THE BARRY SANDERS STORY: The making of a legend
August 7, 2004
BY CURT SYLVESTER
FREE PRESS SPORTS WRITER
The Barry Sanders highlight film could just about go on forever. On his first play with the Lions, he ran 18 yards and nearly broke it for a touchdown.
DREW SHARP: Sanders deserves thanks, not scorn
IFFY THE DOPESTER: Go ahead, Barry, and make the call
And it only got better after that.
There was the Tampa Bay game when he scored on runs of 80 and 82 yards. ...
The New England game when he turned safety Harlan Barnett inside out and backward on his way to the goal line. ...
The play on which Pittsburgh safety Ron Woodson blew out a knee taking a juke. ...
The lost look on Dallas defensive tackle Tony Casillas' face when he realized the play was not over and Sanders was on his way to a touchdown. ...
The 53-yard run that finished the New York Jets, putting the Lions into the playoffs and putting Sanders into the ultra-exclusive 2,000-yard club. ...
And how about the two-yard loss when he spun off a pile of bodies and just kept churning in a cold December game in Buffalo?
The highlight film could go on forever but it will get the appropriate ending Sunday when Sanders -- perhaps the most exciting runner in NFL history -- makes his entry into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
In 10 seasons, Sanders never got the chance to play in a Super Bowl -- the Lions teams never played at quite the level at which he played -- but he did just about everything else an NFL running back could do.
He never gained fewer than 1,115 yards in a season, he was selected to 10 consecutive Pro Bowls, had a career rushing average of 4.99 yards a carry and holds the NFL record with 14 consecutive games of 100 yards. Opposing teams dreaded playing against the Lions and Sanders.
"You were always hoping the grass was tall and wet," said Lions coach Steve Mariucci, an assistant at Green Bay when Sanders was at his peak in the early 1990s. "You just held your breath every time they handed him the ball. He was obviously dangerous. From anywhere on the field, he could score. He was highly respected by the team.
"You had a (No.) 20 on the scout team and you had to try to simulate that. It was impossible for any little scout team guy to simulate a Barry Sanders, changing direction and reversing his field. You tried to prepare your team for that in some way but it was really an exercise in futility. He was a terrific player, as we all know."
For all 10 of his seasons in Detroit, Sanders was the darling of Lions fans, as well as the sports community. It was only when he retired unexpectedly -- on the eve of the start of the 1999 training camp -- that he lost some of his luster.
Some fans and media felt the timing of his retirement had been a betrayal to his teammates and coach Bobby Ross, leaving them without a running game and no chance to assemble one for the start of the season.
When he finally broke his silence on the subject last December, Sanders explained his thinking. He said he had given the Lions all he had on the field for 10 years and felt that was the extent of his obligation to the team.
In the weeks and months since then, Sanders and the Lions have re-established a strong connection and, in the process, he seems to have healed whatever wounds might have existed in the community.
"Yeah, I think so," he said this week. "I think that most of the fans have a lot of their questions answered from when I left. The air has sort of been cleared and most people can now look at the 10 years I played and evaluate me based on that.
"A lot of fans feel I could have continued to play, but a lot of them also respect my decision, especially since I had a chance to explain myself. So, yeah, I think the issue has been resolved and everyone has kind of moved on."
For many Lions fans and those in the organization, it would have been tragic if a rift had remained among Sanders, the team and the community after all he had represented in his 10 years as a player.
Former coach Wayne Fontes, who was responsible for drafting Sanders -- rather than cornerback Deion Sanders or pass rushers Derrick Thomas or Broderick Thomas -- looks at him as the ultimate team player.
"You've got to understand this -- the players loved Barry," Fontes said. "I mean every one of them."
Fontes believes the reason Sanders always flipped the ball to the nearest official after a touchdown -- rather than dancing or spiking the ball -- was his commitment to the team.
"He had tremendous upbringing, No. 1, and that wasn't in his character," Fontes said. "And, No. 2, I thought he loved those offensive linemen -- Lomas (Brown) and Kevin Glover, all those guys -- and they all loved him.
"Had he gone into the end zone and spiked the ball and danced, it would have been like, 'It's me, it's me.' I think Barry said, 'Hey, my offensive linemen don't get a chance to do that, so I can't either. Let me just pass the ball on and go on, because I can't do it without those guys.' He had that type of character about him."
Even now, as Sanders goes to the Hall of Fame at age 36, there are those who believe he could have played at least another year or two, long enough to set the NFL rushing record. And he does not disagree, but has no regrets.
"I know I could have survived another year but I don't regret it, leaving when I did," he said. "Yeah, I guess it would be fair to say I haven't ever really had any regrets about that. ... I think the timing for me was perfect."
After all, the highlight film had to end somewhere.