Phillip Haywood, the winningest high school football coach in Kentucky history, penned a book entitled “Faith, Family and Football” where he documents the three most important things in his life for coaches, athletes, parents or fans.
Jonas and Nic Sanker epitomized that mantra this season as they led the Covenant football program to the inaugural Virginia Independent Schools Football League’s 8-man championship.
The brothers combined for three touchdowns and anchored a strong second-half defensive effort to share Schewels Athletes of the Week honors.
“With my dad being a football player and loving football, it really rubbed off on us,” Jonas said. “What makes football so great is that, yes, it takes skill, but it also relies so much on how hard you want to work and how aggressive and smart you are at the game.”
Their father, George Sanker, was an all-conference linebacker at Gonzaga High School in Washington D.C. and had aspirations to play big-time college football. He had interest from schools such as Notre Dame, Tennessee, Pittsburgh and Missouri before an injury his senior year spoiled those plans. He went on to Colgate, where was a four-year starter at safety for the Raiders.
The Sankers’ first introduction to the game came in elementary school, when their parents signed them up to play flag football through a local YMCA program.
“It was flag football, but my brother and I treated it like it was the biggest deal ever,” Jonas said.
Nic Sanker said their parents did not allow them to play tackle football until they were in middle school. In addition, he said they were only allowed to play one sport a year. But once he and his brother put on the helmet and shoulder pads, they found their calling.
“I love football because it’s just fun for me and we’ve always grown up with it in the house,” Nic said. “I always wanted to play tackle football and couldn’t wait until I could play it.”
Nic played as a seventh grader, but Jonas, who is a year younger, had to wait an extra year before he experienced the thrill of tackle football. Since that moment, the two brothers have always played together.
“We have always been on the same team since we were young, for whatever team we played for, whether it was flag football, youth basketball or even youth soccer,” Jonas said. “It’s nice, because for me, he’s someone I can always count on to give everything he’s got and step up for the team in whatever way is needed.”
Nic said there is no rivalry between the two brothers, in fact it’s just the opposite. They motivate one another to raise their level of competition.
“Playing on the same team is awesome because we can compete and push each other to bring the best out of ourselves and help one another for the good of the team,” Nic said. “We know each other better than anybody else and we just know what the other person is thinking and can work off it.”
For Covenant, Jonas and Nic were two-way performers who rarely left the field this season. Jonas saw action as a slot back and was a heavy hitter at free safety on the back end of Coach Seth Wilson’s defense. Nic, a junior, was a deep threat for quarterback Luke Sorensen on offense and was a pass-rushing beast off the edge from his outside linebacker position.
“We set each other up to make a play and appreciate the ways the other one helps the team,” Nic said. “Jonas is super helpful because I know at the line of scrimmage, that if I can take up [several] of the blockers, it forces their offensive lineman to focus on me and block me and I can create lanes for him to make plays in the backfield with his speed.”
Jonas has equal praise for his brother.
“What makes him such a great player are his ability to always find room for improvement,” Jonas said. “He’s always striving to get better. He is also the smartest athlete I know on the field and in the classroom. Nic’s improvement at outside linebacker has impressed me more than I can say and certainly played a huge role in our success this year.”
This year, the entire team was forced to learn on the fly as Covenant made the official switch from 11-man football to 8-man football. Both players said it was an interesting adjustment, but admit it made them better football players.
“Initially, the idea of 8-man really worried me, because I couldn’t see how it would still be like real football,” Jonas said. “But after playing it for a year, I still miss 11-man football, but 8-man has allowed me to develop new skills on offense and defense. The most appealing thing is probably the space you have to work with and how it really gives you the chance to show your abilities as an individual.”
Nic said making the switch to 8-man football allowed him to become a more complete pass rusher.
“In 11-man football, I could use my speed to get around blockers and make plays, but in 8-man football, the game has been condensed,” he said. “I’ve had to learn how to engage with blockers and to use my hands to make plays rather than relying on my speed. I’ve increased my strength and toughness working with the new strength coaches during the offseason and they helped me to become more dominant around the line of scrimmage.”
That athletic ability was on display Saturday as Covenant defeated St. Anne’s-Belfield 76-41 at Albemarle High School to claim the title. Jonas caught three passes for 130 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Nic found the end zone with a 64-yard touchdown reception. Defensively, the brothers anchored a unit that surrendered just seven points over the final 18 minutes of the game.
“I think we all came in with the mindset of everyone do their job and keep this fire going that we have had all year,” Jonas said. “My role was to make plays at both receiver and running back, to block my tail off and to fly around on defense and make tackles where I could and be a leader and keep the energy of the team alive.”
On the season, Nic posted more than 45 tackles, 19 tackles for loss, 11 sacks and had a defensive touchdown. He also averaged more than 26 yards per catch and hauled in five touchdowns. He leads the team in tackles, tackles for loss, sacks, quarterback hurries and knockdowns.
“He is without a doubt, and it’s not close, our hardest worker and most thoroughly prepared player,” Wilson said. “He never takes a play or rep off, he never misses a workout. Even when he’s unable to attend one at school, he’s putting in work at home. Nic assumed the role of holding everyone accountable and he doesn’t back down from challenging his teammates to give more. He has proven time and time again he’s willing to do whatever it takes for the team to come first and be successful.”
Jonas was an all-around performer for the Eagles. Offensively, he rushed for nearly 500 yards and nine touchdowns while adding nearly 300 yards receiving and five scores. He was just as dominant defensively, finishing with more than 40 tackles, including three interceptions with a defensive touchdown and a punt return for another score.
“From Day 1 this year, Jonas assumed the role of the unofficial leader of this team,” Wilson said. “What he says, the tone he says it in and when he says it, the entire team responds with more intensity. Everyone follows his lead. Most likely, he is our most competitive player. He wants to win at everything and because of that pursuit to be the best, he brings confidence to the team.”
Nic said it winning the title was a great way to cap off an undefeated season.
“Shout out to STAB for showing up and making us earn our title,” Nic said. “They made us earn it. We had to really dig in and play the best football that we’ve played all year and that brought out the best in us.”
Off the field, the Sankers enjoy hanging out with their friends or younger siblings and just playing sports.
Aside from their knowledge on the field, they pride themselves on being worldly individuals. Their mother is originally from Germany and they go back to visit regularly.
“I enjoy going to Germany every year to see my mom’s family,” Jonas said. “It’s always fun going to another country.”
Their excellence on the gridiron has also attracted interest among college coaches. Jonas has received interest from schools such as Virginia Tech, Virginia, Liberty and Old Dominion. Nic’s been contacted by coaches from Harvard, Wake Forest and Colgate, as well as Virginia and Virginia Tech.
Now that football season is over, there is no break for the Sankers as they prepare for the upcoming basketball season where they hope to bring home some more hardware. Following hoops, it’s back in the weight room for football conditioning and preparing for college football showcase camps to improve their game.
Wilson said this is just the beginning for the Sanker brothers, as athletes and people.
“Both of these two are great young men who are going to be accomplished leaders for the rest of their lives,” he said. “I am honored and humbled that they have put their faith and belief in me to lead this program. These two, in my opinion, are once-in-a-lifetime type [athletes]. They bring the whole package to the table — on the field, in the classroom, in the locker room, on the bus rides — everywhere. They are awesome young men to have as a part of any program.”