September 11, 2013

Bob Lutz: A name with a fighter’s chance

I’ll give you three guesses as to who Kansas junior safety Cassius Sendish was named after.

I’ll give you three guesses as to who Kansas junior safety Cassius Sendish was named after.

OK, you got it on one.

None other than former heavyweight champion Cassius Clay, who came to be more famous as Muhammad Ali.

Sendish’s dad, Andras, hadn’t been born when Cassius became Muhammad on Feb. 26, 1964, one day after knocking out champion Sonny Liston to take his heavyweight belt.

But Andras was a young kid as Ali fought throughout the 1970s in some of the most famous fights in history. An amateur boxer himself, Andras was drawn to the mix of Ali’s incredible ability and his even larger social presence. Ali was a lightning rod and he struck Andras Sendish square in the heart.

“I watched him anytime I could see him on television and I read as many books about Ali as I could get my hands on,” said Andras, who grew up in Maryland. “He was my hero growing up.”

And he told himself, and his wife, Paula, that if they ever had a son, “Cassius” would be the boy’s name.

And, of course, they had two daughters.

But when a baby boy was born, he indeed was named Cassius. And Sendish is proud to carry a name so important to his father.

“My dad always talked about the courageous things Cassius Clay and then Muhammad Ali did in his life,” Sendish said. “When I was a kid, my dad would show me tapes of Ali boxing and I listened to some audio from him. It’s kind of surreal to be named after a person with that kind of prestige.”

But Andras could never get his son, Cassius, to take to boxing. It wasn’t because he didn’t try. He took Cassius to gyms and got him to train some. But the sport never hooked the younger Sendish, who was more drawn to football, basketball and baseball.

“I think I just realized pretty early in my life what kind of toll boxing would potentially take on my body,” Cassius said. “And my brain, especially. My dad and my parents put me into sports when I was 5 years old and I played a lot of sports.”

Football is the one that stuck.

Sendish started as an offensive lineman, he said, but eventually switched to running back. He constantly watched highlight tapes of Eric Dickerson, Earl Campbell and Barry Sanders.

“That really helped shape me as a football player,” he said.

He soon discovered, though, that he had a nose for the football and enjoyed trying to take it away from the opposition more than anything else.

“I just knew I wanted to do whatever it took to get on the field,” Sendish said. “Whatever anybody needed me to play.”

Sendish played at North Point High in Maryland, then left for a College of the Canyons, a junior college in California where he played in 2010. But without financial aid, he couldn’t afford to stay and ended up at Arizona Western College in 2012, where he was rated by as the 59th-best junior-college prospect in the country after a season that included 29 tackles and 10 pass break-ups.

Sendish moved right into the starting lineup at Kansas and was solid in the Jayhawks’ season opener last week against South Dakota. He’ll be much more in the line of fire Saturday, though, when Kansas plays pass-happy Rice in Houston.

“I think we’re coming together,” Sendish said of the Jayhawks. “We’re all confident about what we bring to the table. I think our defense looks good. I just came here wanting to work as hard as I could, put my best out there and hope everybody appreciates the way I play.”

Sendish was pursued by several schools but chose Kansas, of all places, because it felt like home.

Andras Sendish said his son could have played football at schools in the midst of success, but that Cassius is more interested in building it.

“He wanted to make an impact somewhere, make a difference,” Andras said. “If you’re able to do that, people will remember you for a lot of years to come.”

Much the same way Muhammad Ali is remembered decades after his last fight. Ali made an impact. He made a difference. He changed the world.

“I just liked him in so many ways,” Andras Sendish said. “As a young kid, I liked his showboating and flashy moves. He was so fast and he put those combinations together.

“As I got older and started reading more about Ali and talking to my elders, I learned about all of the things that happened with him. About how he refused to join the military and how he was stripped of the title. He was a religious man who was proud of his convictions.”

That’s the man Andras wanted to name a son after.

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