How Eagles RB Miles Sanders made his breakout season a reality -- just in time for a payday

PHILADELPHIA -- Running back Miles Sanders was mic'd up for the Philadelphia Eagles' first game against the New York Giants on Dec. 11 -- a playoff preview, as it turns out -- and leaned into the assignment by hamming it up.

"On that play if you hear me yelling like Bobby Boucher [from 'The Waterboy']," he told Jalen Hurts pregame, "just know that's me."

"That play" was a designed quarterback run up the gut in the third quarter that called for the 5-foot-11, 211-pound Sanders to act as the lead back and block 6-foot-2, 249-pound linebacker Azeez Ojulari at the point of attack. Sanders broke into a primal scream the moment the ball was snapped, charged into the hole and popped Ojulari so hard he lost his footing and was easily pushed to the ground, allowing Hurts to scoot through for a 13-yard gain.

"I went in there like 'The Waterboy!'" Sanders said with a laugh on the sidelines afterward, in the midst of a career day (144 rushing yards, 2 touchdowns) that powered a 48-22 Eagles win. "I said '51! Errrerrerrr!'"

It wasn't hard to connect how life, to some measure, was imitating art -- or whatever you want to call the Adam Sandler film.

Teammates and coaches have noted how Sanders is running angry this year -- one of the keys to unlocking his full potential. He finished the regular season with the fifth-most rushing yards (1,269) and with the fourth-most rushing touchdowns (11) in the NFL, obliterating career highs en route to his first Pro Bowl nod. He is out for the "respect I finally deserve."

There is a well of fuel for the Pennsylvania born-and-raised Sanders to draw from. The deepest waters flow back to his childhood in Pittsburgh, where he watched his mother, Marlene, toil and sacrifice to raise three children on her own. He committed to football, hoping to one day make life better for her and his family. There is the deceit he felt upon arrival at Penn State University, according to those who know him best, where he was forced to take a backseat to this weekend's counterpart, Saquon Barkley. There is the lack of recognition from peers at his position after injuries and circumstance prevented him from meeting early expectations. And there is the absence of a second contract with the Eagles with his rookie deal set to expire at season's end.

That fuel will power Sanders on Saturday when the Eagles host Barkley and the Giants in the NFC divisional playoff round (8:15 p.m. ET, Fox).

"We try to ignore all the stuff that's being said about us, but we hear it, we see it. I just tuck it in. And I think about it all friggin' day," Sanders told ESPN. "Especially when I'm training, I'm thinking like, 'OK, I really don't have no respect out here. Why don't people respect me?' Stuff like that going through my head. I just wanted to earn a lot of respect. And the only way I knew how to do that was work, work, work."

SANDERS WAS A five-star recruit coming out of high school in Churchill, Pennsylvania.

Marlene, who immigrated from Jamaica to the U.S. when she was 16, signed up Miles and his brothers Brian and Kobe for football to keep them occupied in the late afternoon while she worked as a property manager for the Allegheny County Housing Authority -- a job she still holds.

"I used to see my mom struggle a lot and didn't really talk to my dad as much. I kind of realized all the stuff she was doing by herself," Sanders said. "Once I got a chance to really play, I noticed that I could go to school for free. And I just knew that was my chance to make life easier for her.

"So it was all about just trying to do what can I do to get my mom in a better situation. Because I just sat there and watched it -- being a kid, you can't really do nothing, you don't really know what's going on. But you know that means hurt when you see tears falling down your parent's face."

Sanders had 24 scholarship offers, Marlene said, and was excited about joining good friend Damar Hamlin and other area standouts at Pitt.

But the prospects of a larger platform were alluring, as was Penn State's sales pitch.

"They come in your house and they tell you what you want to hear," Marlene said, "They pull out their little books and show you, 'Yeah, it's going to be a two-man punch' -- that's basically what we were told at the time -- 'it's going to be you and Saquon.'"

Sanders became the first commit of the 2016 class. Barkley, though, tore it up as a freshman in 2015, racking up over 1,200 scrimmage yards with eight touchdowns. Sanders received just 56 carries total over his first two seasons. It wasn't until Barkley left for the NFL that Sanders got any meaningful backfield work.

"He came out of some of the games the first two years and was like, 'I don't want to be here. They lied to me,'" Marlene said. "I told him, 'We're here now, we're not the type that just jumps from one place to another. Let's just regroup, and I will be there every single game.'"

With money tight, Marlene stayed true to her word. She'd drive from Pittsburgh to State College and back all in the same day to avoid lodging costs. If the Nittany Lions were playing in, say, Iowa, she'd make the 10-hour trek.

During Sanders' three years in college, Marlene said she put 138,000 miles on her Kia. There was added significance, then, when Sanders bought a new Lexus for Marlene less than a month after being drafted by Philadelphia.

"You deserve the world, momma," he wrote on Instagram.

Sanders was actually going for something bigger -- he wanted to buy Marlene a new house, she said, but she held him off. That will come when he secures a new contract this offseason.

During their time at Penn State, Barkley and Sanders would occasionally room together and remain close today, though their competitiveness in college was undeniable. Barkley recalled a September 2017 game against Temple when a direct shot to the knee on the first play of the game forced him to the sideline temporarily.

"[The other Penn State backs] were so excited -- not because I was hurt but because they were going to get their opportunity. It was Miles Sanders, Mark Allen, Allen Robinson. And I remember just looking there like, 'Oh, these motherf---ers. These motherf---ers,'" Barkley said. "They were excited because it was their chance, they get a chance to go out there and make a play. They held it down."

Those competitive pistons still appeared to be firing last week when Barkley was asked about how things shook out for Sanders early on.

"Was Miles Sanders lied to? No, I don't think he was lied to," Barkley said with a smile. "Did Miles Sanders come to college and play behind a freshman All-American the year before, and thinking he was going to get more snaps than he's supposed to? That's the real question. No, I applaud Miles because I think he handled it amazing."

By the end of his second season, Sanders had only touched the ball 64 times. Making matters worse, the running backs coach who recruited him, Charles Huff, exited the same time Barkley did, taking a job with Mississippi State.

"With my running backs coach gone, I thought my opportunity was gone, literally, because I just felt like I didn't get a fair chance based on how things went out," Sanders said. "I just took it upon myself to just say, 'F' this and just go ball out. So that's exactly what I did."

With Barkley out of the picture, Sanders rushed 220 times for 1,274 yards and nine touchdowns as a junior, leading to him being picked 53rd overall by the Eagles in the 2019 NFL draft.

"The timing just wasn't right but he was a heck of a back," Barkley said. "Do I think, looking back on it, could Penn State have used both of us? Yeah, but I think our careers are playing out really well."

CRAIG WILLIAMS WAS Sanders' first football coach, coming into his life when Sanders was 7 years old, and remains his mentor and father figure. A 20-year military vet, he has been putting Sanders through the same type of grueling offseason workouts for years.

There were only two notable changes this past offseason. First was location: They moved it from Miami to Rice University in Houston. The soul food in Houston fit Sanders' Jamaican-inspired tastes well, helping him to keep his weight up. The second was a shift in mentality, to prove not to others but himself that he was a dominant running back.

"And by showing me, you all are going to see that I am a top running back in the NFL if -- and this is what we wavered at -- if given the opportunity," Sanders said.

Various injuries over his first three seasons limited Sanders' production. But volume has also had something to do with it: Sanders has averaged just 13 carries per game over his career. For perspective, he has 510 fewer rushes than Derrick Henry since 2019 despite playing in two more games than Henry over that span.

Like his days at Penn State, patience has proven to be a virtue. And questions have crept in at times, Marlene said, about whether the team has properly backed up their words with actions.

"The media would say something and then [coach Nick] Sirianni would come out and say, 'No, Miles is our guy.' But then on Sunday, you give him less than 10 reps," she said. "And he's looking at it like, 'Well, are they lying to me or not?"

Sanders, 25, has been eligible for a new contract for about a year, but with the regular season over and free agency looming, there are no signs that anything is close.

"This year, he and Coach Craig talked and he was like, 'Just remember that you're out here to perform. If you're not performing for the Eagles, you're performing for someone else. So you have to get that in your head, this is not just for the Eagles, you are putting on your show for all 32 teams. At some point, if they don't want to pay you what you deserve, somebody else will,'" Marlene said.

Sanders has at least one more showcase game for the Eagles and the rest of the NFL, and it comes against his former backfield mate, Barkley. This is Sanders' third playoff appearance and he doesn't yet have a win to show for it. Changing that is clearly the top priority.

After the playoffs, focus will shift to a contract. And while the business side will factor in heavily, Sanders remains hopeful that the lifelong dream of sending his mother off happily into retirement will come while playing for the team that drafted him.

"I love Philly. Just bring me back. I hope they bring me back," Sanders said. "I love you [general manager] Howie [Roseman]. I hope you love me too."

Additional reporting by Jordan Raanan.