Weslye Saunders was on top of the world, and loving it.
Saunders just finished his junior year at South Carolina and was being mentioned in the same breath as Notre Dame's Kyle Rudolph as the best tight end in college football.
After making the decision to return for his senior year, all the 6-foot-5, 270-pounder had to do was stay healthy and stay out of trouble and a lucrative pro career likely awaited him.
He did neither.
Saunders quickly found himself on a twisting and turning road that eventually came to an end with a spot on the Steelers' roster.
"A lot of guys are happy to be here, but I don't know if their struggles were like mine," Saunders said. "I feel like my struggles makes it all a little more precious being here. I always think of how easily it could've been taken away from me."
Over a span of 14 months, it was almost taken away from him time and time again starting with a trip with some friends to a party in Florida that kicked off a series of events:
» Saunders was investigated by the NCAA during the summer before his senior year about improper contact with an agent during a party in Miami.
» While investigating the contact with the agent, the NCAA found Saunders was among several athletes who lived off-campus at a swanky Columbia, SC., hotel for a rate of only $14.59 a night.
» After several meetings with NCAA officials, it was deemed that Saunders wasn't being truthful during the investigation that led to South Carolina removing him from the team.
» Saunders failed to file paperwork required for entry into the draft because he didn't play his senior season. As a result, he was ruled ineligible for the draft.
» After an appeal, Saunders was ruled eligible.
» At the NFL combine during a routine physical, Saunders was told that he had a broken foot that would require surgery and didn't participate.
» After a well-attended pro day in which 28 NFL teams were on hand, he went undrafted.
» Due to the NFL lockout, Saunders had to wait three months before he would sign with the Steelers as an undrafted rookie free agent.
"I felt like it was never going to end," Saunders said. "It was almost to the point where it was funny. Like 'What's next?' I thought teams would understand, but it was just too many red flags."
Too many red flags for every team except the Steelers.
An organization that puts as much emphasis on the character of a player as they do athletic ability, the Steelers were intrigued by Saunders' story. Three weeks after attending his pro day, and a couple days before the draft, they had him in for a visit.
"I really just gave my side of the story," Saunders said. "I came from a good home and feel that I come from a good background and I let them know that I did bad things, but that I wasn't a bad person."
Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians bought what he heard out of Saunders during the visit.
"His history said he made one bad mistake," Arians said. "Other than that, he comes from a good family and had been a pretty good guy. The risk was very minimal for us."
Still, the Steelers waited to grab Saunders after the draft, putting him at a big disadvantage.
Not only did he not have any offseason workouts to get acclimated to the professional game, Saunders had 19 months of rust to knock off.
Saunders impressed enough to make it to the final cut with veteran tight end John Gilmore. Knowing his past disappointments, Saunders feared the worst on cut-down day.
"I couldn't tell you how bad that day was," Saunders said. "But, finally, something went right for me."