Growing up in Myerstown, Steve Saunders wasn’t all that much different than most kids in his desire to play in the NFL one day. Now, some three decades later, that kid from Myerstown is working his dream job in the NFL.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that Saunders’ dream came true, only because he could have never imagined aspiring to the current position he finds occupies.
Saunders doesn’t play football any longer. But he does work closely with NFL players, helping them reach their highest physical potential.
Saunders, a 1988 graduate of Elco High School, is the head strength and conditioning coach with the Baltimore Ravens. It’s not the same as playing, and neither is it the next best thing.
“For me, this is the top of my profession,” said Saunders. “To be able to work for the Ravens organization, and with the culture that exists there, I have been blessed. It’s my belief that Baltimore is the top franchise in the NFL. To have that opportunity is absolutely amazing. Quite honestly, this is my dream job. Not only to have the position, it’s also about the ‘who.’
“Absolutely, it is the next best thing to being a player,” continued Saunders. “I’m so blessed to have this experience and opportunity. I appreciate everybody. I’m the head strength and conditioning coach for the Baltimore Ravens. I never have a problem getting up in the morning.”
NFL football is one of the most physically demanding sports in the entire world.
As the head strength and conditioning coach, Saunders’ role with Baltimore is to help mentor and train Ravens players to reach their highest levels of performance, help them avoid injuries, and ultimately to help the organization win. Saunders uses weight training, diet, conditioning and his vast knowledge of the science in the field to have Ravens’ players ready to play on Sundays.
“Obviously, training is extremely important for all athletes,” said Saunders. “These guys are paid to perform in very meaningful games on a weekly basis. These guys have to take it very seriously. It’s their jobs.
“Ten years ago, I would’ve said off-season training is more important,” Saunders added. “But now, I’d give them (off-season and in-season training) equal weight. Every athlete prepares in the off-season, but to me, the guys who really train hard in-season are the ones who perform better. They feel better at the end of the season. Most times when guys stop training, they’re doing less for months.”
Because each individual Raven is different, and each have different needs and histories, Saunders prefers to engage them on a one-on-one basis. But he must work within certain constraints of time and opportunity.
“Everything is in small groups that we can manage,” said Saunders. “But I don’t agree with group training. I want to break them into the smallest groups possible, maybe two or three, or by position. You can’t do a lot of things in a large-group setting. There’s a training history. There’s an injury history. You need to get in touch with them on an individual basis to help them the most.
“I think from an athlete’s perspective, there’s a consistency and an intensity needed,” Saunders continued. “We like to use the term ‘acceptable failure’. There’s a range I’m looking for. The goal is to challenge their systems, their bodies. You need to push athletes to get the desired results. By definition, training to me is a progression. It’s how you get stronger, faster.”
With an extensive background in personal training, Saunders was hired by the Ravens in 2016 as the team’s director of performance and recovery. A year later, the former Elco Raider and Millersville Marauder became Baltimore’s director of performance.
“In 2008, when coach (John) Harbaugh got the job, I was already training some of the Ravens players,” said Saunders. “Coach Harbaugh brought me in and said, ‘Hey, I’d like to hire you, but you’ve never done this before. I’m sorry, I can’t hire you.’ Once a year, I’d send Coach Harbaugh an email congratulating him on the season. I told him, ‘If I can ever help you, let me know.’ In 2015, the Ravens had quite a few players on the IR. He said, ‘Why don’t you come down, I’d like to talk to you.’ And before I knew it, I was working with the Baltimore Ravens.
“I can’t say enough positive things about John Harbaugh. Just his leadership. His vision,” added Saunders. “For him to see something in me – and in a lot of ways take a chance on me – it was an amazing thing. It’s truly been a blessing in my life. The great thing about Coach Harbaugh is he lives what he preaches. Coaches and athletes have to understand the ‘Whys’. Coach Harbaugh does.”
Seven years after graduating from Millersville in 1992, Saunders founded Power Train Sports Institute, then grew it into one of the country’s top sports-training organizations, with 200 employees and 28 locations, nationwide. Over the years, Saunders has directly and indirectly helped professional athletes in football, baseball and hockey achieve better on-field results.
“I’ve worked with professional players – some privately – for a long time, and I’ve gotten great results,” said Saunders, a 51-year-old resident of Mount Joy. “I’ve always loved what I do, but this was an opportunity to work with a whole team. What I did before coming to the Ravens was great, but I wasn’t affecting a whole roster. What it is is affecting an entire team in a positive way.”
At Division Two Millersville, Saunders was a four-year starter at defensive tackle and a captain. Because he felt like he was always behind everyone in terms of experience, Saunders had something to prove.
“When I went to Millersville, I felt I always needed to get an edge, that I was playing catch up,” said Saunders. “At Millersville, we didn’t have a strength coach. But it was something I always needed. I had a chip on my shoulder, and that’s how it started.
“I did want to play in the NFL,” continued Saunders. “I got scouted and got some looks in my senior year, but nothing really came of it. It just didn’t work out. It was just time to start life. I always wanted to make the NFL. I didn’t have the talent, but I stayed at it. Now 20 years later, I’m here.”
At Elco in the 1980s, Saunders was a multi-sport athlete who grew up playing soccer. In his junior year, he switched to football, and during his two seasons, the Raiders went a combined 1-19.
“Without my legion baseball coach Terry Lehman, who helped Jack Bicher, I probably wouldn’t have gone to Millersville,” said Saunders. “I hadn’t played much football at that point. But Terry, who played for Millersville back in the day, called up Coach (Gene) Carpenter and said, ‘I think he can play.’ I worked my tail off at Millersville, and I was fortunate enough to play for four years.
“I think if you’re a good person, treat people well and work hard, you never know what can happen,” Saunders added. “It was one of those things where I never thought I could’ve gotten to where I am today. Certainly there was some luck and opportunity involved.”
If in fact Saunders has ascended to the top of his profession, there isn’t much left for him to accomplish.
“I’m aspiring to help the team and organization win a Super Bowl, in any way I can,” said Saunders. “I kid Coach Harbaugh all the time, ‘You owe me a ring.’ I want to be out on the field with those guys who work so hard, and I want to be under the confetti that’s falling. If you want to talk about goals and what’s left, that’s it. That’s the one goal.
“I don’t think what I do is a big deal,” concluded Saunders. “I love what I do. I’ve just been blessed to be able to help the players and the organization. I’m so happy where I’m at. It’s an amazing thing that a kid from Myerstown can be the head strength and conditioning coach with the Baltimore Ravens.”