Analysis. History. Perspective.

Sports Then and Now

Barry Sanders: Incredible and Selfless

Posted on September 12, 2009 by Joe Gill
Barry Sanders left the game as arguably the best running back in NFL History

Barry Sanders left the game as arguably the best running back in NFL History

Players like Brett Favre and Michael Jordan walk away then come back then walk away then come back yet again. They can not douse the competitive fire. They need the adrenaline rush. They aren’t ready for a “normal” life even though their body may be.

Not Barry Sanders. He retired at his prime and he was only 30 years old. He left the game as arguably the best running back in NFL history. He has been content with his decision and never attempted a comeback over the 11 years since his retirement.

Wow I wish he unretired and Brett Favre stayed retired. Favre should have left on a good note rather than with all dramatics over the past two years. Barry didn’t want that. It was not in his makeup.

A totally unselfish man, Barry Sanders left the game only 1457 yards short of Walter Payton’s record. He probably would have eclipsed the record in a year or two. In Barry’s absence, Emmitt Smith broke Payton’s record and finished his career with 18,355 yards.

Great accomplishment by Emmitt Smith, there is no doubt about it. However, as me and my friends argued for years, Barry Sanders did more with little. He did not have Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin, Jay Novacek, and an all star offensive line. He made due with the likes of Herman Moore and Scott Mitchell.

Barry made his holes and made them count. He was an acrobat. Pure poetry in motion. He made runs that made your jaw drop. Houdini would have been proud.

I just watched the DVD “Barry Sanders: Now You See Him” which is chock full of amazing runs from his days at Wichita North High School, Oklahoma State, and the Detroit Lions. Two runs stick out as totally amazing.

In one play he was breaking to the outside, three Chicago Bears, I believe one was Wilbur Marshall, had him dead to rights behind the line of scrimmage.  They grabbed at his shirt, but were left grabbing air. Barry was then off to the races.

The other run, against my beloved New England Patriots, was just kids’ play. Barry faked out two Patriots defenders then totally undressed safety, Harlon Barnett. Barry went one way, Barnett looked another, Sanders changed direction, and Barnett was left looking like a Hanover pretzel.

I could go on and on about his highlight reel runs.

Barry set records on all levels. During his senior year at Wichita North High School, he put up 1417 yards with 10.2 yards per carry average.

At Oklahoma State University, he had on of the best rushing years in NCAA football history in 1988. He had an eye popping 2628 yards rushing and 37 touchdowns on the ground (both NCAA records). This was all done after being a back up to Thurman Thomas for his first two years.

To no one’s surprise but his own, Sanders won the Heisman trophy as a junior in 1988. He left school early and entered the NFL draft.

Barry Sanders was chosen #3 overall about the Detroit Lions. However, then coach Wayne Fontes had to convince management to take the 5’8” 203 pound running back. Barry stated in his press conference that he came to “Restore the Roar” at the Silverdome. Indeed he did, the Detroit Lions finally had a bite to back up their roar.

Barry paid off instantly for the Lions in 1989. On his first carry, he rattled off a 19 yard run and on his fourth run, scored a touchdown. He finished the 1989 season second in the league in rushing.  Sanders could have overtaken the lead but refused to go in. This was yet another example of Barry’s humility and unselfishness.

 I selfishly wish Barry unretired, but he never would.

I selfishly wish Barry unretired, but he never would.

Throughout his career, Barry Sanders achieved a lot on an individual basis. He was the NFL MVP, went to 10 Pro Bowls, and had 5 rushing titles. However, Barry was selfless and wanted success for his team and the people of Detroit.

He was the heart and soul of the Lions through the 90’s and put people in the seats. The Lions have been a laughing stock since he left the game in 1998.

The Lions made it to the NFC championship in 1991, but were throttled by the Washington Redskins 41-10. Detroit would never get that close again and Barry Sanders never got his championship ring. Imagine what he could have done if he was on the Dallas Cowboys or SF 49ers of the 1990’s?

Barry had one of his best years during the 1997 season just one year before he hung up his cleats for good.  After a slow start, Sanders put together 14 consecutive 100 yards rushing games and finished the season with 2,053 yards. (One of only 3 players to accomplish such a feat). He was named MVP and Offensive Player of the year for a second time (He won in 1994 also).

The team finished 9-7 and got knocked out of the playoffs in the first round.

After the 1998 season, Barry just finished the second year of a 6 year-$35.4 million dollar deal.  He was about to enter the 1999 season looking to break Walter Payton’s rushing record.

That never happened.

Barry Sanders announced his retirement via letter in July 1999.  The Lions fans and team were shocked and bitter about his decision. Things got ugly.

After a legal battle with the Lions over a signing bonus, Barry walked away from the game for good. He stated a few years later, that the losing culture of the Lions was too much for him to bear.

His competitive fire was doused and he knew during the finale of a 5-ll losing season that he played his last game.  He couldn’t lie to himself any longer; he lost the love for the game.

The city of Detroit has as well.

The Lions never recovered and have been an embarrassment of a franchise ever since. Failed draft picks. Carousel of coaches and an empty new stadium, Fords Field.

I never saw Barry play live. However, I adored him from afar. His running excited me.  However, Barry Sanders the man was awesome and inspiring. He never celebrated touchdowns with an aggressive spike or foolish dance. He never showed up the other team. He did his job and did it very well. When he lost the will to compete, he walked away and stayed away.

Brett Favre and Brandon Marshall, I hope you both read this. Barry Sanders can teach you both how to be selfless and humble.

I selfishly wish Barry unretired, but he never would.

Check out a video of Barry’s amazing runs.

Joe Gill is a resident blogger for Sports Then and Now. His Cup of Joe column can be read each Tuesday and Friday on Boston Sports Then and Now and occasionally on the national Sports Then and Now site.

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