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March 13, 2013

Damn Good "Junkyard Dog"

Tough-as-nails and clean-shaven Jeff Sanders
takes a break during a game in 1976 as a
young admirer sits close by.
Although their inception was nearly 40 years ago, for some of those older Bulldog fans who remember them, the memories of the group are as vivid today as decades ago.  They were Georgia's "Junkyard Dogs" of the mid-1970s, and the Bulldog Nation recently lost an original member that absolutely epitomized the entire celebrated group.

Jeff Sanders, or "Jethro" to some of his teammates  a Georgia defender from 1974 to 1976 passed away early yesterday morning at 58 years old after a long bout with cancer.  Originally from Adel, Ga., Sanders was living in Orlando.  He leaves behind three children Rose Marie, Sara, and Jackson; the three had previously lost their mother, Jeff's wife, Kelly, to cancer also.
After playing as a second-string linebacker in 1974 as a sophomore, Sanders was moved to defensive tackle in 1975.  If there was one knock on the junior lineman, it was that he was small.  Although 6-foot-3, Sanders was listed at only 215 pounds, which was small, even for back then.  "He's small for an interior lineman," a preseason forecast declared, "and whether or not he'll be able to make the transition [from linebacker] remains the question." 

What the forecast failed to realize was Sanders was tough tough as they come – and there should have been no question whatsoever if he could make any type of transition.
When Erk Russell formed the Junkyard Dogs defense just prior to start of the '75 season, surely he had Sanders in mind.  The defensive unit might have been inexperienced and small, but it was quick, feisty, and tough.  As a top reserve for the Junkyard Dogs, Sanders was said to "compensate for his lack of size with dedication, effort, and technique.  Defensive coordinator Erk Russell calls him a very coachable player."
Entering his senior season of 1976, Sanders earned a starting position at defensive guard on "sheer hustle and determination."  According to UGA's football records, Sanders stands as the lightest starting interior defensive lineman for the Bulldogs the last 42 years since 1971.  Yet, playing for a team that would capture an SEC championship and appear in the Sugar Bowl, the small, but tough, Sanders led all Georgia linemen with 74 tackles for the season. 

I recently spoke to a former "Junkyard Dog" teammate of Sanders, who recalled one of the last times he had seen his friend.  The two of them, along with a few other players from the 1975-1976 teams, were sitting together in Sanford Stadium for G-Day in 1999, or a practice leading up to the spring game.

A Delta flight attendant poses with Jeff on the team's flight
to New Orleans for the 1977 Sugar Bowl.
Jeff pointed out two huge, standout linemen on the team at the time, both of whom would eventually be chosen in the first round of the NFL Draft.  "Jeff then said he sure was glad that he didn't play nowadays (1999); he said he wouldn't have stood a chance if he had to go up against linemen that big," the player said to me.  "Then, everyone in the group besides Jeff glanced at each other smiling for it was understood that our friend surely had forgotten how he played as a 'Junkyard Dog.'  Those two linemen might have been bigger than him when he was at Georgia, but pound for pound nobody we could remember that had come through the program was tougher than Jeff Sanders.  Jeff could have played during any era and gone up against any lineman, no matter their size."
Personally, I didn't know Jeff Sanders.  But through my work, and primarily this blog, I have fortunately gotten to know and correspond with those that did.  Through them, I've learned the true meaning of Georgia's acclaimed "Junkyard Dogs," and the fact that we recently lost a damn good one and the group's best example.  RIP, JYD.


Matt R said...

Jeff Sanders and I stayed friend all through the years and he was the same man when he left us as he was when I met him at age 18...tough as nails, and always a true friend. He never complained although he went through some tough times in his fight with cancer. And all along the way way he raised three beautiful children on his own. I'll miss Jethro more than one can imagine. I will bury him with many of his team mates, and his family this Saturday. God Bless him and all that he represented.

Matt Robinson
UGA '73 - '77

khelms said...

he was the guy you wanted on your side when things went south in some bar.

Brad Sharp said...

I was Jeff's roommate during Basic School officer training for the USMC after he graduated. As an Ohio State graduate, I was a college football fan and had knowledge of the famous "Junk Yard Dogs". We became good friends and usual weekend companions for the 30 mile trip down to Fredericksburg to try our luck with the co-eds at Mary Washington Girls College. I kept in touch with Jeff intermittently over the years and was saddened to learn of his passing. He was a great guy, a great Marine and a great friend.

Brad Sharp OSU78

Steve Graham said...

I met Jeff at Officers Candidate School. We were both UGA boys. What a great guy and a fine Marine. I lost touch with Jeff after the Basic school and I am saddened to here of this news. God bless you Jeff and your family.
We had some good times twisting a few caps on liberty,

Steve Graham

Anonymous said...

I Googled Jeff because I recently moved to Georgia and remembered he played at UGA. I was not aware he passed away years ago. Like others who commented above, I met Jeff at Marine Corps OCS. He was a damn fine Marine and Man. Rest in peace.

Unknown said...

Like others here I met Jeff through the Marine Corps. We were in the same platoon at OCS and in the same Basic School Company. In fact I was made aware of his passing recently by another Marine from our OCS platoon and TBS Company.
Jeff was a great guy. A Marine's Marine with an infectious positive attitude that made the tough training days we endured a bit easier, and a fun guy on liberty.
Sad to hear that he has left us. Rest easy, Marine.
Semper Fidelis.

Unknown said...

I met Jeff in 74 thru a friend of mine on scholarship to UGA , I was lucky enough to be home on leave from the Marine Corps. Some forty + years later I was back in touch with Jeff, the conversations really galvanized how special of a person he truly was. We need more Jeff’s, making God Proud

Anonymous said...

Jeff was my platoon commander at Marine Barracks Company B NAS Guard Cubi Point, Philippines in Subic Bay. Lt.Sanders was a good Marine who set a good example for his troops of how Marines should be. He picked up Capt be lfore I rotated. I just looked him up as i now reside in Florida & i was saddened to hear of his passing. Semper Fi Marine; til Valhalla, NAS SOG Skorup