JEFFERSON CITY, Tenn. – Each Sunday during the 2017-18 school year, the Carson-Newman athletic communications department will shine a spotlight on a current or former Carson-Newman student athlete to tell a tale of life outside of his or her respective sport. This is Ish Sanders' story.
Life is good for former Carson-Newman men's basketball player Ish Sanders – save for one thing, hurricane evacuations.
The fifth all-time scorer in C-N men's basketball history recently signed a professional contract with El Yosiquesé Cordobasket, a team in the Spanish EBA league.
However, before he made the trip across the Atlantic Ocean, Sanders was forced to evacuate his Tampa, Fla. home as Hurricane Irma bore down on the Sunshine State.
The first thing that Sanders grabbed as he began evacuation preparations was his Carson-Newman diploma.
"Everything on the news would tell you to take everything important with you including important documents," Sanders said with a chuckle. "My diploma was the first thing I grabbed over my social security card and everything. It's very special to me."
There's a reason it's special to Sanders. The Cleveland, Tenn.-native obtained his degree on Aug. 25, just over a month ago. He finished his eligibility in 2014 after a prolific career for the Eagles and a boatload of accolades in tow. However, he couldn't say that he was a college graduate upon leaving the banks of Mossy Creek.
"Ish's performance on the floor here was as good and consistent as anyone that's come through here," his former head coach Chuck Benson said. "His performance in the classroom was less than his best. I think it took him leaving here without that degree to recognize its importance and value, and the need to complete it. Being gone allowed him to reflect and take the necessary steps to complete it. I'm unbelievably happy that he's done it."
It was reflection and persistence from several sources that brought Sanders back into the fold through online classes to finish what he started as a freshman in 2010.
He especially credits his mother and grandmother, plus his coach.
"Anytime I talked to Coach Benson, he found some way to talk about that degree," Sanders said "He tried his hardest to implant it in my mind anytime he could. To me, it was never a matter of if I would get it, but a matter of when."
The when came after a stellar season of professional ball in Australia's Big V league. Sanders was named an all-star while competing with the Sunburry Jets. He was second in that league in scoring with 28.3 points per game. He also averaged 4.7 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.5 steals per contest.
When the offseason rolled around and before he made his fourth professional stop in Spain, Sanders said he dedicated himself fully to completing it because, "why not?"
"It's a huge burden off my shoulders. Honestly it's still surreal that I have it," Sanders said. "My mom, dad, my nana used to drop little hints towards it too. The people that are around me the most realize how important it was. Being with someone (former women's basketball player Chante Markus) who has theirs really pushed me to get it also."
Part of what allowed Sanders to finish was the fact that he grew up. Something that both his girlfriend, Markus, and coach, Benson noticed.
"He grew up," Markus said, partially in jest, when first reached for this story. "He trusted in God's timing and fully believed he was given this window of opportunity for a reason. He worked incredibly hard to accomplish something that can never be taken away from him. It's been a long journey, but he did it! I couldn't be more proud of him!"
For Benson, he noticed Sanders moving beyond just basketball.
"Ish loves the game of basketball and the process that a team gets to go through," Benson said. "When he came here as an 18-year-old, that was his focal point. He did just enough to stay eligible. As you know, once you leave college and get into the adult world, there are realities that come into play that force you to make some decisions.
"Despite the fact that he is a professional basketball player, he still had time on his hands to think about his future and finishing the degree he started. It says something about his character and self-discipline. He knew how big a deal it was to his family and me too finish that degree, he wanted to honor a lot of people in addition to setting himself up for future success as a college graduate."
Sanders graduation also moves the men's basketball program closer to a milestone. Since Chuck Benson took over in 2010, all but one player who has completed their eligibility with the Eagles has gone on to complete their degree.
"We're hoping and praying that one individual will have the same experience Ish did and complete it," Benson said. "He's not far off, and we know it can be a difference maker in his life."
Sanders echoed Benson's advice.
"I would tell them to step out of looking at themselves as the 'basketball player' look at themselves as the 'college graduate,'" Sanders said. "Do it for yourself. When you do things for yourself and accomplish them they feel much better than if it's for someone else."
Even with the delay, Sanders doesn't have remorse for the three-year gap it took to complete his degree. At least not anymore
"You know what? I did (regret not finishing in 2014). I don't anymore," Sanders said. "I look at it as I got it when I deserved it. I don't feel I deserved it back then, I wouldn't have valued it as I do now. Now, I deserved it."
And that's why, it was worth making sure the degree was packed when it came time to evacuate for Irma.
"Only the closest people to me know this. I think a lot of people who only see the write ups and things think I have everything I need and my life is perfect," Sanders said. "That degree thing has been lurking over my head, trying to do that and support myself financially and make sure I am at the top of my game wasn't a walk in the park. I thank God for allowing me the time to finish it and keeping my body healthy to still do what I love."