Today—July 16—is Barry Sanders’ 52nd birthday. His birthday is always one of my favorite days of the offseason, because Twitter is abound with people posting his best highlights, and I truly never get sick of watching them.
But today, instead of being a passive admirer or Barry’s game, I thought it was time I honored the man who made me fall in love with this franchise during my youth. Though Sanders has an endless list of amazing plays and jaw-dropping highlights, there is really one that stands above them all. One highlight that perfectly captures everything that made Sanders a special player that we will never see the likes of again.
Of course, I’m talking about his 47-yard touchdown run against the Dallas Cowboys back on January 5, 1992.
So to honor my favorite play from my favorite player of all time, here are the five best thing about that historic run. But before we get into the list, let’s all watch it together:
5. This was Barry Sanders’ first playoff game
Talk about making a huge first impression. After the Lions failed to qualify for the postseason in Sanders’ first two seasons, Detroit went 12-4 in 1991 thanks in large part to Sanders’ 1,548 rushing yard and 16 touchdowns.
After winning the division and clinching a home playoff game, Sanders entered the postseason with high hopes and big expectations. Was the moment too big for Sanders? Of course not. He stunted on the Cowboys in front of a national audience with John Madden and Pat Summerall watching and commentating in awe.
4. It was a quintessential Sanders performance
Sanders’ career would end up being defined by splash plays like this one. You’d have him contained for large portions of the game, but all it took was one more touch for Sanders to beat you. Consistently, his rushes would gain 2 yards, 1, -2, 4, 0, 53, 0, 2, 1, -3.
And on this day, Sanders would enter the fourth quarter with fewer than 30 yards. Part of the reason was simply because the Lions didn’t need him. He only had 12 rushing attempts on the day because the Lions were already up 31-6 in the fourth quarter. But then Sanders dropped this on them anyways, because you could never get complacent against him, or he’d embarrass you.
3. The guy who tripped over his dumb feet at the end
Sanders had already scored. The Cowboys may not have known it, but after passing their initial barrage, there was no stopping him. Tackling Barry Sanders in the open field is about as easy as catching a hummingbird with your bare hands. And this poor guy—a linebacker, no less—just had no shot.
That man would turn out to be Ken Norton Jr., a three-time Pro Bowler and a one-time All Pro. He’s currently the defensive coordinator of the Seattle Seahawks, and although I can’t confirm this, he’s likely still having recurring nightmares about this moment.
2. Sanders’ incredible balance
This looks like a freeze frame in a movie where the narration kicks in:
“Yep, that’s me. You’re probably wondering how I got here.”
Then the video kicks back in and Sanders is crushed by four Cowboys defenders at once.
But that’s not what happened. Sanders, knowing even he can’t juke by everyone here, lowers his helmet and braces for impact with #55—Jack Del Rio (yes, that Jack Del Rio)—and #23—Robert Williams.
Williams does the right thing and goes low against Sanders. After all, the lower man wins.
But Barry is not human. He quickly absorbs the hit, somehow manages to catch his balance in an instant and is already making his next move before Williams and Del Rio hit the ground.
1. This guy
Poor, poor Tony Casillas. The second overall pick in the 1986 NFL Draft, Casillas had a long, 12-year career in the NFL. But in Detroit, he’ll always be known as that guy who was standing still while Barry Sanders ran right behind him for a game-sealing touchdown.