PITTSBURGH — Weslye Saunders spent nearly a year hearing the whispers. Endure the kind of self-inflicted hardship Saunders put himself through in 2010 and they're hard to ignore.
The Pittsburgh Steelers rookie tight end doesn't blame those who labeled him a "cancer" and a "head case" — Saunders' words — following his inglorious exit at South Carolina.
His senior season ended before it even began when coach Steve Spurrier suspended Saunders for a violation of team rules. He was kicked off the team entirely a few weeks later then admitted to lying to NCAA investigators about staying at an off-campus hotel at a discounted rate.
They weren't the kind of headlines that impress NFL scouts, ones just as concerned about character as the 6-foot-5, 270-pound Saunders' combination of size, speed and soft hands.
Missing the game he grew up loving humbled Saunders. It also made him grow up. Quickly.
"I had to prove I wasn't what they said I was back in Carolina," Saunders said.
The process proved painful.
Saunders broke his left foot preparing for the NFL Draft yet couldn't say no when the Steelers tight end coach James Daniel flew down to take a look. He went through all the drills — the 40-yard dash, shuttle run and route tree included — thanks to a mixture of grit and healthy doses of Tylenol.
He underwent surgery the next day then watched 224 players hear their name called in the draft. His was not one of them. It was a cold dose of reality, yet one Saunders now considers a favor.
If he'd stayed out of trouble, the Steelers wouldn't have signed him as an undrafted free agent shortly after the lockout ended. If he'd stayed healthy he might not have scored his first NFL touchdown last week in Pittsburgh's 13-9 win over Kansas City. If he'd played last year at South Carolina he might not have gained the perspective necessary to cut it with a veteran-laden team.
"Maybe if I'd have gone first round like everyone projected and I had anticipated I wouldn't be as grateful," he said. "I would have taken it for granted. Just the fact I had to work so hard to get to where I am now, I'm just enjoying it."
So much so Saunders forgot all about the well-choreographed touchdown celebration he'd outlined with teammate Antonio Brown when he finally reached the end zone for the first time, perhaps because he was still stunned when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger stepped away from pressure before finding Saunders along the end line for a 2-yard score.
During the countless times the Steelers have run that play in practice, the ball never came Saunders' way. Not once. Yet he kept running as Roethlisberger broke containment, then went up and snatched the high pass out of the air while deftly getting both feet down before tumbling to the earth.
"To his credit, he stayed alive," Roethlisberger said. "He's in the back of the end zone and he's a big-play guy. I was kind of disappointed he didn't go up and get it. He let it come down to him."
Roethlisberger is kidding, well mostly. He's not quite ready to say Saunders has arrived but acknowledges the two are slowly building a comfort level as the raw talent who couldn't block when training camp started became an effective part of the running game.
Once he proved his willingness to stick his nose in uncomfortable places and his ability to run routes properly, Saunders found himself on the field more often.
"When we started the season I didn't have a great rapport with Ben or anything like that," he said. "But over the weeks, getting cussed out at practice and doing the wrong things in the game I've learned what not to do and what Ben likes and that's what's most important."
Doesn't sound like the same kid who was so unwelcome at South Carolina last fall the school opted not to reinstate him last December even though he would have had one more year of eligibility.
There are no hard feelings on Saunders' part. As difficult as it was to be told he was no longer wanted, he needed it to grow both on the field and off.
"It definitely gave me time to grow and look at things from a different view," he said. "Coming to an organization like this is truly a blessing, where winning is so important. I've never been part of a program like this."
There's still one program he's not a part of despite countless lobbying: the "Young Money Family," the fraternity receivers Brown, Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders established last season.
Brown told Saunders he "needed to get his money up" to earn a spot. As an undrafted free agent, Saunders' three-year deal is in a significantly lower tax bracket than the lucrative contract he would have signed if he'd been chosen in the first round.Comment on this story
"We're Young Money, but he's no money," Wallace said with a laugh.
Maybe, though Saunders understands if he does his work, the big-time payday will come.
That's a long way off, to be certain. A lot can happen over the next three years. Over the last 18 months, Saunders has gone from surefire star to cautionary tale to humble rookie.
It's a journey he never planned on taking, but one he knows was necessary.
"I'm happy where I am right now," he said. "I really don't think about it as much. I wish things could have gone differently, but really things turned out OK."