|Pressed into a starting role, James Sanders has rewarded the Patriots' confidence. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)|
FOXBOROUGH - James Sanders has driven past where his mother works. He's never actually gone inside and that's exactly the way Kathy Thompson wanted it.
Thompson has spent the last 14 years working as a correctional counselor at a Kings County California prison that contains gang members and maximum security inmates. For safety reasons, Thompson said she is not allowed to reveal the name or exact location of the prison. The county seat of Kings County is Hanford, Calif., which is about 35 miles south of Fresno.
"You always use your experiences in life and just teach them either you go to school and get an education and make something of yourself or you'll be in there," said Thompson, a mother of eight children.
Playing safety in a complex defense and for a demanding defensive guru like Patriots coach Bill Belichick is difficult, but Sanders knows that the trials and tribulations of being a professional football player pale to those in his mother's line of work. Blown coverages and missed tackles will get you benched, a letdown in a prison could cost you your life.
"Yeah, but I know they do a good job of keeping them safe out there with the prisoners and everything," said Sanders. "The main thing I ask, and I'm curious about, is what goes on there. She has some wild stories that you wouldn't even think of, but I know she's in good hands."
So are the Patriots with Sanders. The third-year safety filled a void in the Patriots secondary while safety Rodney Harrison missed the first four games for violating the league's substance abuse policy. He's remained a starter when Harrison returned, joining his mentor in New England's defensive backfield and producing like him.
Sanders, who had 10 career starts, including the playoffs, in his first two seasons, has started all 10 games this season - five at strong safety and five at free safety - and leads all Patriots defensive backs in tackles with 47, according to the coaches' film review.
The 24-year-old has come a long way from the unsure safety who was pressed into action because of injuries during the third game of last season and surrendered a backbreaking 83-yard touchdown that sealed a 17-7 loss to the Denver Broncos.
"I'm just more comfortable," said Sanders, a 2005 fourth-round pick of the Patriots out of Fresno State, where he played for Belichick acolyte Pat Hill. "I know what I'm doing. I'm just going out there and playing ball, not thinking too much, just going out there and having fun and doing what they drafted me to come here and do, which is just go out there and hit and just fly around and hopefully make some plays out there."
Harrison has taken notice of his protégé's progress.
"I think it starts, obviously, in the classroom, then right into the weight room and on to the field," said Harrison. "You'll start seeing a result on the field on Sunday and that's what's been going on. James, he's finally comfortable out there. He knows exactly what he has to do and he's playing with a lot of confidence."
Having to replace Harrison, the leader of the secondary, was a major responsibility and some questioned whether Sanders was ready for the role, but Thompson, his mother, knew he was.
During a period when Thompson was a single mother, she leaned on Sanders to take care of his siblings and the family's Porterville, Calif., residence while she was at work.
There was no margin for error, no gray area. Doors had to be locked, children had to be fed, homework and chores had to be done.
"He made sure when I came through the door those things were done," said Thompson. "He was very responsible and continued to grow up that way."
Sanders, who has a son of his own now, said he learned a lot from helping to raise his siblings, who range in age from sister Ashlee, 23, to 14-year-old Greyson Henderson.
"It just taught me responsibility and I take that into anything and everything that I do, just to be responsible and work hard and be dedicated to what you're doing," said Sanders.
Belichick has noticed, saying that "nobody works harder than James" to get all of the Patriots' defensive schemes, game plan tweaks, and play responsibilities down.
In the New England defense, the safeties are like switchboard operators, relaying pass coverages and alignments based on the opposing offense's formations or presnap movements.
"James has been very good at that probably from about the middle of last year on - communication, talking about the defensive calls and adjustments," said Belichick.
"He's real good at that. He understands the defense, he understands our adjustments and how the defense has to shift based on what the offense does before the snap, and that's part of a safety's job to make those adjustments and communicate those to the corners or, in some cases, the linebackers. That's an important part of his job and he does it well. He's very good at it and he works hard at it."
Sanders's hard work finally translated into a turnover last Sunday in a 56-10 victory over the Buffalo Bills. Sanders, who is still looking for his first interception this season, set up the Patriots' final score, a 35-yard fumble return by Ellis Hobbs. The soft-spoken safety dislodged the ball from Bills running back Dwayne Wright with his helmet following a 5-yard pass play early in the fourth quarter.
"I thought he was going to run out of bounds, but then I saw the look on his face and he tried to size me up, so I just went in there and made the hit and the ball popped up in the air," said Sanders. "I didn't know what was going on until I looked and saw Ellis running in the end zone and I was like, 'Who caused it?' They were like, 'You,' and I was like, 'Yes [giving a fist pump]. I finally made a play.' That was a wild play."
Not as wild as some of the things that happen at his mother's place of work. Thompson acknowledged she works in a dangerous environment, but said she doesn't have any plans to retire right now.
"You just have to go out there and take it day by day. There are times when things happen and go on there, but as long as I've worked there, I've never had any problems with inmates that have been harmful for me."
Sanders plans to keep plugging along as an enforcer, just like his mother. He wants to keep improving and proving that he belongs.
"I think I get a lot from her," said Sanders. "I see her hard work and determination and bringing us up from where we were to where we are now and being successful and I get a lot of pride from my mother. She's my hero."