Rob Sanders considered showcasing his football skills at college.
The Hamilton Hill native and football standout at the old Mont Pleasant High School considered playing ball at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. Instead, he chose a path through academics, which led him to the engineering program at Northeastern University in Massachusetts.
“I thought I killed enough brain cells playing football,” he mused during a recent phone conversation.
Ironically, his undergraduate studies brought him back to the military, in which he now serves with the Navy’s Judge Advocate General Corps. He was promoted to captain in April, becoming one of only five active duty black members of the JAG at the rank.
The special designation didn’t surprise his sister, Diane Hombach of Schenectady. She said her youngest brother always seemed to have success in his eyes while growing up, whether it was his participation with the Civil Air Patrol at Schenectady County Airport or his co-captaining of the Mont Pleasant football team.
“He always seemed to know where he was going,” she said.
Sanders, 49, grew up on Strong Street in Schenectady and excelled in academics and athletics. He was the student representative to the school district’s Board of Education and was honored as the Dave Boyd Scholar-Athlete before graduating in 1977.
After receiving his degree from Northeastern, Sanders took up several engineering positions that brought him contract work with the military in Washington, D.C. Among other things, he helped develop missile and submarine propulsion systems, which brought him into contact with the Navy.
Sanders became an intelligence specialist in the Navy Reserve, while returning to studies at the Catholic University of America and working full time with a weapon systems contractor. But instead of furthering his engineering studies, he decided to pick up a degree in law.
“My mom always said I should go to law school because I argue too much,” he said.
Upon graduating in 1988, Sanders went into active duty, launching two decades of service with the JAG. His service took him around the globe to help developing nations craft their military law.
Sanders was deployed to Afghanistan in 2004 and spent a year helping the Afghan army write its military legal code. He said the endeavor was like starting from scratch because the Afghan military leadership wanted to develop a system completely apart from the code in place under the Taliban.
“They didn’t want anything from the past,” he said “They wanted a clean break.”
Sanders also brought his military legal acumen to the African nations of Niger and Sierra Leone.
He said giving their military leaders a better understanding of the United States system helps provide a frame of reference for how legal systems work across the globe.
“It’s better aligning them with the international community,” he said.
Today, Sanders serves as the head of JAG personnel and recruitment in Washington D.C. He also serves as a diversity specialist.
Sanders credits much of his success to his good upbringing and his embracing academics as a young Mont Pleasant student. He urged the youth from his old neighborhood to devote their time to academics, learn how to speak properly and realize the world moves much differently from how it’s sometimes portrayed by urban culture icons.
“The rest of the world is not like that,” he said. “The rest of the world is moving in different directions.”