In this edition of 100 Days, 100 Detroit Lions, we pay tribute to the most electrifying running back in franchise history.
3. Barry Sanders
Running Back. 1989-98 Detroit
We can all still see him there crouched . . . his hands resting on his knees . . . eyes as big as saucers . . . surveying the defense . . . anticipating the snap. From the first time he touched the ball in an NFL game for the Detroit Lions and rambled 18 yards, it was clear that Barry Sanders operated on another level. The 1988 Heisman Trophy winner from Oklahoma State had set 13 NCAA rushing and scoring records by the end of his junior year. Foregoing his senior season, the Lions made the 5-foot-8, 203 pound Sanders the third-overall pick of the 1989 draft. Ten years, 15,269 yards and 109 touchdowns later, he walked away as still the most feared player at his position.
During his ten-straight 1,000 yard seasons, Sanders surpassed the 1,500 yard mark five times, including an NFL record four straight from 1994-97. Barry was the NFL’s official human highlight film. He was one of the few players in league history who was literally a threat to score every time he touched the ball. “He makes you miss so bad, you kind of look up into the stands and wonder if anybody’s looking at you,” Atlanta Falcons’ defensive back D.J. Johnson said. Sanders’ ability to start-and-stop, then start again, accompanied by his tremendous vision and acceleration, made him a nightmare for defenses who’s job it was to control him. Lion teammate Jerry Ball once remarked, “By the time you get to where Barry is, he isn’t there anymore.”
Sanders kept himself in tremendous physical shape, which attributed to his durability. He only missed seven games during his entire ten-year career. He could squat as much weight as most offensive lineman, and regularly amazed teammates and coaches with his strength. He only suffered one major injury, a knee, which caused him to miss the last five regular season games of 1993. In addition to his durability, he simply didn’t fumble. In 3,062 career carries, he only fumbled 41 times, with 10 of those coming in his rookie year.
Through it all, Sanders remained in many ways a mystery, not only to fans and the media, but to many of his coaches and teammates as well. He was never boastful. He wasn’t a trash-talker. He didn’t gravitate toward the spotlight like so many athletes seem to do. Barry always did things his way, from the way he handed the ball to the referee after scoring, to the way he retired. Like the names Ruth, Ali, and Jordan, Barry Sanders’ talents place him in select company. He was truly one of a kind, and all who saw him perform should consider themselves lucky to have had the opportunity.