STM's new AD makes himself at home

STM's new AD makes himself at home

CHAMPAIGN — Ben Sankey had two bags for much of his 20s, and in those bags sat all of his belongings.

A call could come at any time that changed his life, whether that be a call to the coaches’ office or the ringing of his cellphone, telling him he’d been traded or a team was interested in his services. He had to remain ready.

Thus is the life of a professional backup quarterback.

“It’s just the life that you live to have that risk/reward,” Sankey said from his office at St. Thomas More, where he was hired as the school’s athletic director this summer. “The risk of being cut, the risk of traveling, all of those things.”

His life was nomadic for 12 years, aside from two multi-year stays with the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League. But he felt lucky to exist in the realm of professional football, where careers generally last only a few seasons. He accepted his role and even came to enjoy his niche.

“In Calgary, they loved me,” Sankey said. “Any time we were up by three touchdowns, they would start the Sankey chant. ... They don’t really love the starting quarterback, they love the backup, because what are they trying to do? They’re trying to get him into the game.”

Learning the ropes

For more than a decade, he played that backup role with occasional stints as a starter. After originally committing to coach Lou Tepper to play football and basketball at Illinois, the former Whitney Young star switched his commitment to Wake Forest following a coaching change.

There, he played backup under current Detroit Lions coach Jim Caldwell before finally starting as a senior, when he completed 133 of 224 passes for 1,496 yards, nine touchdowns and nine interceptions and earned MVP honors at the 1999 Aloha Bowl.

“I had a little springboard action,” Sankey said. “I definitely had some NFL scouts looking at me because of my athleticism at the time. I knew there was going to be an opportunity, but I didn’t know if I was going to be drafted.”

He wasn’t drafted, but after playing two years in Calgary, an opportunity arose.

In their first year as a franchise in 2002, the Houston Texans signed him. After playing during the preseason, when he completed 12 of 21 passes for 129 yards and an interception in the Hall of Fame Game against the New York Giants, he earned a spot on the practice squad, which works on week-to-week contracts. Each Monday, Sankey and his teammates would head to the locker room and look to see if their helmet was there.

If it wasn’t, a trip to the coaches’ office awaited, and his stay was over. Eight weeks into his stay in Houston, his helmet wasn’t in his locker.

“It’s a tough feeling,” Sankey said. “You ask the equipment guy where your helmet’s at, and the equipment guy is usually like the Grim Reaper.”

Journeyman career continues

But his football career wasn’t over. He joined the Texans’ practice squad for a short time the following year and bounced around the CFL, where he played for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, the BC Lions and another stint with Calgary.

During most of those stops, he wasn’t the starter, but that didn’t necessarily bother him.

“It never was like I was mad or sad or anything,” Sankey said. “If I was playing, I was playing, and if I got released or cut, the next thing you know maybe my phone would ring again.”

All the while, he played arena football during the offseason. It was during one of those stints, with the Omaha Beef of the Indoor Football League in 2009, that his career reached the beginning of its end. During a game just before he was set to return to Canada, he tucked the ball and ran before a defensive player dragged him down with a horse-collar tackle. After pulling himself up to his feet, he fell back down and couldn’t fully bend his leg.

He tore his patellar tendon, and the Stampeders’ front office, which didn’t approve of his offseason job, wasn’t happy.

“That put a lot of strain on my relationship with Calgary,” said Sankey, who wasn’t contractually bound to abstain from arena football but was cut soon after nonetheless.

Settling at STM

Sankey played a few more years of arena football, but in 2012, he decided to call it quits. All the while, he planned an exit from football and an entrance into education. That began in Chicago, where he was a physical education teacher at St. Ignatius and offensive coordinator of the football team for two years.

Last year, he and his wife, Bonnie, who graduated from St. Thomas More’s first graduating class in 2003, moved to Champaign, and Sankey commuted back and forth from Chicago. St. Thomas More’s athletic director position came open this year because the Diocese of Peoria began enforcing a rule that said coaches couldn’t be athletic directors, meaning football coach Dan Hennessey was forced to step down from the position.

Sankey took over this summer and also accepted a job teaching world history.

The itch that occupies the mind of a competitive professional athlete never went away, but he’s never been down or depressed about his exit from professional football.

Now his bags are no longer constantly packed. He has a home, and he plans on staying for a long while.

“Either you’re cool or you’re not cool,” he said. “You’ve got to be cool playing football; you’ve got to be cool not playing football. I had kids, and I have a wife, and that just helped me transition and just slow it down, coming from ‘Jet fly sweep’ to now where I’m ‘Jet fly PE.’

“It’s real simple. A real simple life, a real simple career.”

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danielkapolnek wrote on August 24, 2016 at 4:08 pm

As an STM grad, this is a breath of fresh air.  STM may never get back to the level that it was at for football, but with the right leadership it could dominate the area in Soccer, Track, XC, Golf, and Basketball.  Sankey is the leader that the school needs and I am very excited to see what he can accomplish.