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C.J. Saunders, Buckeyes are working, protesting, kneeling for change

C.J. Saunders-Ohio State-Buckeyes-Ohio State football
Ohio State captain C.J. Saunders continues to prove his leadership for Buckeyes. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

Ohio State Football

C.J. Saunders, Buckeyes are working, protesting, kneeling for change

COLUMBUS — C.J. Saunders had spent a few days helping prepare Ohio State for a peaceful protest, and suddenly he didn’t know if he would even make it.

Being in jail overnight wasn’t part of the plan. And with no cell phone, no place to get any restful sleep and no real idea when he was going to be released for being out past curfew as part of a separate protest on Monday night, Saunders had some doubts that he’d actually be on campus on time to kneel with the Buckeyes.

There weren’t any concerns that the Kneel For Nine event wouldn’t happen without him, because the Ohio State leadership council on the football team had more than enough activists ready to pull it off either way. But Saunders wanted to keep doing his part after fellow captain Tuf Borland had helped plant the idea over the weekend, so he effectively went straight from one event that didn’t go exactly as he envisioned to another that went off without a hitch.

“Jail was definitely not part of the plan,” Saunders joked on Wednesday after a whirlwind two days. “It was just important to me as stuff was going on and people were posting stuff, I was just wondering how I was going to show my support and make my impact. I think it was mostly because I grew up all around African Americans, especially in sports. I was exposed to everything about the culture, and some of my best friends ever before I came to Ohio State were black. Obviously when I got here, they were my teammates and my coaches and I just had so many great experiences.

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Ohio State wide receiver C.J. Saunders is hoping for one more season with the Buckeyes. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

“Really it’s my relationships with my African-American brothers and sisters. That made me realize I had to do something. If there was a way to help, even just going out with two of my best friends and walk with them and show my respect, that’s what I’m going to do.”

Saunders has now done that twice this week, once with the attention accidentally shining on him directly thanks to his arrest and then collectively as he intended with the rest of the Buckeyes taking a knee on Tuesday.

About four hours after he was released from his overnight stay in the Franklin County Jail, Saunders was putting tape down to mark spots for social distancing, making sure Buckeyes from dozens of sports were wearing masks and then ultimately delivering some brief remarks from the back of a pickup truck.

Saunders has plenty of company at Ohio State speaking out as part of the Black Lives Matter movement that continues to gain momentum across the country. He’s not even the first Buckeyes player to be detained by police after basketball transfer Seth Towns took part in a downtown march last week. And by one rough count there were more than 200 athletes at the Kneel For Nine demonstration, which had the full support of coaches like Ryan Day and Chris Holtmann who attended with athletic director Gene Smith and president Michael Drake.

That came on the heels of the football program putting together a black-and-white video with a powerful, inclusive message that has already been viewed more than 700,000 times on Twitter alone as of Wednesday afternoon. And the Buckeyes might only be scratching the surface as they finally get a chance to come back together in the Woody Hayes Athletic Center for workouts starting on Monday.

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Ohio State captain Tuf Borland helped organize an event with C.J. Saunders. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

“Tuf and his girlfriend, they texted me and said: Hey, with our platform, I think we can get a lot of guys on our team and a lot of athletes around on campus,” Saunders said. “You tell me something like that, I’m ready. And I’ve been fortunate enough to meet a lot of people and make some great connections on Ohio State, so I was able to send that out to a bunch of people. They were all for it, and we loved to see it. The leadership committee on our team that’s voted on by players, I hit up the group chat and asked those guys to get there early so we could lay tape out and emphasize wearing masks to try to keep social distancing as best we could. We still want to have a season, so we took as many safe steps as we could and [player development director Ryan] Stamper helped with that. A lot of guys stepped up to let that go as smooth as possible.

“The leaders on the team took charge, and when our guys are passionate about something — and this is an issue that everybody is passionate about — it doesn’t take much to get guys involved.”

Those guys certainly had a few questions about the experience Saunders had on Monday night, and he made it a point to make sure everybody was aware that the curfew is clearly taken seriously by law enforcement.

Saunders called the officers “great” and his friends “fully compliant” before they were processed in a nearby fire department before heading to their holding cells at the county jail. And other than not being able to get his phone call until early in the morning when nobody was answering to come bail him out, Saunders had no real complaints about the situation other than some soreness that felt like he had just played a game.

Whatever it takes to help spread the word, both he and the Buckeyes are willing to put in the effort.

“If you ask an African-American, their messages might be a little different,” Saunders said. “But from my perspective, I just wanted us to hopefully address systematic racism, that the issues are real and we can’t ignore what is going on. We need to take steps. We need to take action. And when we did the video as a team, we wanted to talk about the love for your neighbor, the love for one another. We know in our program, whether you’re white, black or any race, it doesn’t matter. We judge you on who you are and how you treat people.

“We wanted to see if we could use our program, our platform to emphasize that to the community. We know the power of that platform we hold as both players and coaches, so we want people to know that we’re against the systematic racism and everything that has gone on with Mr. [George] Floyd. We’re not here to attack another race, we’re not here to attack the police. We’re here to spread love. We stand together with everyone. That’s what we want to portray, and we’re going to keep finding ways to do it.”

As C.J. Saunders found out, those plans can change in a hurry. But that didn’t slow him down on Tuesday, and the Buckeyes as a whole might just be getting started.

Austin Ward

Austin Ward is Lettermen Row's senior writer covering Ohio State football and basketball. The award-winning journalist has covered the Buckeyes since 2012, spending five of those seasons working for ESPN after previous stints at the Casper Star-Tribune and Knoxville News Sentinel.