier four-plus years ago.

Sanders earned 12 varsity letters at CHS, including three in football, basketball, baseball and track and field.

"In my opinion, he's the best athlete to ever come out of Ceres High," said Kenny Leuenhagen, one of Don's prep teammates. "He played everything and excelled. He was a big, strong kid. He had good speed. He was graceful. He was humble. He wasn't a bragger."

Don had a memorable senior year.

He led the Bulldogs' football program to a share of the Valley Oak League title. Under head coach Wayne Hardin's guidance, Don developed into one of the area's top quarterbacks. Sanders claimed the conference's outstanding player award.

Don placed fifth in the 120 high hurdles at the CIF Championships in Berkeley. He completed the event in a personal-best time of 14.5 seconds.

Sanders also won Class-A section, sub-section and conference titles in the 120 high hurdles and 180 low hurdles. Don set VOL meet records in both events (14.8, 20.2).

"Football seemed to be the most satisfying," Don said when asked which sport he enjoyed competing in the most. "The thing about football that's so good is it's a team sport. I always enjoyed the physical part of it. We had no face masks. Nowadays, the guys are bundled up in all kind of crap. It was a whole different ball game when I played. Guys were getting their teeth knocked out and not thinking anything about it."

"I was a sophomore when he was a senior," Leuenhagen said. "I ran track with him. He was a great athlete. He could do everything."

Don turned down scholarship offers from Fresno State, San Jose State, Santa Clara University, Loyola Marymount University, Whitworth College and Colorado State to attend Stanford University.

It didn't take long for Sanders to make a name for himself on the gridiron as he helped lead his team to a 9-2 overall record.

Don became the first freshman to start in the Rose Bowl. The 6-foot-1, 174-pound defensive back blocked an extra point in Stanford's 40-7 loss to Illinois in Pasadena. Approximately 96,825 fans attended the first-ever televised college football game.

"It was unbelievable," Sanders said. "We had to go there a week or two before to practice. We lived there. It was so exciting. People would come up to us. I just wish we could have won it. That would have been the highlight of my whole career. But we didn't have a lot of good replacements. When you play those good Big-10 teams, they wear you down."

Academically ineligible as a sophomore, Don attended spring practices in 1953 to prepare for the upcoming season.
Sanders' comeback attempt was thwarted when he received a notice to report for Army Induction into the Korean War. Don spent 11 months overseas. He served on the front line, where he lived in trenches and foxholes and was shot at.

"I went off to Korea, did my two years, then came back," Don said. "I never played football again."

San Francisco used its 28th pick to select Sanders in the 1955 NFL Draft. Don passed up the opportunity to play for the 49ers because he had a more important priority.

"I didn't do it because I was married and I had a six-month-old daughter," Sanders said. "The contract in those days for the first year was $6,000. I didn't want to get crippled up so I couldn't support my family. I had responsibilities."

Don returned to Stanford and earned a bachelor's degree in geology in 1957.

Sanders was an assistant city planner for Monterey and Modesto. He was a real estate broker for 50 years.

Lelia, Don's wife, died in 1999. The high school sweethearts were married for over 40 years. They have two children, Jennifer and Jeff, three grandchildren, Clint Haglund and Easton Haglund, and three great grandchildren, Kendyll, Cash and Paige.

Clint and Easton both played football at Central Catholic.