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Last Chance U

Ramone Sanders, a bigger-than-life player in Oakland, won’t get his chance to shine

Sanders, whose team will be featured on ‘Last Chance U’, died of bone cancer at age 19

Laney College football coach John Beam recalls an image of Ramone Sanders from the 2017 Silver Bowl — the Oakland, California, high school sectional title football game — that represents the ferociousness he brought each time he pulled on his uniform: Sanders standing menacingly above two fallen offensive opponents — one dazed while holding the football, having been separated from his helmet — as the linebacker, right hand to mouth, was clearly in “feast” mode.

“That was Ramone,” said Beam, the head coach at Oakland’s Laney College, where Sanders played following a career at McClymonds High School, where he contributed to two state championships. “Very quick and an explosive pass rusher. His motor was incredible.”

Unfortunately, Beam has another image of Sanders from less than two weeks ago that he just can’t unsee: the strong-as-an-ox defensive lineman struggling to breathe while lying on his hospital bed at UC San Francisco, clinging to life that was rapidly abandoning his frail body.

“It was hard to see, because he was just a shell of what he was,” Beam recalled. “I brought our team’s state championship cup with me, and he had this big smile on his face. I looked in his eyes and thought to myself, this kid is going to beat this.”

Sanders was struggling to beat osteosarcoma — bone cancer — the same disease that claimed the life of former basketball star Wayman Tisdale 10 years ago. Despite a courageous fight, Sanders died Nov. 22, less than a day after Beam’s visit. He was 19, just weeks away from his 20th birthday on Dec. 3. His funeral is Saturday.

“We have had so many tears,” said Toni Brown, Sanders’ mother. “The day we found out that he had cancer and the day we were told it was terminal was equally crushing.

“But the day he left us was the worst day of our lives.”

The death of Sanders — a son, a big brother and a father — shows the cruel, swift nature in which the life of a seemingly healthy, vibrant young man can can unravel.

In January 2017, Sanders and his McClymonds High School teammates were honored during a parade through the streets of Oakland after becoming the first public school from the city to win a football state championship — a feat the team repeated the next season.

In September 2018, Sanders, a freshman, earned a spot in the defensive rotation for a Laney College team that was so dominant in winning the California Community College Athletic Association that Last Chance U, the popular Netflix series on junior college football, decided to follow the downtown Oakland school for the 2019 season.

But Sanders wasn’t able to finish that historic 2018 season. In what would prove to be his last football game, the 6-foot-3, 225-pound defensive player recorded two sacks in Laney’s win over San Mateo on Nov. 17 in the Northern California Football Conference semifinals.

At practice three days later, as the team prepared for the conference title game, Sanders collapsed after incidental contact with a teammate. He was in such excruciating pain that an ambulance was called, and paramedics had to administer pain medication just to get him comfortable enough to be moved.

Imaging taken during his treatment at Highland Hospital revealed abnormalities around his femur and on his lungs, and doctors revealed his bones may have been weakened due to cancer. He was sent to another hospital in San Francisco where Sanders, surrounded by his parents and two sisters, was told that he had osteosarcoma.

“He didn’t really say much, and we were all just shocked when it was confirmed,” Ramone Sanders Sr. said. “It’s like one of those devastating blows that’s hard to handle. We were told there was a chance it was something, but we had been praying to God that it’s not cancer. After it all set, we all hugged each other close, and cried.”

With a daughter, Neveah, born just six weeks before he was injured, Sanders was determined to fight. He began chemotherapy in January. Before his second treatment, Sanders traveled to Atlanta for the Super Bowl, with tickets provided by his favorite player, then-Los Angeles Rams cornerback Marcus Peters (the son of Sanders’ coach at McClymonds, Michael Peters). Attending his first Super Bowl allowed Sanders to momentarily cast his worries aside as he wore a Rams shirt and a white beanie to the game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“It’s a moment I’ll never forget,” Sanders Sr. said. “It was exciting to see my son, with what he was facing, just experience a moment where he was happy and excited.”

Sanders returned to Oakland to continue his fight, putting aside his love of sports (he played football and basketball at McClymonds) and fashion. (“He wore clothes that were different and he had a certain aura about him,” said Brown.)

His confidence never wavered, as Sanders often spoke about his desire to open a camp to help kids — just as Marshawn Lynch, a mentor to Sanders since he was 13, has continued to provide for the youngsters in Oakland.

Sanders was looking forward to attending the Make a Joyful Noise: The Musical Miracle concert that was scheduled to honor him on Nov. 24.

But while Sanders never lost hope, his condition never improved. On Nov. 14, 10 days before the scheduled concert, doctors gathered the family for a meeting at UC San Francisco hospital that Sanders Sr. outlined in a gut-wrenching Facebook Live post. There was nothing more that could be done for Sanders medically. The tubes that helped him breathe were going to be removed.

Sanders’ cancer was terminal.

His parents were told first, and had their moment to cry. A short time later, the news was delivered to Sanders, who had a tube down his throat.

“When they doctors told him, he didn’t cry,” Sanders Sr. said. “He reached out and shook the doctors’ hand, and wrote ‘thank you’ on the pad, with an exclamation point.”

In his last conversation with his mother, Sanders’ thoughts were on family. “Momma, keep [D’anna Pierre-Jones, his fiancee] and Neveah close to you. Please take care of them. I love you.”

In his last conversation with his father, “I told him I loved him, and said he loved me, too,” Sanders Sr. recalled. “And he said, ‘Do what you can do to get me to my musical.’ ”

Two days after Sanders’ death, that concert went on at New Beginnings Church in Oakland with dancers, singers and words honoring his life. Among the hundreds of friends, family and teammates there was Lynch.

Sanders died as the Last Chance U crew was wrapping up its filming of the Laney College 2019 football season. If Sanders were healthy, there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that he would have been a central figure in the coverage.

“I’ll remember him at practice bumping into me, and telling me, ‘You know, I can stop your offense anytime I want,’ ” Beam recalled of Sanders. “Each time I talked to him, I encouraged him to take classes, because I fully expected him to be back with us on the field.

“It’s a tragedy that this happened,” Beam added. “It was tough to see him the way he was at the end. But the image I’ll always carry is a great football player with a lot of potential. And an even better person.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at Andscape. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright and watching the Knicks play a MEANINGFUL NBA game in June.