By John Murphy
SAN FRANCISCO — His mom beat drugs. He beat the streets. And his purple-clad team is beating everyone in sight.
Meet Archbishop Riordan High running back Raymone Sanders. He’s been a few steps from Hell in his young life and a short sprint to the end zone for much of this magical 2015 season.
Raymone, en route to 542 yards rushing and eight touchdowns during this perfect Riordan season, has endured much, including:
–Growing up in a single-parent home in the projects of Hunters Point, known as the “HP.”
— Being raised by a crack cocaine-addicted mother who has since recovered, but is now battling Multiple Sclerosis and a mysterious mouth affliction.
— Letting go of the anger of growing up without his dad (who now attends games) in an environment where violence, drugs and despair abound.
“Sometimes the SWAT team will come by the house,” said Raymone, sitting in the Riordan football bleachers on a rare hot afternoon in the city. “A lot of gunshot happens, like every two nights. You see drug dealers around the corner. I lost a friend around the corner when I was 13.”
The “friend” was actually a cousin. “That was blood,” Raymone said.
“I kind of talk about it so I can release my anger,” the 5-foot-8, 155-pound stick of dynamite said. “But I don’t think about it too much because my mom says not to. If you stress on it you’ll perform bad and you’ll do bad in school.”
Ah, perform — that’s something Riordan and Raymone are doing in spades this season after a 1-9 2014 season. The Crusaders, heading into Saturday’s 5 p.m. showdown with perennial power Bellarmine College Prep (4-1, 1-1) at Terra Nova High, are 5-0 overall and 2-0 in the West Catholic Athletic League. It’s a development about as expected as the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake that hit the Bay Area like a sledgehammer.
Last Saturday against another long-time Riordan nemesis, Serra, Riordan scored a smashing 66-45 win at the City College of San Francisco, breaking a slew of school records along the way. Raymone was at his best, scoring three touchdowns and rushing for 182 yards on 13 carries. Included was a 73-yard bolt of lightning with just over four minutes left in the third quarter. The Riordan back took a handoff from quarterback Jacky Luavasa and broke to his right, then cut left and out-raced athletic Serra safety Jaylyn Membreno to the end zone.
That gave once-laughingstock Riordan a 52-35 lead, much to the delight of a growing base of Crusader fans whose numbers are multiplying with each game.
“It’s really motivating,” Raymone said. “You don’t want to make a mistake. You just want to be calm and keep doing what we’re doing so we can bring some more fans and bring Riordan spirit back to the school.”
Riordan has had pockets of glory in football since 1966 when its Cal Erskine-coached team stunned Bellarmine 13-10 under the lights at Kezar Stadium. That prompted students to tear down the goal posts, with one of the stray pieces of wood now signed by the team and sitting in the office of Crusaders’ athletic director Mike Gilleran.
“We’ve beaten Bellarmine once since Nam,” said first-year coach Kevin Fordon.
“Since what?” he was asked.
“Since Vietnam,” said Fordon with a smile, referring to the 2000 season when Riordan went 5-0 in the WCAL to win its first league championship since back-to-back titles in 1971 and 1972.
Raymone was lured to Riordan because his brother, Rodney Sanford, played there 15 years ago, as did his cousin on his father’s side, Eric Wright, the former USC and NFL player who finished his career with the San Francisco 49ers.
Hunters Point has produced some notable Crusaders over the years, including pros Donald Strickland and Wright, as well as former Riordan running back Tyrone McGraw and receiver Daniel Cannon.
Another NFL player out of Riordan is running back Steve Sewell, said to be a boyfriend of Raymone’s mom Wendy Butler back in the day.’
CHASING THE HIGH
Wendy appeared at the weathered Riordan football venue Wednesday after the interview with Raymone finished. She’s hard to miss with brightly dyed red hair, a crimson Betty Boop tattoo on her right arm and polka dot finger nails.
The single mom grew up near Riordan in a middle-class family and was a track star at Lincoln High out in the Sunset District. But a broken leg hindered her track career and drugs (specifically crack cocaine) turned her life upside-down.
“Before Raymone was born I was on drugs, but he doesn’t know what that kind of mother is,” Wendy said. “I’ve been clean since 1989. I’m not ashamed of it because it made me the woman that I am. I feel I’m a strong individual. I feel like all my kids got their determination from my will. I went in (to rehabilitation) and never looked back.”
Wendy’s father and uncle took her to a tough, pre-2000s rehab, not the country club atmosphere today’s programs offer. The 13 ½ months she spent in rehab saved her life.
“My upbringing had a lot to do with getting off of it,” Wendy said. “It started off as fun — it was just supposed to be a fun thing. I had the money and my parents gave me anything at that time that I wanted to help take care of my two older kids. But before you know it, it’s no longer fun. Before you know it, you’re chasing the drug. It’s not party time anymore.”
During one dark moment suicide seemed an option but Wendy shook the urge, much like her remarkable son sheds tacklers today.
Asked what goes through her mind during a game like Serra when she watches her youngest, Wendy said: “There goes my baby! There’s my baby! I used to run track and I tell him “You know you got your speed from your mama?” That all comes from me. But when I see him going through the end zone I say “There goes my baby. “I’m just proud he can hang with these big guys.”
POWERED BY SKIPPY
The Hunters Point residents don’t have it easy. They share a three-bedroom place with an aunt who has cancer and her small daughter.
“Things are really tight,” Raymone said. “Sometimes there’s no food in the house to eat and my coaches help. I come to school and they feed me peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and give me some of their food. It’s really tough sometimes.”
Then there’s the neighborhood which is bleak and dangerous, at best. When Raymone was in the sixth grade returning from basketball practice, he came across a dead body.
“That was at Third and Palou,” he said. “He was shot — two bullet holes in his back. When I saw that it was like nothing I could think of. Stuff like that, I don’t even like to think about.”
“There are a lot of gangs; too much I think. I look around and I don’t really like it because it’s taking the younger kids — kids younger than me that looked up to me when I was playing Pop Warner that’s involved in gangs now. Ten years old, 11 years old. It’s crazy.”
San Francisco police officer Rob Fung, the recently retired Washington High-San Francisco High baseball coach, agrees the HP is no paradise.
“I’ve never lived in this young man’s shoes,” he said. “I trained out there and occasionally patrol that area. It is one, if not the toughest, areas in the city. It’s a tough place for a kid to grow up.”
Raymone has muddled by but not without help. His mom signed him up for Pop Warner football and track and field at a young age, but he grew into an angry, resentful kid by middle school, with a penchant for bullying.
“I was a violent kid when I was younger,” Raymone said. “I used to get in fights a lot. I’d bully kids. I knew I was stronger than a lot of people. And I’d take my anger and frustration out on the kids that were not as strong as me. The weak links. I feel bad about that because it’s not cool.”
Raymone’s brother Rodney snapped him out of it, teaching him to channel his aggression on the field. And a San Francisco Warriors’ Pop Warner coach nudged him toward Riordan, an all-boys Catholic school of just under 700 students (1,000 fewer than this week’s opponent, Bellarmine) that’s in the working-class Outer Mission/Sunnyside neighborhood.
An indifferent student for three years on Phelan Avenue, Raymone has made a late rush and is said to be NCAA Division I eligible, with Cal State Sacramento in hot pursuit.
“I have him in class this semester and he’s completely different (than last year),” said Fordon who was the offensive coordinator last season. “He’s the first one to raise his hand and he always has his homework done. He got an A on my mid-term; it’s like night and day. It just shows how much this kid’s grown up.”
It didn’t come easily. Raymone’s mom not only has MS but that severe gum disease doctors at first thought might be cancer. Fordon found out in August, but Raymone was not told until last Thursday for fear it would sidetrack him. His three-TD performance against Serra was dedicated to his mom, who is in the painful process now of having her teeth extracted.
Said Serra coach Patrick Walsh of Raymone. “I was very impressed with his speed, agility and toughness. He really hit the holes hard and ran through a ton of tackles. He ran right up the middle on us and seemed to be in a different gear. I think he has the ability to play at the next level.”
Now with Riordan ranked among the top 25 teams in the state for the first time in school history, Wendy contemplates all that’s happened and gives thanks for the all-boys school he attends.
“Raymone has changed, even at home,” Wendy said. “I’d don’t have to say please do this and why didn’t you do this? “I’m starting to see the maturity of him becoming a responsible young man. I owe that all to Riordan. They taught him education is first and being a great athlete is important but it’s not a priority. All of these men around him made a difference for my son.”