Toby Sanderson photo

University of Central Arkansas senior center Toby Sanderson (63) has become an iron man for the Bears during his five seasons with the program. Sanderson has started 27 straight games that began in 2018 and will continue that streak Saturday.

For what will be 28 straight games this Saturday, the Central Arkansas Bears have had a familiar face playing center.

Senior Toby Sanderson is not only the lone senior on the offensive line, but he has been an iron man for the Bears.

Sanderson said a lot of his ability to stay on the field has been listening to his trainers when he gets banged up.

“I’ll go in there and do what I need to do and get it worked out before the next game,” he said. “That’s really helped me out a lot and just playing through the little stuff. A lot of guys may go to the trainers and they say come out. If it’s something little and I don’t need to worry about that stuff, I don’t go see them. Otherwise, it’s just keeping the mentality and I’m going to do what I can for them.”

Sanderson came to UCA in 2016 as a preferred walk-on and redshirted that first year at UCA.

In year two, he saw action in four games as a backup offensive lineman, but in year three, Sanderson started a streak that currently sits at 27 by starting all 11 games that season.

He also started all 13 games as a starter in 2019, and is well on his way to starting his 28th straight game Saturday against North Dakota State.

During his high school days in Edmond, Oklahoma, Sanderson was recruited by several Division II schools but he didn’t feel that’s where his path was supposed to go.

“The dream was to play DI,” he said. “Late in my recruitment, it was getting up on signing day and I messaged one of the coaches here. I think it was coach Howard that was recruiting Oklahoma at the time. He said, ‘yeah, man. If you want a preferred walk-on spot, we’d love to have you up here.’ I took it, and I ran with it and did everything I could to earn the scholarship.”

Though starting as a preferred walk-on, Sanderson has made the most of his opportunities, getting named to the preseason All-SLC First Team along with a National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame Hampshire Honor Society honors and an SLC All-Academic team selection.

Sanderson’s hard work and dedication along with his status as the lone senior on the offensive line has allowed him to be a leader of that group.

“From the time I started I was one of the oldest guys on the line and that was three years ago,” he said. “We’ve been pretty young the last few years. We’re finally starting to get older and get some experience, so really I’m leading. But all those guys that have been with me are leading too. They’ve been in the system three years, going on four, so it’s been easy. They help me out a lot and I try to be the big pop of the group because they are all younger guys, but I’m friends with them, too.”

Under different circumstances, Sanderson would be playing his final season.

However, due to COVID and cancelations of different athletic seasons across the nation, the NCAA announced in August fall athletes would be granted an extra year of eligibility.

Sanderson said the decision to recommit to another of football at UCA was something that came on him fast.

Ultimately, he decided to return for the 2021 season.

“It was a tough decision,” he said. “It was slapped on me late at the start of the season. It took me some time to think about it and pray about it. One day I was praying about it and felt with all the options I had at the moment, it was the best one for me. That’s the way I was leaning.”

UCA coach Nathan Brown said getting Sanderson back for another year was huge for the team.

“We’ve got a great senior class and these guys have the opportunity of a lifetime to get another year of school paid for and an extra year of eligibility,” he said. “What an awesome opportunity. I tell them all the time, you can grow upnext year. Go in the real world next year. This is an opportunity to stay in college, continue your degree or go onto a secondary degree and keep playing football along the way. It’s a big-time get for us with Toby. He was going to be a priority for us. We were going to have to go out and find a center, whether that be a transfer or a really good high school kid if we lost Toby. Toby recommitted to us and he’s coming back for us another year.”

Sanderson graduated in August with a degree in exercise science, but will now pursue a master’s.

With a lot of changes for this season, the Bears have played opponents it normally wouldn’t, which is something Sanderson enjoys.

“It’s been fun,” he said. “I love it. Usually we get one, maybe two FBS teams a year. This year, we have I think three or four. That’s just a whole different thing. Playing teams from other conferences has been great, too because it’s new competition. It’s not seeing the same people I’ve seen for three or four years. It’s been all-around fun going to different places. It’s been great.”

Sanderson goes for consecutive start No. 28 Saturday in Fargo, North Dakota, against the North Dakota State Bison.

Kickoff is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. and will be broadcast on ESPN+.

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