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North Texas' Rory Sanders.

Meet Rory Sanders, North Texas' 46-Year-Old Rookie Goalie

February 23, 2024
Justin Feil
Cory Turner

Wes Sanders heard his dad cheering after each of his four goals in the University of North Texas’ 16-6 win over UT-Dallas last Saturday.

But instead of the voice coming from the sidelines as it had while Wes was growing up, it came from the other end of the field, where the 45-year-old Rory Sanders was playing goalie for the Mean Green Club Lacrosse team.

“It was funny,” said Wes, a sophomore midfielder with a rocket of a shot. “I could hear him in the background. His stop game is really good. In practices, he stops some of my shots.”

Sanders, who turned 46 on Wednesday, had never played a lacrosse game before Saturday. He’d never even played a field sport.

“That’s the first time I ever put a mouthpiece in my mouth,” Sanders said. “I watched these boys play for 10-plus years on the sidelines.”

He was nervous for his debut. He let in two goals early but then settled down.

“I tried to keep it together and not puke,” Sanders said.

Sanders’ oldest son, Ethan, is the Mean Green defensive coordinator after graduating from North Texas last year. He was impressed that his dad’s debut came with a stick and chest protector borrowed from last year’s UNT goalie, Luke Bonham, who is now his goalies coach with the Mean Green.

Sanders made eight saves — he thinks the statisticians might have missed one.

“I thought he played pretty good,” Ethan, 23, said. “When you look at the stats, his save percentage was 75 percent … 75 percent is a really good save percentage, especially for being a first-time goalie.”

The Sanders boys.
Rory Sanders (left) with his sons Wes (middle) and Ethan (right).
Rory Sanders

Sanders was just happy to survive without adding too many more bruises. Paramedics were called during the season opener.

“The joke was everybody thought they’d be there for me in the first game,” Sanders said. “It was for another guy.”

The Sanders trio plays their second of only three home games this Saturday. They host 2-1 Rice in a matchup of Lone Star Alliance (LSA) Division 2 teams in the MCLA. LSA teams hail from Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas.

“We’re definitely going to be competitive,” Sanders said. “I’m honing my skills practicing, watching film, I’ve been in touch with some goalie coaches on Instagram. And I still have to work 40 hours a week.”

Sanders was into skateboarding while at The Colony High School just north of Dallas and across Lewisville Lake from where the family lives now in Lake Dallas. As he got a little older and after he got married to his wife Patti and started a family, he took up endurance sports like cycling and mountain biking and ultra-marathoning. It was their boys that introduced him to lacrosse, never expecting that he’d join them one day on the field.

“I wouldn’t have thought about it a year ago,” Wes said. “Whenever he said he was going back to school, I was kind of already thinking about that. It was kind of like a joke.”

“To be honest, whenever he first said that he might play lacrosse with us, at first I didn’t think it was going to happen,” Ethan added. “Then when it actually started to happen, I said, ‘Try it out,’ because I didn’t think he would last too long.”

I take more bruises from real estate agents than from lacrosse.

Rory Sanders

“When you get in this position and start seeing shots coming from this kid, I don’t know why the goalies he’s been shooting on don’t move out of the way,” Sanders said of Wes. “That’s how fast they come. And they hurt. He rips them. That’s not just from him being my kid. There are two other kids on the team that can rip them, and every time they shoot, it hurts.”

Ethan, who his father believes had the stick skills to play NCAA Division I, first picked up lacrosse at 11 and Wes followed in the game that is growing fast in the Dallas-Forth Worth area. Their younger sister, Dani, is involved in band, and the whole family has enjoyed supporting Sanders after he realized that playing in college was a possibility when he returned to school.

“I’m going to all the games anyway, I might as well be a part of it,” Sanders said. “Little did I know how painful that decision would be. But I’m embracing the pain.”

The first time he got hit was eye-opening.

“It was really, really painful,” Sanders said. “I’m OK with a little bit of pain. The next time the ball comes, your natural instinct is to move out of the way. The goalie coaching is ‘move in the way.’ The biggest hurdle I have is, don’t let your instincts take over, let your training take over.”

After taking an online Coursera course toward a professional certificate, Sanders started to explore the opportunity to finish a college degree to augment his professional experience. A national sales executive for a title company, he works with real estate agents and lenders to drive business to his company.

“I take more bruises from real estate agents than from lacrosse,” Sanders said. “They’re mental bruises.”

With his wife’s blessing and encouragement, he decided to start taking classes this semester toward a degree in organizational leadership with a minor in media marketing. He became the only goalie on UNT’s 14-man roster when another missed the registration deadline, and he was determined to prove that he belonged even as a middle-aged rookie.

“I think you can train an old dog new tricks, if they practice,” Sanders said. “And if they work at it.”

Sanders fits in a small niche of middle-aged college student-athletes. Ray Ruschel was 49 when he joined the North Dakota State College of Science football team in 2022. Debbie Blount was 61 when she joined the Reinhardt University women’s golf team in Georgia in 2020.

“My biggest concern through the process is making sure it wasn’t treated as a gimmick,” Sanders said. “This isn’t a PR stunt. I wanted to play. They made me work at it.”

Charles Corcoran, who graduated from UNT with Ethan and Bonham last year, is the Mean Green head coach. He was plenty familiar with the family’s athleticism and work ethic, and that gave him confidence that Sanders might do well.

“He is a very fast learner,” Corcoran said. “His biggest thing is he wants to learn, and he wants to get better. He was telling me that last night when I was making a few corrections. I told him good job, and he said, ‘I just want to get better, that’s all I want to do.’ He strives for it more than anyone else out there. As long as he keeps wanting to get better and it shows every day at practice, he’ll keep growing at an exponential rate.”

The Mean Green have been lifted by what they have seen of their rookie goalie. Sanders has emerged as reliable in cage.

“His footwork, his hand speed, everything has gotten better,” Wes said. “He started from a zero, so the only way he could go was up. He’s still progressing. It’s just more time in the goal and more time at practices. He’s pretty solid for being a first-year guy.”

Sanders has endeared himself to his teammates by insisting on being treated the same as every other player. Corcoran had him running sprints with the team on his birthday Wednesday. “I wasn’t last,” said Sanders, whose attitude has been a positive influence on the team while also filling a huge hole.

“He’s gotten over the fear really quick of getting a shot fired at you,” Corcoran said. “That’s one of the first and biggest steps for a goalie that’s just starting out is getting over that fear and getting over the pain of getting hit in the shin or anything like that. He’s stepped up fast with that, gotten over the fear, and he’s willing to push the other people on the team. You have 18-year-old freshmen out there, and he’s saying, I’m 45, I’m 46 and I can do it.”

“I’m trying to be as coachable as I can,” Sanders said. “It’s hard to do when everybody on the team including the coaching staff, I’m old enough to be their dad.”

Sanders is still working full-time weeks while juggling classes and lacrosse practice. He was up late Thursday to complete a test after practice and work, one day after his family made little fanfare of his birthday. The team didn’t even know about it.

“We have a game this Saturday,” Ethan said. “We don’t have time for that.”

Sanders credits Ethan’s defense for helping lighten his work in his debut. He saw only 17 total shots last week, the sort of protection he can appreciate. Just being on the North Texas team has meant a lot more than he ever anticipated when he decided to return to school.

“It wasn’t about the lacrosse,” Sanders said. “But once I got in, the teammates are great, it feels like a little brotherhood of my own little network. They encourage me, and I just want to get better. And I’m not awful.”