Cincinnati Bearcats cornerback Ahmad Gardner (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
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Path to the Pros: Cooking with Sauce Gardner

Next up in our Path to the Pros series: Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner. The Cincinnati standout cornerback explains the origin of his nickname and how he plans to back it up in the NFL.

The legend of Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner will live forever in Cincinnati, Ohio. Soon, it will start to grow somewhere else.

As the final countdown to the NFL Draft begins, Gardner isn’t nervous. That may come from not allowing a touchdown in coverage during his three years as a Cincinnati Bearcat. But deep within him, the confidence that Gardner speaks and plays with comes from what he describes as a long history as an underdog.

It would be hard to argue Gardner is overlooked now. With the NFL Draft set to begin on Thursday, scouts and draft experts consistently have Sauce ranked as a top-two cornerback. Only LSU’s Derek Stingley Jr. has been on his level.

Speaking to Boardroom, Gardner touched on the origin of his nickname, why NIL deals weren’t his focus, what his first purchase as a pro will be, his unwavering confidence, and much more.

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RANDALL WILLIAMS: Where does the nickname “Sauce” come from?

SAUCE GARDNER: That was just a Little League thing. I was about six years old, and I remember after one of my football games, [the coach] was like “Yeah, man, you’re A1 Sauce Gardner.” It was a big ol’ nickname, but as the years went by, it turned into Sauce, and it stuck with me.

RW: Your head coach at Cincinnati [Luke Fickell] said he wasn’t going to call you Sauce. Talk to me about you all’s relationship.

SG: We have a great relationship. He’s a leader, and I look up to him. When I got to Cincinnati, I would introduce myself by calling myself Sauce. All my coaches told me they weren’t going to call me Sauce until I earn it. I remember we played against UCF, and my defensive coordinator ran up to me after I caught my first pick-six [and] said, “Your name is now Sauce Gardner. Your name is now Sauce Gardner!”

But Coach Fick, my head coach, was more so like he wasn’t calling me Sauce until I get drafted, so he had bigger expectations than me making plays like all the other coaches did. I respect him for that, and hopefully next week that dream can come true. 

RW: Your last year of college, there was something called name, image and likeness that went into effect. Did you cash in on any NIL deals?

SG: Not really. I had a lot of opportunities that I could have had, but I didn’t just want my face all around. I did more trading cards and things like that. I’m the type of person where I like to do marketing deals with things I genuinely like. I wasn’t really trying to do a whole bunch of them.

RW: Is that a focus thing? Some guys in pro sports prefer to negotiate their deals in the offseason so they can focus on balling. Are you of the same mindset?

SG: That’s exactly what it was. It was bigger than money. I just wanted to put the work in and do everything I could to get to the next level. I didn’t want to be distracted by marketing and having to stop working out and go do a photoshoot for a company or something like that. I just wanted to be 110% dedicated and focused and locked in on football. 

RW: You mention money — you’re likely to be the first or second corner taken off the draft board. Have you started to think about what your first purchase is going to be when you see that large amount of money in your account?

SG: Most definitely. I already know I’m going to buy my mom a house. I just want her to live fancy. We didn’t have everything growing up, so it was a little different. Me getting drafted and getting a lot of money, I’ll be able to take care of her and get her everything that she wants and needs.

RW: You have to take care of the family, but for you, is there something you have to check off your bucket list?

SG: Not really. I try to be selfless. I take care of the people that’s around me. I have everything I need — shoes, a car, a truck. I love my truck. I have everything need.

RW: Transitioning to football again, you haven’t been shy about telling people you want to be All-Pro or the best corner in the league your first year. Where does your confidence come from?

SG: Always being counted out, especially when I have great competition I’m going against. Like when we were going against Alabama, everybody was counting me out — making it seem like it was a matchup between me and their top receiver. And I just knew if I studied film and prepared the right way, the game was going to take care of itself. Growing up, I’ve always been the smallest and [also] counted out the most, so I just kept a great relationship with God and he helped me get through everything that I needed to get through. That’s where I get my confidence from. I never forget things from my past. 

Photo by Matthew Visinsky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

RW: Every team wants “the right fit.” What is a team getting when they draft you?

SG: A great teammate that leads by example [and] that can help push my brothers and motivate my teammates. A guy that loves to work and loves everything about football.

RW: I heard that you’re a huge “Call of Duty: Warzone” fan and player. Who’s your squad?

SG: Lately, I’ve been playing with my boy Jackson. He plays on the Cincy baseball team. There’s a guy named OPMarked, he has the most wins in “Warzone,” if not top-10 most wins. And a guy named Speros, he has close to 300K on YouTube, so he’s a big name. We’ve been catching a lot of Ws for sure. 

RW: Would you consider yourself in the upper echelon of “Warzone” players?

SG: Most definitely. I’ve been in lobbies with Aydan and top-notch people like that, and I’ve killed those guys before. As long as I can kill ‘em one time, I’m in that tier one. For sure. 

RW: Basically what you’re saying is the same confidence you bring to the field, you carry on the sticks.

SG: Most definitely. I love winning. [For instance], I like bowling. I didn’t used to be as good, but I just kept doing it, and I got better. That’s how it’s always been with “Call of Duty.” It got to the point where I play with better people and the standard is even higher. I at least average seven or eight kills. They be [taking] my kills, but I be dropping a lot of kills, for sure.

RW: Going back to the gridiron, are there guys that you watch to study their technique to try to implement what they do into your game?

SG: I watch Jalen Ramsey. We have a personal relationship, so any time I need something or see something, I can just call him and he’ll let me know. Antonio Cromartie, JC Jackson, Darius Slay. I just talk to a lot of guys. It’s a blessing to have guys that I watched in the past be able to help me grow by talking to them.

RW: On the opposite side, are there a specific guys that you’re looking to go up against and really test yourself?

SG: I just want to go against the best. I don’t really think about receivers that I got to be worried about. I just always make sure I put the work in and prepare myself. 

RW: I want you to look ahead to the end of your rookie year. What do you want people to remember when they say Sauce was drafted in the first round and

SG: It was well worth it. He proved to be a first round talent. He went out there and shut down receivers like he said he was going to do. He was a great teammate and he motivated the guys around him. 

RW: So now look all the way at the end of your career. What do you want people to remember you as when you finally decide to hang it up?

SG: A gem. A guy that left a legacy on the game of football. I want to be the guy that the kids growing up saying they want to be like me. It’s just like I was saying, I wanted to be like Deion Sanders or Michael Jordan. I want the youth to remember [me] like that. When they think of me, I want to be a legend when it comes to football. Not just the cornerback position, but in general. 

RW: If you could send a message to kids who came up the way you did, underrated and overlooked, what would you say?

SG: Keep working, and you can get where I am. Unseen work and unrequired hours, that’s the key to success — working when nobody is watching you. That’s what I always did when I was younger. I can’t lie, I had friends who wanted to party and wanted to go to the basketball court and hoop and stuff like that. But I was just the one who wanted to put the work in. I’ve never drank or smoked a day in my life.

I always do the little things to help motivate the youth. I don’t want to be a bad example because I have a lot of people watching me, so I don’t want to do anything wrong that will steer them the wrong way. I’m an empath. I got it tattooed on me. I compensate a lot for other people, and that’s just how I am. 

RW: My last question is a fun one. When you have a nickname like “Sauce,” it kind of does imply that one day you will come out with a sauce. Is that something you’re interested in?

SG: I’ll handle that when it comes. I haven’t really been thinking about coming with a sauce or anything like that, but when the opportunity comes, I’ll make the most of it. For sure.

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