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Good article on Barry Sanders...

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Running Into Greatness


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It’s difficult to be objective when the running back you’re trying to be objective about is your son, but William Sanders, father of Barry Sanders, tried to keep his head about him when it came to evaluating the great running backs of the NFL.

"Among all the runners to play the game," William Sanders used to say, to Barry and anyone who would listen, "Jim Brown was a man among boys."

William had seen his son win the Heisman Trophy at Oklahoma State in 1988, and had seen him chosen by the Detroit Lions with the third selection of the 1989 NFL draft. The father had also seen his son win Rookie of the Year honors in his first season, and had seen him dazzle the game with moves so breathtaking they made grown men sit up and cry out in disbelief. But the old man continued to tell the young man that the bigger player (Brown was 6-foot-2, 230) from three decades before was a better player than the smaller player (Barry was 5-8, 200) from the 1990s.

Until 1997. Until the magic and derring-do of one of the greatest NFL seasons any individual player ever has had. Until Barry Sanders gained 2,053 yards, finishing the year with a record 14 consecutive 100-yard games.

Then William Sanders told people that his son was the greatest running back of all-time.

“He never told me then,” Barry says. “He told other people. He told me later.”

In the ongoing Cinderfella debate over which great back’s foot fits the glass running shoe best, a lot of insiders would side with William Sanders, post 1997.

Without much argument, the customers to get their numbers called first in the shoe store would be Sanders, Brown, Walter Payton, and Emmitt Smith. And if the shoe didn’t fit -- and it’s highly unlikely that it wouldn’t, don’t you think? -- Eric Dickerson, O.J. Simpson, and Gale Sayers would be next up.

If Sanders had not done something in 1999 -- if he had not chosen to walk away from the game at age 30, after 10 seasons -- the argument probably would be a moot one.

In his tenth season, Sanders had gained 1,491 yards, increasing his career total to 15,269, an average of 1,527 per year. His poorest season had been 1993 when he missed the last five games with a torn medial collateral ligament in his right knee and still finished fifth in the NFL with 1,115 yards (and that was the only significant injury of his decade in the NFL).

At the dawn of the 1999 season, Sanders needed only -- for him -- 1,458 yards to pass Payton and become the greatest running back, numerically, in pro football history. He needed only -- for him -- say, three "average" seasons to set the rushing record bar so high no one ever could reach it. (If Sanders had put together three of his average years he would have reached 19,850 yards in 13 years; Smith, still active with Arizona, has the current career No. 1 -- 17,354 yards in 14 years.)

But strange as this sounds, Sanders didn’t care about records... or, more specifically, about breaking records. He didn’t need to break Payton’s record to feel fulfilled. In fact, he felt that Payton’s record had a certain sanctity to it and that his walking away from the game respected the sanctity of the record held by the man everyone called Sweetness.

For the first time publicly, Sanders talks about the act that stunned the world of sport in a new book, Now You See Him…Barry Sanders’ Story in His Own Words.

In the book, co-written with Oklahoma writer Mark McCormack, Sanders writes:

"I’ve never been fond of public attention or a lot of dealing with the media. I don’t mean to sound aloof; being in the spotlight just isn’t in my nature… I never valued [the record] so much that I thought it was worth my dignity or Walter’s dignity to pursue it amid so much media and marketing attention."

Should we have been surprised then? Should we be surprised now? Probably not. This is a man who always has called his own signals... and always and consistently could care less how those about him perceived those signals.

-- On the eve of the Heisman Trophy ceremonies in New York in December 1988, he told friends that he wasn’t going. They told him he had to. He listened and went... and won. Later, he passed on invitations to visit the White House. And when his hometown of Wichita, Kansas, honored him with a two-day celebration he arrived home... a day late.

-- He quietly gave one-tenth of his signing bonus of $2.1 million to the Paradise Baptist Church in Wichita. “Because the Bible says you should tithe,” he said. He continued to give 10 percent of his annual salary to charity throughout his career. (He is deeply but quietly religious, a product of his upbringing.)

-- In 1989, he was the runaway NFL Rookie of the Year with 1,470 yards, a 5.3 average, and 14 touchdowns. He also could have been the NFL rushing leader. He stopped short of the achievement in the final minutes of the last game of the season, declining to play against Atlanta even though he needed only 11 yards to pass Kansas City’s Christian Okoye. "We had the game won," he said then, "and that was the only objective. There was no need for me to go back in to get a personal achievement. What difference would it have made?" (Déjà vu?)

In Now You See Him..., Sanders confesses to a wide range of human emotions, including something football people (well, Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil excepted) rarely reveal: tears. After what would be his last game, against the Ravens in 1998, he writes, he sat weeping at his locker after a 19-10 loss closed a 5-11 season.

-- In May 2003, Sanders was to have been one of seven inductees into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame in elaborate ceremonies before nearly 800 people at Ford Field. He didn’t show. Instead his wife of three years, former Detroit TV news anchor Lauren Campbell Sanders, accepted the award. Barry was detained in Oklahoma City on banking business (he was the major stockholder in American State Bank). "I’m sorry about it," Campbell Sanders said. "I know the fans want him to be more of a presence but part of that is just his style."

In a telephone call to me arranged by his agent, Jeff (J.B.) Bernstein, Sanders admitted that he has watched more college games than pro games in the five years he has been away from the game, and that he has not been to a Lions game since he left as a player in 1998.

"I still might go to a Lions game this year, though," he said. "For sure, I’m going to be in Ford Field on [Tuesday] Dec. 2 for a press conference about the book. Matt Millen [Lions’ president and CEO] has been great at trying to patch things up between me and the club."

The ultimate healing would be if the Lions retired Sanders’ No. 20 jersey. "That’s being talked about for next season," Sanders admits.

Fifteen pounds under his playing weight at a fit 185 and still only 35 (he’s six years younger than Jerry Rice and 10 months older than Emmitt Smith), Sanders will be a Hall of Fame shoo-in in January.

And in February, his second child with Campbell Sanders will be born. The residents of Rochester Hills, a Detroit suburb, have a son, Nigel, 2. Sanders also has another son from a previous relationship, Barry, Jr., 9, in Oklahoma City.

Barry Sanders has no second thoughts about his decision to leave the game -- or about the stealthy way he did it (he announced it in a note to the Wichita Eagle on July 27, 1999 without talking to the Lions) -- but he does regret the fact that he and the Lions had so little team success during his decade there. In the book, he is candid about what he believes are management failures in retaining key players and building team cohesiveness.

From 1989-1998, the Lions lost four more games than they won, had winning records five times and losing records five times, including three 5-11 seasons. They won only one postseason game, in 1991 following a 12-4 year, but lost to Washington 41-10 in the NFC championship game.

In a remarkable bit of prescience, I came across this excerpt in a story that was written by Curt Sylvester for a national magazine following Sanders’ standout first season in 1989:

"When Sanders eventually retires from football, his goal, he says, is not to be remembered as the NFL’s all-time leading rusher.

"'It is to be a part, along with all the other guys, of turning the team around and making it a winner,’ he said. ‘Just being a natural competitor you want to win. The Lions have been notorious for losing. I think it would be nice to have notoriety for winning and maybe even go the Super Bowl in the next 10 years or whatever.'"

So add ‘em up for Barry Sanders -- the 15,269 yards, the 5.0 average (second only to Jim Brown’s 5.2), the 109 touchdowns (after every one of which he simply handed the ball to an official), the 10 Pro Bowl selections, the four rushing titles (and three second-place finishes), the 76 100-yard games, the Rookie of the Year award in ’89, the Player of the Year honor in ’97 -- and, for him, it still comes down to 0 for 10 in the Motor City.

Add ‘em all up for the rest of us, though… and he’s a highlight film we can watch for eternity.

John Wiebusch was Editor in Chief of NFL publications for 32 years. The editor of NFL Insider, GameDay, PRO! magazines and the Super Bowl Game Program, he has edited and/or written more than 100 books. John writes weekly columns on NFL Legends. You can write John at WiebuschNFL.

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