LAWRENCE — When Cassius Sendish was a boy, his father would often drag him to the local Sugar Ray Boxing Gym near their home in Waldorf, Md.
Sendish was a scrawny kid, the kind of late bloomer who measured only 5-foot-2 and 90 pounds as a high school freshman. But if young Cassius ever lacked for confidence or toughness, his father reminded his son of the origins of his name.
Andras Sendish had dedicated most of his early life to boxing, and he had made a promise to himself: If he ever had a son, he would name him after his hero: Cassius Clay, the birth name of boxing great Muhammad Ali.
“He’d show me tapes,” Sendish says of Ali, “and I read books on him.”
More than a decade later, Sendish is now a junior defensive back on the Kansas football team, a junior-college transfer in a program that’s continuing to build from the ground up.
And while the moniker is pretty sweet, there are other reasons why Sendish is already making a name for himself on the KU campus, where he’ll report on Wednesday for the first day of fall camp.
“You sit and talk to that kid for 10 minutes,” KU coach Charlie Weis says, “you can see why I wanted him a part of our program.”
It’s also why Weis took Sendish to Big 12 media days in Dallas in late July. It was a rare sighting: A junior-college transfer at the Big 12’s late-summer showcase. Here was Sendish, a kid that had never played a down for KU, sitting alongside senior running back James Sims, junior linebacker Ben Heeney and junior quarterback Jake Heaps.
Weis certainly liked Sendish’s mature and polished personality. But if he was being honest, he also wanted to remind people about his junior-college master plan. In the offseason, Weis loaded up on junior-college recruits. (You might recall that he used a certain “pile of crap” recruiting strategy to lure many of them to Lawrence.) And Sendish represented the fruits of that labor.
“Lookit, I brought in 20 junior-college kids,” Weis says. “Well, there’s one of them. Go talk to him and see. If that’s the type of junior-college kid (we’re) bringing in, sign me up, because that’s the type of kid I want on my team.”
Sendish arrived at KU earlier this year and was listed as a starter at cornerback during spring practice. He is now listed as a safety on KU’s roster, but Sendish doesn’t want to pigeonhole his role.
“I’m a defensive back,” Sendish says.
Whatever he is, Weis probably will be depending on Sendish and his junior-college brethren as he begins his second season at Kansas. The Jayhawks’ entire starting secondary from last season is gone, and Weis is hoping to fill those holes (and others) with ready-made playmakers.
Sendish, of course, says he wasn’t always ready-made. You may recall the story of him being 90 pounds in high school — and just 150 pounds as a high school junior. No matter, he says. He always found a way to make plays, and he was determined to make it in Division I.
That meant spending the 2011 season — his second year in junior college — on the sideline after not being able to secure any financial aid at the College of the Canyons in California. Sendish returned home, watching as his father, a print operator for the Washington Post, went to work each day.
“He’s been doing it since he was 18 years old,” Sendish says.
Motivated by his year at home, Sendish found a home at Arizona Western Community College, parlaying a strong season into a scholarship offer from Weis. Sendish may have been a late bloomer, he says, but he was always focused on the next step. This time, the next step begins at Kansas.
“When I was younger, my dad used to make me play with adults,” says Sendish, who now stands 6-foot, 187 pounds. “So it was never really a thing where I was afraid, or I felt like my size played a factor. I always just put my heart into to it.”