Jan. 22—MINNEAPOLIS — That's maroon and gold tinted blood pumping through the vessels of Zach Sanders.
It was transitioning from red to Gophers colors well before the 2007 Wabasha-Kellogg graduate showed up as a first-year wrestler at the University of Minnesota, fresh off winning five state individual championships.
"I grew up watching the Gophers win NCAA titles, and I wanted to be a part of that," said Sanders, who in high school was coached by his father, Hall of Famer Ron Sanders, and in college by another Hall of Famer, J Robinson. "That's why I went there."
He's sure glad he did. Seventeen years later, the four-time Gophers All-American has never really left.
Sanders is one of three paid assistants to Minnesota head wrestling coach Brandon Eggum. He's been serving in that capacity since 2016, but not until this season was the position an official one, paid for by the university.
Sanders has a number of responsibilities as a Gophers assistant, but his primary one is being in charge of "the little guys" on the team, as he puts it.
Sanders can relate well to the "little guys," because he was one of them. And he still is. In 2012, his senior season at Minnesota, he finished third in the country at 125 pounds, ending a brilliant career in which he went 134-27 overall.
The former All-American later competed in the Olympic Trials in 2012 and 2021, never quite making the final cut.
At 35 years old, his first year into marriage and weighing a perfectly fit 140 pounds, Sanders can still compete with the best of them. And he does it every day at Gophers wrestling practices, rolling around on the mat with anyone from 125 pounds to 141. He can also go higher than that in a pinch.
Sanders is there to offer advice, break down moves and walk them through every situation.
That wrestling mat, it's his happy place.
"I can still compete with anyone," said Sanders, not the least bit of conceit in his still boyish-sounding voice. "Even with some of the guys at the highest (weight) levels. Some days my body aches, but I can still do it."
But that's not why he's there, to strut his stuff. Sanders has never had an ounce of strut in him. No, he simply cherishes this sport and wants to provide everything he can to make this Gophers program as good as it can be. Sanders wrestled during some of its heyday, Minnesota finishing second in the country as a team his senior season.
The Gophers, who are coming off a 22-9 loss to No. 3 Iowa, are ranked 10th. Sanders wants to see Minnesota be great again. He wants it because he knows how satisfying being a part of an elite program can be.
He also knows what it takes to get there.
"I will always bleed Gophers colors," Sanders said. "I'll forever be a Gopher through and through. The program has done so much for me and my friends who were on my teams. All of us guys feel the same way. We had wrestling fanatics in the wrestling room when I was there. Even on days when we didn't have practice, we'd have 20 guys in the room, drilling and working on stuff. I liked it like that. That team brought us together. I learned from some amazing people and it was just a great experience overall."
One of the main people who Sanders learned from was Robinson, who led the team from 1986 until 2016. Under him, Minnesota won national titles in 2001, 2002 and 2007.
Sanders never considered Robinson a master wrestling technician. In fact, he said that Robinson left much of that work to his assistants.
Still, he was a master coach, a leader of young men who taught them so much beyond wrestling. Twice, Robinson was named the National Wrestling Coaches Association Coach of the Year.
"With J, everything had a purpose," Sanders said. "He taught you how to question things and coach yourself a little bit. He saw the big picture in things and taught you how to live your life and focus on the things that are important. He was very much into life experiences and was very good at teaching people how to work hard and work smarter. Some of us still see him about once a month, going to happy hour with him and connecting."
These days, Sanders spends the bulk of his time connecting with current Gophers wrestlers. He's trying to give back so much of what he gleaned from his college days.
For him, it remains his most inspiring place, that Minnesota wrestling room. He can't imagine himself being anywhere else.