Sanford almost played basketball at Wake Forest rather than becoming an All-American DB with the Gamecocks
Editor’s note: This is the first of a series of Q & As with members of the South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame.
The South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony and Banquet for the class of 2024 is set for May 20 at the Columbia Convention Center.
Rick Sanford was inducted into the South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame in 1998 and currently serves as a member of our Board of Directors. He was a standout defensive back for Northwestern High School and the University of South Carolina (1975-78). He earned first team All-America honors from the Sporting News as a senior.
He became the first 1st-round draft pick in South Carolina football history when he was selected 25th overall by the New England Patriots in 1979. He played seven years in the NFL for the Patriots (1979-84) and the Seattle Seahawks (1985).
Sanford played in 94 games during his NFL career and tallied 16 interceptions and three TDs. He was also inducted into the S.C. Football Hall of Fame in 2021.
1. What does it mean to be a member of the S.C. Athletic Hall of Fame?
It means everything to me. It’s such an honor to be among so many great individuals representing so many different sports. This is the highest honor you can receive as an athlete in this state. I remember as a young kid playing all the sports I could, football, baseball, basketball and I was running track. I was lucky God blessed me and allowed me to play all those sports.
2. Tell us about your recruiting process and why you chose the Gamecocks.
The Gamecocks always had a little bit of an upper hand because my family grew up South Carolina fans. Paul Dietzel was the football coach at the time and South Carolina was closer to home than most of the schools recruiting me. Most folks don’t realize this but I was more highly recruited as a basketball player than a football player. I almost went to Wake Forest to play basketball. I had nearly 100 offers to play basketball and about 40 offers to play football. I felt blessed to be able to play a number of different sports and enjoyed all of them.
Coach Dietzel started recruiting me to South Carolina then he left and coach Jim Carlen came in. I ended up being the first top signee for Coach Carlen.
3. Other than the Gamecocks, who were some of the other schools that recruited you?
There was Clemson and there was Georgia. Georgia actually told me I could play both football and basketball. Also, Wake Forest told me I could play football and basketball. One of the schools that I really considered was Baylor because of Dal Shealy. He was my recruiter at that time. I really liked Dal and my family liked Dal but it was just too far away. A lot of smaller schools in the state recruited me including Furman and coach Bobby Ross at The Citadel, who I thought was a great football coach.
One story I have to tell is about Georgia and coach Vince Dooley. Coach Dooley said “son if you come here to play for me you can play in your own stadium, Sanford Stadium.”
It was Clemson that finished second in my recruiting for football though. Clyde Wrenn was recruiting me at that time for Clemson and I’ll never forget he came to see me on Christmas day. He brought his wife and kids to come see me on Christmas. I heard a knock at the door, I opened the door and said, “Coach Wrenn what are you doing here?” He said, “Boy I never rest a day.” They ended up having Christmas dinner with us that year. Clyde was great and we are still very close and good friends. Some of my friends went to Clemson. Steve Fuller and I were very close and Steve was a tremendous quarterback for the Tigers. I guess Clemson ended up second in my recruiting and Georgia was third.
4. Describe your relationship with Head Coach Jim Carlen.
He was a wonderful man to me. He was very special. At that time many folks didn’t think I would choose South Carolina because of the coaching change. I remember coach Carlen coming to see me. The first time I met coach Carlen he said something to me that went a long way towards me going to Carolina and playing football. He said, “son I know you’re considering going to play basketball but there’s a lot of 6-2 guards playing in the NBA but there’s not a lot of big guys that can run like you at 6-2 in the NFL.” That stuck in my mind. Even after my playing career was over coach Carlen and I stayed very close until his death. The family asked me to speak at his funeral. He was like a second father to me. He really was.
5. What do you remember of draft day?
Back then there was no ESPN draft, in fact, it was the following year 1980 that the draft was televised on ESPN. In 1979, I remember being in my dorm room at Carolina with my father, my uncle and my brother. My mother stayed back at home in Rock Hill because we weren’t sure if they were going to call the house or call my dorm room. We had a huge celebration after the Patriots called.
It’s interesting because the New Orleans Saints actually called me right before the Patriots did. I was on the phone with the Saints. The Saints had coached me at the Senior Bowl, Dick Nolan and his staff coached me. The Saints called and said we’re getting ready to start the second round and we just want you to know that we’re going to take you with our second pick (the 38th pick overall, the Saints had selected University of Texas punter Russell Erxleben with the 11th overall pick). I thought it was wonderful because I’m going to play for the Saints and stay in the south. But, the Saints general manager told me to hang up because I’m probably going to get a call from someone else. He knew the Patriots had picked me while I was on the phone with the Saints.
It was a wild day but one of the highlights of my life when I look back on it. I was so fortunate to play in the NFL for seven years. What an honor.
6. Your first NFL game was on Monday Night Football against the defending Super Bowl champion the Pittsburgh Steelers. What was that night like?
It was even more special because we were playing the world champion Pittsburgh Steelers and when you look at that roster it has to be one of the greatest rosters ever assembled in NFL history. We had a sold-out stadium. It was Monday Night Football and I remember running out of the locker room and I remember seeing the Steelers in the black and gold. I remember lining up on the punt team and I looked over after shifting back inside and guess who’s looking over at me? Jack Lambert was staring me down, right into my eyes, and Jack didn’t have any teeth. That was bizarre and I thought to myself I’ve hit the big time.
7. The toughest player to tackle in the NFL.
Earl Campbell, without a doubt. Earl Campbell was the best running back I ever saw when he was in his prime. He was the best I ever played against. He put fear in you as a defender. He was just so big and his legs were as big as tree trunks. He could run over you but he was fast enough and shifty enough to run by you as well. He could outrun you; he was that fast. He was just the best.
8. Describe your 1-on-1 encounter with Campbell?
I’ll never forget we were playing in the Astrodome on a Monday night. At that time they had this really unique play where (quarterback Dan) Pastorini would drop back as if he was going to pass. Earl would just sit there. We’d seen it on tape. Pastorini would hand Earl the ball. It was really a delayed draw. I could see what was happening. The uncomfortable part was I could see a parting of our defensive line and there was this huge hole for Earl to run through and I thought to myself, oh-you-know-what. Here he comes with a 10-yard head start and all I could think about was Earl, please just try to run me over and don’t make me look like a fool in the middle of the field on Monday Night Football. He lowered shoulder, I lowered my shoulder and somehow, by God’s grace, I got my arms around his waist. He drugged me about 10 yards but I had nothing to be ashamed of because he was one of the greatest of all-time and I was able to get him on the ground.
9. You had 16 career INTs including picks against Dan Marino, Joe Ferguson, Dan Fouts, Dave Krieg, Richard Todd and a 99-yard pick six against the Bears and Jim McMahon. Describe your Soldier Field record interception return?
In 1982 we were playing the Bears at Soldier Field. They were down near our goal line and (Bears quarterback) Jim McMahon was trying to draw me outside so he could hit the wide receiver back inside. I saw the pattern because I had seen it on film. Jim kind of rolled out to his right and I saw the pattern. I hesitated because I didn’t want to give it away. I saw their wide receiver Rickey Watts was coming back inside and basically I just stepped in front of him, took it down the sideline. The only person I had to beat was Jim McMahon and I thought to myself this is going to be embarrassing if I cannot beat the quarterback down the sideline. It was the most memorable experience I ever had. It was weird because when I got to about their 40-yard line I saw the flag in the corner of the end zone and I could hear the roar of the crowd. I was hoping someone wasn’t about to catch me from behind. I wasn’t going to look back. It was a wonderful experience.
10. What’s life look like today, tell us about your family and how you stay in playing shape.
I’m married to my wonderful wife Allison. It will be 13 years September 4th. I have two daughters who live in Greenville. They are 39 and 35 years old. Allison's kids are twins, a boy and a girl. They are 26 years old. We are very blessed. I’m retired now. When I got out of football I went to chiropractor school. I did that for 27 years, I did some sports radio for a few years. That was a lot of fun. Now, I’m just retired and really enjoy working out and staying in shape. I’m actually 180 pounds, which is 12 pounds lighter than my playing weight of 192. I feel good. I do yoga, I do pilates and I do a lot of walking because I cannot run anymore because my body is so beat up from football. I have a partial knee and since I’ve turned 60 years old I’ve had 14 surgeries. I’ve had both of my shoulders worked on, my hand and my fingers. It’s been crazy. But football afforded me a lot in my life so it’s hard to be mad at the game.
11. What are your thoughts about coach Shane Beamer and the job he’s doing at South Carolina.
I think coach Beamer is a wonderful guy and a great coach. I’m very pleased with what he’s done at Carolina. He’s the perfect choice for the job. He’s really done a lot for the former players. I think Carolina has a really bright future under him.