Marvin Sanders, Jefferson, 1978 alt

Marvin SandersMarvin Sanders

Marvin Sanders, Jefferson, 1978 alt

January 2024 ~

There are some things Marvin Sanders (Jefferson, 1978) wants you to know about him that anyone who knows him already knows.

“Ask anybody about me and they’ll say three things,” Sanders says. “He’s going to smell good. His clothes are going to be ironed. He’s going to say he’s blessed.”

There’s a message here — sometimes it only takes a little bit of information to learn a lot about someone. For further proof one could ask a certain ex-high school wrestler what he learned about Sanders during the Oregon championship tournament back in the late 70s. The two grapplers only spent six seconds together but after getting pinned faster than it took to walk onto the mat, that kid learned something else about Sanders — wrestling him wasn’t all that fun.

Sanders’ six-second pin was at the time a state record (it’s now fifth fastest), and if it’s not still the fastest in Jefferson history it’s a good bet the guy who broke it wouldn’t be very fun to wrestle either.

That feat is one of the reasons Sanders was inducted into the PIL Hall of Fame in 2020. But there were many more, none of which, of course, had anything to do with him once being a Hollywood stuntman and extra and now being a successful screenwriter, driver to the stars and on a first-name basis with the likes of Denzel Washington and Michelle Pfeiffer and “Bennifer” and Matt Damon and Amy Adams.

But all that does have a lot to do with him wanting us to know he’s blessed, and the details that follow make it hard to argue with him.

Sanders was born in Mississippi, the middle child (along with a twin sister) of six Sanders siblings born to Audrey and Air Force officer Lt. Colonel Earnest L Sanders, Sr., Ph.D. By the time his family settled in Portland for Sanders’ sophomore year, had lived in eight other cities and six other states.

Growing up with an Air Force father engrained in Sanders the value of education and discipline. “It was academics first, athletics second,” he says. “And when he said, ‘Jump,’ we said, ‘How high.’ Everything about me is military.”

Those lessons would serve him well, not just while in school but also as a father and in stints as Jefferson’s head track coach (1980), an assistant basketball coach at Wilson (1996-97) and a youth football coach. And with all that moving around, he learned how to adapt quickly to each of his new environments.

"It can be tough moving as much as we did but I figured things out pretty quickly. When I’d start in a new school, I always knew I’d get in a fight within the first week and then would always become really good friends with the guy I fought,” Sanders says with a laugh.

Prior to his arrival at Jefferson, Sanders tried his hand with just about every sport except wrestling. His size came in handy in football and basketball and he had some genes working for him when it came to baseball.

"My grandfather, Robert Charles Nelson, played in the Negro Leagues at the same time as Satchell Paige, Roy Campanella, Josh Gibson and others,” Sanders says.

Once at Jefferson, Sanders’ sports focus would change, a shift caused by both Jefferson tradition and Portland weather. But football would remain his first love.

“I loved all the sports I played, but football was my thing,” he says. “I loved the camaraderie and the numbers. There’s not another sport where you have that many players come together with the same goal. Maybe that was part of my military indoctrination.

Sanders played offensive guard and linebacker all three years at Jeff, earning All-PIL Honorable Mention both ways his first two years and first team as a senior — the same year the Democrats won the PIL title and he was named to the Shrine All-Star team.

After his first year playing football, Sanders moved on to his next sport, showing up for basketball tryouts with no understanding of what and whom he would be up against.

“I had no idea how strong the basketball tradition was at Jeff and the quality of players I’d be competing against.”

In other words, it seemed like a good time to give another winter sport a shot, maybe the one he’d just messed around with casually up to then.

“Wrestling was a PE requirement in middle school up in Tacoma, so I’d wrestled about five times before,” Sanders remembers. “I never thought I’d continue in the sport. But once I didn’t make the basketball team I decided, ‘Let’s do this.’”

Sanders wound up loving everything about wrestling, from its mano-a-mano nature to the environment in which it was practiced, which he describes as “always the worst, hottest, stinkiest room in the basement. The thing about wrestling is, there are no fingers to point,” Sanders adds. “It’s just you and that other guy. What do you need to do and how can you make it happen.”

And, if you can make it happen in six seconds, more power to you.

“I had no idea that was a record at the time,” Sanders says.

Sanders’ original plans for spring included turning out for baseball, another sport he loved. But that was before he started paying attention to Portland’s daily spring weather forecasts.

“Because of all the rain, I decided I didn’t want to play baseball,” he says. “It was a silly decision.”

Instead of heading to the diamond, Sanders went to where the mud wasn’t.

“Track was another sport I’d never done before,” he says. “But Bobby Harris, the basketball coach, was also the track and field coach. I was a big guy so he suggested I got out and throw the shot put, discus and javelin. I loved them all, but really loved throwing the discus. There’s science and math and art to it. It’s just beautiful and elegant.”

It’s also the event that is responsible for what Sanders calls “the saddest story of my high school career.” The short version of it involves him throwing out of his mind in practices leading up to the PIL championships, with throws that were landing 170-plus feet away. But suddenly not being able to throw without fouling.

“Before the city meet, I know I’m throwing in practice farther than anyone has ever thrown at Jefferson, but I’m scratching and the coaches and I can’t figure out what’s going on. Still, I can’t wait to get to state because I know I’ll be competing against Dean Crouser, and when you think Oregon and discus you think the Crouser family.”

But Sanders never got the chance to throw against Crouser, scratching on his three throws at city. “I asked them to measure my last throw and it was 174-6. I believe Dean threw 172 feet at state. I cried all the way home. We later found out I was holding my breath during my throws so by the time I let go of the discus I was way out of sync. It broke my heart, but it wasn’t meant to be.”

That didn’t mean Sanders’ high school career was anything less than highly successful. He earned nine letters in sports and was twice named team captain. Outside athletics, he was student body vice president, a graduation speaker and Jefferson’s representative to the Portland Youth Advisory Council.

The idea that he might one day make the PIL Hall of Fame never crossed his mind until years later, when a family friend assured him he’d eventually be inducted, which happened in 2020.

“I just took what my relative said with a grain of salt,” Sanders says. “Then I got a call while I was in LA from Bob Woodle saying he wanted to give me some great news. I was like, ‘What?’ It was like in a movie when you hear something and things kind of slow down. I was thinking, Did he just say I’m going to be in the Hall of Fame? Then you start to reflect on games and tackles and things. It was lots of fun doing all that I did in high school, but you’re never thinking I’m doing this so one day I can win XYZ award or something.”

After graduating, Sanders headed college, playing football at Mt. Hood and Walla Walla community colleges before eventually earning his degree at Eastern Oregon University. He gave up college football after his year in Walla Walla but after college would play in a minor league for another decade.

It was during that time that Sanders got his big Hollywood break. Well, sort of.

“I had a good friend in the movie industry,” he says. “He was working on a film and invited me to visit the set. I met the casting director who asked if I wanted to be an extra. So, I wind up in a bar scene, tucked away in a corner thinking, I’m not really into this. But at the end of the day, the casting director tells me, ‘The director saw you and wants to use you in a scene.’”

Sanders’ shot at stardom didn’t last much longer than that six-second pin, but it did light a spark. He started training in Los Angeles with stunt men and taking acting classes and wound up doing stunts for several years, even serving once as the stunt double for James Avery, best known for his role as Uncle Phil in “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air”.

As exciting as the work could be, Sanders was less enthusiastic about the pay.

“I was a father now and needed to do something to pay bills,” Sanders remembers. “So I went to an audition in L.A. for a film that was going to be shot in Portland. As I was leaving the audition, I passed a door with a sign that read ‘Transportation.’ So I knocked on it and told the guy inside, ‘I’m from Portland, could you use a driver up there?’” He said, ‘No, I’m good.’ So, I asked him if I could leave my card, and he says ‘Sure’. Two weeks later he called me. That was 36 years ago.”

In the years since, Sanders has served as an executive transportation coordinator for a number of Hollywood A-listers, from the aforementioned Washington, Pfeiffer, Affleck, Lopez, Damon and Adams to Johnny Depp, Billy Bob Thorton, Dustin Hoffman and Lou Gossett Jr.

He’s hung at Depp’s house, dined with Denzel (as well as the director and entire cast of “Pirates of the Caribbean”) and earned kisses on the cheek from Whoopi Goldberg and Michelle Pfeiffer. “I’m often thinking to myself something like, Did Michelle Pfeiffer really just kiss me on the cheek? Wait a minute? Did I just hang out with Matt Damon?” he laughs. “It gets pretty surreal sometimes.”

Sanders now splits his time between his primary home in Portland and another in Thousand Oaks, Calif. At work he’s “The guy with the black car,” usually transporting a film’s star or director from their home (or wherever they’re staying) to the trailer on the filming site, then walking them (and providing security) to and from the site.

“I live a completely blessed life,” he says. “These people could call anyone, so when they call me it’s humbling.”

When it comes to his blessings, Sanders says there is no greater one than his family, his wife of 35 years, Sandra Hayes, a marketing executive, and their adult son and daughter. He’s a grandfather now, too.

In addition to his day job, he’s written and sold a screenplay and has others in the works. “In college, journalism was my core curriculum. I’ve always loved writing.”

He also writes poetry. And is a photographer. And there’s one more thing Marvin Sanders wants you to know about him.

“I’ve always got something going on,” he says.

Chances are you’ve already figured that out by now.

Do you know Marvin Sanders? If you'd like to reconnect, he can be reached at mlaroysanders@comcast.net

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