COLUMBIA -- The story of Weslye Saunders' redemption is not yet complete, Wednesday was a rather large step for the former South Carolina tight end who is still hopeful of a shot at pro football.
Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier and athletic director Eric Hyman gave Saunders their blessing a few months ago for him to take part in Pro Day inside USC's indoor practice facility.
That message meant enough to Saunders, dismissed from the team in August after a variety of transgressions, that he went through drills despite a fracture in his left foot. He said he "owed it" to Hyman and Spurrier to participate and give it his all.
Of course, trying to impress a dozen or so NFL scouts was also a factor.
"I didn't want to pass up the opportunity to be able to perform here today," Saunders said in his first public statement on USC's campus since being kicked off the team. "I figured, you know, what's two hours worth of pain? I figured I could push back the surgery."
Saunders plans to have surgery Friday. He said USC's head doctor, Jeff Guy, will handle the procedure, which includes placing a screw in his foot. Recovery time is expected to be 4-6 weeks.
Saunders said he hopes he earned some "Brownie points" with scouts for running and going through the workout despite the injury.
NFL teams are no doubt just as concerned with Saunders' mind as his body. He said they've questioned him, time and again, as to what happened that led to his dismissal and an NCAA investigation centered on his alleged contact with agents.
"I brought it upon myself and I think I've handled it very well," Saunders said. "I knew what was coming. I knew the questions that were going to be asked of me. I knew I had to answer them with my chin held high, and that's what I did."
Lying to Spurrier about why he was late to practice was the death knell for his college career. Saunders has admitted in the past month that he also lied to NCAA investigators.
"Fabricating a story, or not even telling the whole truth, is the same as telling a lie," he said. "Being truthful is the biggest thing. A man is only as good as his word. That's what I've learned most."
Besides the NCAA firestorm and the foot injury, Saunders also had to sweat out in January the possibility that he wouldn't even be eligible for the draft. Saunders and his representation didn't initially submit the proper paperwork concerning the fact he didn't complete his college eligibility.
Saunders was ultimately allowed back in the draft -- and the combine. The workouts in Indianapolis, though, are where he tweaked his left foot, initially injured while training in Dallas, and learned he would eventually need surgery.
It's clearly been one thing after another with Saunders -- some by his own doing and some purely circumstantial.
"It was very tough. I kind of got a little bit depressed," he said. "I wasn't able to come back to USC for another season. I tried to move on. Then they said I wasn't eligible for the draft and I was going to have to wait until 2012. Then I broke my foot. It was a lot to handle at one time. I just kept my faith."
Saunders' former teammates look at Saunders today and, as a result of the past nine months or so, see a different guy than the one with which they shared a locker room.
"I'll tell you that Wes used to be a jerk. But that's in the past," said North Charleston's Jarriel King, himself hopeful of an NFL shot. "I know a difference in him. When I'm speaking to him, he's humble. He's real humble.
"He's a better man; let's put it like that. He's a good dude now."
Saunders joked Wednesday morning and afternoon with current and former Gamecocks. He chatted briefly with Spurrier. He spoke with reporters for 10 minutes -- sounding genuinely contrite and apologetic -- under the block 'C' logo that used to be on the side of his helmet.
As much as Saunders has worked to patch up what was torn, Wednesday was significant in the mending process.
Saunders said he has no hard feelings toward anyone at USC. "At the end of the day, everything I did was my own fault. I don't have any bitterness in me at all. I don't want (fans) to remember me as a guy who tried to bring the program down or anything like that. I love this school."
What's the future hold for Saunders, beyond Friday's surgery? It's not entirely clear. He said he's heard everything from second-round pick to undrafted. Character -- and now injury -- concerns certainly account for such a range of differing opinions.
"I can't really listen to that stuff," Saunders said. "I just have to do what I can do and control what I can control."
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