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Barry Sanders: The Lions’ undisputed GOAT

Professional football’s supernova, Barry Sanders is the stuff legends are made of.

Pro Football Hall of Fame Enshrinement Photo by David Maxwell/Getty Images

For myself and many of you reading, our childhood memories are etched in vacant lots. A gathering place for the neighborhood kids to play, those lots played the stage for games of everything from freeze tag to our group’s personal favorite: backyard tackle football.

For those games of football, all of us sought to emulate the feats of athleticism we saw our favorite players display on Sundays. If you were running down a deep ball, you were Randy Moss, striding out and basket-catching the ball at just the right moment. If you were the all-time quarterback, you were Brett Favre, rifling the ball no matter if you were chucking the ball up and deep with all your might or your target was eight feet to your left for a screen pass. Rarely did anyone run the football out of the backfield like a traditional play for a running back, but you better believe everyone and their relative was doing their best impression of Barry Sanders once the ball was in their hands.

Sanders had everything you wanted out of a football player: He was hard-working, relentless, and had athleticism the likes of which you’d never seen before. You often hear of a player’s ability to change direction or “stop on a dime,” but for Sanders, he would stop on the dime, pick it up, tell you if it’s heads or tails, and then bid you adieu on his way to the end zone—you know, like here against the Dallas Cowboys in 1991.

He wasn’t the biggest, strongest, or fastest running back in the league at any time during his career, but therein lies the magic, the mythological qualities of Sanders.

Standing just 5-foot-8 and barely 200 pounds—most of which was situated in his colossal quadriceps—Sanders, in an instant, was both David and Goliath; the alpha and the omega. Compact in stature, Sanders seemed outmatched until you watched him for a series, and then it was clear as day: he’s the best player on the field, and you better hope the Lions give the ball to someone else.

His hips and ankles would have made Sir Isaac Newton rip up his theories and start all over again. Jerry Schmidt, former strength coach at Oklahoma State, once said Sanders bench pressed 360 pounds and squatted 557 pounds. “That rates with the linemen,’’ Schmidt quipped.

In 1988, Sanders put together the most impressive statistical season in college football history en route to the Heisman trophy. Sanders rushed for 2,850 yards over 12 games on just 373 carries for the Oklahoma State Cowboys—a number the NCAA recognizes as 2,628 because it didn’t start counting bowl games towards stats until 2002 and isn’t retroactively recognized because they’re dumb. For those doing the math at home, Sanders averaged 7.64 yards per carry in ‘88 as an absolute workhorse of a running back. He tallied 44 all-purpose touchdowns—including a kick return and a punt return for a touchdown—meaning he scored on 10.8 percent of his touches.

Folks, that historic collegiate season is just one piece of the pie. That was just the beginning, just a taste to whet your appetite for what he was ready to serve up in his legendary professional football career.

After being selected third overall by the Detroit Lions in the 1989 NFL Draft—narrowly escaping the grasp of the Green Bay Packers who selected “The Incredible Bulk Bust” Tony Mandarich with the pick before—Sanders rushed for 1,470 yards and 14 touchdowns in his rookie season where he won more hardware: AP Offensive Rookie of the Year for the 1989 season.

Barry’s demeanor, however, was the one thing about him that wasn’t larger than life. He wasn’t busting at the seams with charisma like Deion Sanders. He wasn’t soaking in the limelight and seeking out personal accolades like Emmitt Smith. Humble and reserved, there was no mistaking where Barry’s priorities were during his playing career. And there’s no better story to encapsulate who he was as a competitor and a teammate than the one told by former Lions quarterback Bob Gagliano:

Sanders entered the final week of his rookie season neck-and-neck with the Chiefs’ Christian Okoye for the rushing title. The Lions had a special phone line installed in the press box to monitor Okoye’s carries, and when Okoye’s game in Kansas City ended, Sanders trailed by just 10 yards. But given the chance to pile up yards late in a win over the Falcons late, Sanders declined an offer to re-enter the game.

“He rushed for (158) yards and then they pulled Barry out of the game and you look up at the scoreboard and Christian Okoye just finished their game in Kansas City and is (10) yards ahead of Barry for the rushing title in the NFL. And Wayne Fontes and some people came, ‘Barry, you want to go in and get your (11) yards, get your title?’ He just said, ‘No, let the other guy play.’ I mean, think about that. There’s got to be a pretty nice bonus attached to winning the rushing title, and he says, ‘No, let the other guy go ahead and play.’

“I went up to him myself. Wayne went up to him. When I sat next to him I said, ‘Hey Barry, you sure you don’t want the rushing title? He goes, ‘Nah, that’s OK.’ I’m like ‘OK, that’s Barry.’ He wasn’t one to love the limelight. He was not that kind of a guy. He’d rather see someone else shine. That’s truly the humility and the humbleness of Barry Sanders. And I get tickled just talking about him because I just love the guy.”

For all the humility Sanders displayed on Sundays, his play couldn’t have hidden itself from the box score.

Sanders ran for 15,269 yards (fourth all-time), 5.0 yards per carry (first all-time for anyone with a minimum of 2,500 rushing attempts), and scored 99 rushing touchdowns (10th all-time) in his 10-year career. He was a 10-time Pro Bowl selection, accumulated six first-team All-Pro selections, and four more second-team All-Pro selections—in other words, he was a Pro Bowler and All-Pro selection for his entire career.

He’s the only non-active player in NFL history who recorded at least 1,300 yards from scrimmage in each of their seasons played. The lowest total in his career was 1,320 yards in the ‘93 season, where he missed the final five games with a knee injury—the last time he would miss a game in his career. Sanders was eventually coronated the NFL’s Most Valuable Player in 1997 when he ran for 2,053 yards (128.3 yards per game!) and 11 touchdowns. He led the league in rushing four different times. He did this, he did that; the list of his accomplishments on the field stretches as far as your jaw when you’re reading them.

Of course, re-telling the tale of Sanders would be incomplete without mentioning the abrupt decision to end his football career at the age of 30. It would be decades before the relationship between the Lions and Sanders would be repaired, but something so essential to Sanders’ mythos is the curiosity of “what if?” What if Sanders had an offensive line like his contemporary Emmitt Smith? What if the Lions never hired Bobby Ross, the coach who helped take the fun out of football for him? What if the Lions put together a more complete and competitive team during his time in Detroit? Would he have run for 20,000 yards in his career? 25,000? Would his legacy have been cemented as the greatest football player without question had he experienced greater team success?

During his career, Sanders was the path to success for the Lions. The Lions earned five playoff berths in his 10 seasons, something the likes of which great players like Calvin Johnson or Matthew Stafford didn’t come close to accomplishing.

It’s been 30 years since the Lions' last playoff victory, a game in which Sanders ran for 69 yards and a touchdown on just 12 carries against the Cowboys. Since his early retirement in the summer of ‘99, the Lions have been in a search as elusive as Sanders himself to replace the greatest player in the franchise’s history.

But that’s a fool’s errand — that player doesn’t exist, nor will they ever. So we’re left with highlight reels of Barry’s magnificent plays, and memories of those times we pretended to be Barry in those neighborhood games of football. Times where we thought we were the greatest of all time.