But as Sanders, who is second in the nation in kickoff return yards, prepares to strap on his SMU helmet for the final time in Saturday’s Boca Raton Bowl, the memory of a pep talk he received from onetime co-star Jamie Foxx still resonates.
At 6 years old, Sanders was charged with portraying Ray Charles as a child, a role he landed after his mother, Stacie McCall Harris, had explored an acting career for herself. They were filming a scene that required Sanders to trip over a wooden chair while dealing with the realization that he was going blind. After what seemed like the 50th take, he became frustrated with the constant retakes and ran off the set and into the woods.
Sanders and Foxx had previously bonded over their desire to play in the NFL like Sanders’s father, Chris, who spent seven seasons as a wide receiver with the Houston and Tennessee Oilers and Tennessee Titans. So it was Foxx who grabbed a football from the set and went off to retrieve Sanders.
“Jamie comes and finds me in the woods, and he brings up this football analogy about how you sometimes have to do things that aren’t as fun or that you don’t want to do because it’s what gives your team the best chance to win,” Sanders said in a recent telephone interview. “To this day, whenever things get tough for me, I think back to that moment and keep pushing.”
The analogy ignited something within Sanders. He agreed to reshoot the scene one last time. According to McCall Harris, that was the take that was used in the film.
“Man, C.J. was doing such an amazing job up to that point, but the stuff that they had been putting in his eyes [to give off the appearance that he was actually going blind] was burning so bad,” Foxx said in a phone interview. “And when you’re a kid, you’re just a kid, so you’re not trying to hear about, ‘We need you to keep doing this so we can make a movie.’ All you know is that your eyes hurt. So in that moment, I just tried to step outside of my role as an adult and get on his level.”
The relationship they formed wound up lasting far beyond the movie set, as Sanders moved from acting to football. Many viewed him as a child star in the making, but his mother — under the advisement of Foxx, who took on a role as Sanders's godfather after the film — made every effort to keep her son's life as normal as possible by not pressuring Sanders to pursue acting full time.
“If C.J. was going to continue acting, I wanted it to feel like just another sport or extracurricular,” McCall Harris said.
He kept acting, but with a father who had an NFL career and a mother who played Division I basketball at Michigan, Sanders was also drawn to sports, excelling at both track and football. After four standout football seasons split between Brentwood Academy in Tennessee and Notre Dame High in Southern California, the four-star recruit committed to Notre Dame.
But the speedy wideout struggled to crack the Irish’s lineup, catching just 26 passes for 293 yards and two touchdowns across three seasons. He graduated from Notre Dame in 2018 after three years and transferred to SMU, missing the next season with an ankle injury. In his final season of college football, he has excelled as a kick returner, and he said he still thinks back to the conversation he had with Foxx as a 6-year-old.
“It’s kind of funny that C.J. was able to apply that overarching talk that we had during ‘Ray’ about just hanging in there to what he’s gone through now,” Foxx said. “Obviously, things didn’t go the way he probably planned at Notre Dame, and with the new rules, they’re making it tough on returners. But you’ve just got to hang in there, man, because at the end of the day every team still needs one.”
Sanders, who’s listed at 5-foot-9 and 183 pounds, has averaged 28.7 yards per return this season, good for seventh in the nation. He took back two kicks for touchdowns and earned second-team all-American Athletic Conference honors. He said he considers himself a renaissance man and hopes to pursue both professional football and professional acting, with his dream role being in a sports-themed television show.
“While I loved being in ‘Ray,’ I never wanted that to be the highlight of my career, and that was some of the things that I started to worry about during the dark days at Notre Dame,” Sanders said. “So now, as one of the nation’s best at returning kicks, it’s truly a blessing to be in this position.”
For his part, Foxx said it has been gratifying to watch his former co-star succeed in a different field.
“Here’s the thing: C.J. always says that I inspire him, but to be honest, he inspires me. I always wanted to be C.J. I always wanted to play football, but my calf muscles was too small, so there was no way for me to play at another level,” Foxx said. “Man, there ain’t nothing like sitting down on Saturday morning or Saturday evening and seeing someone that you know playing what I think is the best game ever created.”