Sanders, Barry 1968—
Barry Sanders 1968—
Professional football player
Although he describes himself as an “average person,” Barry Sanders has amassed a string of accomplishments in his football career that suggest someone extraordinary. In his three years at Oklahoma State University, Sanders broke or tied 24 NCAA records on his way to winning college football’s top honor, the Heisman Trophy. He followed by signing a $6.1 million professional football contract, one of the largest ever offered to a first-year player. His rookie year in the National Football League was also impressive: coming ten yards short of the season individual rushing title, selected as a starter for the Pro Bowl, and being named the league’s “Rookie of the Year.” After watching two of Sanders’s performances in his first season, ex-Chicago Bear Walter Payton, the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, said of the speedy 5’ 8”, 200-pound running back: “I don’t know if I was ever that good.”
The talented Sanders has been admired by teammates, coaches, and opponents throughout his football career. “Trying to tackle him has got to be like hitting a rock that’s moving real fast,” commented OSU quarterback and Sanders’s former teammate Mike Grundy in Sporting News. “The only way to tackle Barry is to try to get him by both ankles, like a calf roper.” Defensive players, in turn, remark on the challenge of facing Sanders. “I remember bracing myself to hit him,” recalled Chicago Bears defensive end Trace Armstrong in Sports Illustrated. “He just stopped and turned, and he was gone. He’s like a little sports car. He can stop on a dime and go zero to 60 in seconds.”
Green Bay Packers linebacker Brian Noble similarly remarked: “He runs so low to the ground and is so strong and elusive; it makes him very difficult to get a piece of him. You never get the shot at him. Usually, when you get to him, he’s not there anymore.” Pat Jones, Sanders’s college coach, had this to say in Sporting News: “If someone was to ask me who the most explosive back I’ve coached is, that would be Barry, as far as a guy who can take your breath away and is liable to score on every down. … I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anyone like him with my own eyes.”
Not everyone always expected so much of Sanders. When he graduated from North High School in Wichita, Kansas, and despite being a high school All-State and honorable All-American player, Sanders was overlooked
Born in 1968; son of William (a carpenter and roofer) and Shirley Sanders. Education: Attended Oklahoma State University, 1985-88.
Professional football player with the Detroit Lions of the National Football League, 1989—.
Awards: Heisman Trophy, Maxwell Award, and ″Player of the Year,″ Sporting News, all 1988; ″Rookie of the Year,″ National Football League and Marlboro/Sporting News, both 1989; selected to Pro Bowl, 1989; named to Associated Press All-Pro Team, 1990.
Addresses: Office —Detroit Lions Football Team, Pontiac Silverdome, 1200 Featherstone Rd., Box 4200, Pontiac, Ml 48057.
by many Division 1-A schools because of his small size. As a result, he received only two scholarships, to Wichita State and Oklahoma State. By his sophomore year at OSU, however, Sanders had made quite a statement, leading the nation in both kick-off returns and punt returns. The following year, Sanders set thirteen NCAA rushing records, including gaining the most yards in one season (2,628) and the most touchdowns in one season (39). As a result, Sanders overwhelmingly won the 1988 Heisman Trophy, becoming only the eighth junior to receive the award, and winning in the tenth-largest point margin ever.
Sanders decided to forego his senior year at college and make himself eligible for the NFL draft, a move prompted by the NCAA putting the OSU Cowboys on probation after the 1988 season and Sanders’s desire to relieve financial burdens on his family. His $6.1 million five-year contract with the Detroit Lions—which carried with it a $2.1 million bonus—was one of the largest ever in the NFL for a rookie. And as the statistics in his first year indicate, Sanders was worth the money. Although he didn’t start the first two games of the season and missed parts of two others, Sanders managed to set the Lions’s season rushing record and came just 10 yards short of the NFL’s individual season rushing record—which he accomplished with 90 fewer carries than the winner, Christian Okoye.
Off the playing field, Sanders is modest about his accomplishments and prefers not to discuss them. He was quoted by Tom Kowalski in Sporting News about being “uncomfortable being valued because of how well I play football” and that he sees a liability in realizing he is an exceptional player. “If that’s the case, I can prove it on the field. I don’t have to talk about [it]. That’s where athletes have problems off the field. People treat them differently and you start thinking you’re better than everybody else. You’re not.”
In the 1989 final season game for the Lions, Sanders had the opportunity to enter the game and obtain the 10 yards he needed for the league season rushing record. Sanders insisted, however, that Coach Wayne Fontes continue playing back-up running back, Tony Paige. When Sanders was later asked if he had any regrets about not winning the rushing title, he told Austin Murphy in Sports Illustrated: “I satisfied my ego last season.” A deeply religious person, he also prefers to keep that side to himself. Said Fontes in Sports Illustrated: “He doesn’t wear his beliefs on his sleeve…. Barry’s not the type of guy who scores a TD and kneels down in front of everyone in the world. He’s not for show, he’s for real.”
Jet, January 9, 1989; February 13, 1989; May 29, 1989.
New York Times, November 23, 1988; December 4, 1988; January 1, 1989; March 31, 1989; April 5, 1989; September 12, 1989; September 15, 1989.
Sporting News, October 24, 1988; April 24, 1989; November 20, 1989; January 15, 1990.
Sports Illustrated, April 10, 1989; September 10, 1990.
—Michael E. Mueller
American football player
One of football's greatest running backs of all time, Barry Sanders is a bundle of contradictions. His sudden departure from professional football in the summer of 1999 still has observers scratching their heads. He left the game less than 1,500 yards short of eclipsing the career rushing yardage of the late Walter Payton . (As of late October 2002, Sanders, with a total of 15,269 yards, fell to third leading all-time rusher when Dallas Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith surpassed Payton's 16,726 career yards by piling up 16,743 yards.) Although Sanders was clearly one of pro foot-ball's biggest stars, he never acted the part, preferring to take a low profile. He lived in a simple home and showed little interest in either flashy clothes or high-powered cars. A man of great wealth, he nevertheless displayed a frugality more suited to a pensioner on a limited budget, taking his dirty clothes to a coin laundry rather than entrusting them to his vacation hotel's high-price dry cleaning service.
During the decade he played for the Detroit Lions, the media almost always found him willing to talk about his team, but he never seemed particularly comfortable
discussing his own accomplishments. In a way, Sanders always seemed to get a certain degree of satisfaction from being a bit of a mystery. That enigmatic quality mirrored in many ways his magic on the gridiron—the ability to confound the opposing team with his very unpredictability. Even Sanders found it difficult—if not impossible—to describe his running style, but he was clear enough about what it was that kept him fired up on the football field. "I love competing," he told Paul Attner of Sports Illustrated late in his career. "If I wasn't playing, I'd be going to a gym somewhere and getting up a game of five-on-five. That's one of the simple things I enjoy doing…. The biggest joy is that I am stillplaying the game I have been playing since I was a kidand enjoying it more than I ever have."
Born in Wichita, Kansas
He was born Barry James Sanders in Wichita, Kansas, on July 16, 1968. Son of William (a roofer) and Shirley (a registered nurse) Sanders was one of 11 children. While still a boy, Sanders learned the importance—and value—of hard work. As soon as they could handle the tools of the trade, he and his two brothers were pressed into service as roofer's assistants by their father. Of Sanders's boyhood apprenticeship, Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press wrote: "All day they would labor, with the hammers, with the tar, sweating in the hot summer sun. You did not complain in the Sanders family. Not unless you wanted a good whupping."
As a boy, Sanders excelled in all things athletic, but his first love was basketball. His father, however, steered him toward football, believing that his son's chances of winning a college scholarship would be greater on the gridiron than on the basketball court. Although Sanders showed definite promise on the football field, he was stuck on the second string until the last half of his senior year by coaches who felt that his play was hampered by a fear of getting hit. In the last five games of his senior year, Sanders came alive, rushing for more than 1,000 yards, for a total of 1,417 yards for the year—a city-wide record. His coaches—and his opponents—were confounded by his ability to elude tackles. Despite the spectacular finish to his high school football career, only three colleges—the University of Tulsa, Iowa State, and Oklahoma State—offered scholarships to Sanders. He decided on Oklahoma State because of its strong business program.
|1968||Born in Wichita, Kansas, on July 16|
|1986-89||Attends Oklahoma State University in Stillwater|
|1989||Wins Heisman Trophy|
|1989||Drafted third overall in NFL draft by Detroit Lions|
|1991||Holds out for 33 days before season starts—finally signs four-year 5.9 million dollar contract|
|1999||Retires from Detroit Lions shortly before beginning of 1999 season|
|2000||Marries Detroit TV anchor Lauren Campbell on November 11|
Football's Demands Hamper Studies
Sanders wasn't fully prepared for the demands football put on him at Oklahoma State. He later told the Sporting News : "I remember in my freshman year we didn't have any days off. I couldn't believe it, and it never got any better. They pretended (football) wasn't the main thing you were there for, but you were doing it 50 or 60 hours a week. I fell behind in my schoolwork." During his freshman and sophomore years Sanders played second string to Thurman Thomas , who later played for the Buffalo Bills from 1988 to 2000. A late bloomer at college, as he had been in high school, Sanders was made a starter in his junior year and proceeded to smash 13 NCAA records—including most rushing yards (2,628) and most touchdowns (39) in a season. On the strength of this spectacular performance, Sanders was nominated for the coveted Heisman Trophy. Never one for the limelight, he had to be pressured to attend the award ceremonies in New York. In the end, he was persuaded to make the trip, where he received the trophy. He was at first inclined to continue his studies at Oklahoma State but eventually decided to enter the NFL draft instead, largely to help his family financially. Looking back on Sanders's years at OSUC, his college coach, Pat Jones, told Sporting News : "If someone was to ask me who the most explosive back I've coached is, that would be Barry, as far as a guy who can take your breath away and is liable to score on every down…. I don't know that I've ever seen anyone likehim with my own eyes."
Drafted third overall in the NFL draft of 1989, Sanders signed a whopping $6.1 million five-year contract with the Detroit Lions, one of the most lucrative NFL contracts ever for a rookie. Sanders wasted no time at all in proving that he was worth every penny Detroit was paying him. Although he didn't start the first two games of the 1989 season and missed parts of two others, Sanders managed to rush for a total of 1,470 yards, missing the NFL's individual season rushing record by only 10 yards. The following year, he rushed a total for a total of 1,304 yards to score 13 touchdowns.
In an interview with the Philadelphia Daily News, Lions coach Wayne Fontes waxed enthusiastic about his new running back's amazing ability to elude tacklers: "He just has some incredible moves. He runs into a pile of tacklers on the line, then you see his helmet come out and then some shoulder pads and then him. O.J. Simpson was like that." Fontes expressed the hope that Sanders could rush for 2,000 yards or more per season if he stayed healthy. For his part, the five-foot, nine-inch Sanders had a simple explanation for his slippery moves. "I was smaller than everybody else; I didn't want to take a pounding."
|DET: Detroit Lions.|
Related Biography: Coach Wayne Fontes
Leo Durocher claimed that nice guys finish last. Wayne Fontes, longtime coach of the Detroit Lions, proved him wrong. In the high point of his eight years at the helm of the Lions, Fontes earned the Associated Press' NFL Coach of the Year honors in 1991 after leading Detroit to the NFC championship game. Perhaps his greatest contribution to the Lions, however, was his insistence that the team draft Barry Sanders in 1989. Sanders went on to become one of the top running backs in NFL history, and he's never forgotten Fontes's guidance and support, crediting the coach for making him the player he eventually became.
The son of Portuguese-American parents, Fontes was born and raised in Canton, Ohio. He played baseball and football during his student years at Michigan State University (MSU) and later coached freshman football at MSU. After coaching assignments at Dayton, Iowa, and USC, Fontes in 1985 joined the Lions organization as defensive coordinator. He was made head coach in 1988 and remained in that post until he and his coaching staff were let go during the 1997 season.
In the mid-1990s, as the Lions hit a slump and anti-Fontes sentiment grew among Lions team members, Sanders remained a staunch supporter of the coach. Of the coach, Sanders said: "He proves that a coach can show affection and appreciation and still win."
Shoots for 2,000 Yards a Season
Averaging 4.5 yards per rushing attempt in 1991, Sanders compiled a total of 1,548 yards and scored 16 touchdowns rushing. In 1992 his total rushing yardage slipped 1,352, and he averaged 4.3 yards per rushing attempt. Plagued by injury in 1993, Sanders managed to amass rushing yardage of only 1,115 that season, but pushed his average per rushing attempt to 4.6 yards. Sanders rushed for 1,883 yards during the 1994 season, averaging 5.7 yards per rushing attempt but scoring only seven touchdowns rushing. The next year he averaged 4.8 yards per rushing attempt for a total of 1,500 yards and 11 touchdowns rushing. In 1996 Sanders averaged 5.1 yards per rushing attempt for a total of 1,553 yards and 11 touchdowns rushing. In 1997 he fulfilled Fontes's prediction, compiling a total of 2,053 yards rushing and averaging a stunning 6.1 yards per rushing attempt. Sanders' rushing yardage slipped just below the 1,500-mark in 1998, but he averaged only 4.3 yards per rushing attempt. At the end of the 1998 season, Sanders had a career total of 15,269, trailing the career record of 16,726 set by Walter Payton by only 1,457 yards. Then, to the surprise of almost everyone, Sanders announced his retirement from football shortly before he was to report to the Lions' training camp for the 1999 season. In his announcement, Sanders said: "The reason I am retiring is simple: My desire to exit the game is greater than my desire to remain in it. I have searched my heart through and through and feel comfortable with this decision."
Awards and Accomplishments
|1985||Sets city-wide Wichita high school rushing record with total of 1,417 yards his senior year|
|1987||Named to Sporting News College All-America Team|
|1988||Sets 13 NCAA records as running back for Oklahoma State|
|1989||Wins Heisman Trophy his junior year|
|1989||Named Sporting News NFL Rookie of the Year|
|1989-90||NFC rushing title|
|1989-98||Selected to play in Pro Bowl all 10 seasons in the NFL (missed 1993 due to injury)|
|1990-91||NFC and NFL rushing titles|
|1991||Named NFC's Most Valuable Player by the NFL Players Association|
|1997||Named Sporting News Player of the Year|
There seems little doubt that Sanders could have easily surpassed Payton's rushing record if he'd stayed in football, but that was not the path he chose to take. How far he might have gone is anybody's guess. But his career is no less spectacular for the absence of the rushing crown. Paul Attner of the Sporting News summed up Barry Sanders's career: "He gave us a style unlike any we had ever witnessed.… We will miss his grace under extreme pressure, his sportsmanship, the way he conducted himself as a marvelous onfield role model in an era stained by boorish stars.… His classy behavior combined to make him one of the league's most popular players."
"Barry Sanders." Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 1. Detroit: Gale Group, 1992.
"Barry Sanders." Newsmakers 1992, Issue Cumulation. Detroit: Gale Group, 1992.
"Barry Sanders." St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, five volumes. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000.
"Barry Sanders." Who's Who Among African Americans, 14th ed. Detroit: Gale Group, 2000.
Attner, Paul. "Man of Mystery." Sporting News (August 9, 1999): 40.
Attner, Paul. "Wayne's World Is Off Its Axis." Sporting News (November 18, 1996): 19.
"Barry Sanders Discusses a Possible Return to the NFL on His Official Website at Broadband Sports'Athletes Direct.com." PR Newswire (January 25, 2001).
"Barry Sanders Tells Why He Retired from Detroit Lions After 10 Seasons." Jet (August 16, 1999): 47.
"Football Great Barry Sanders Launches Official Web-site on Broadband Sports'Athletes Direct, Says 'I Don't Ever See Myself Playing Again.' "PR Newswire (November 14, 2000).
"Barry Sander's Career Stats." SportingNews.com. http://www.sportingnews.com/archives/sanders/stats.html (November 4, 2002).
"Barry Sanders: Running Back." Football-Reference.com. http://wwwo.football-reference.com/players?SandBa00.htm (November 2, 2002).
"Wayne Fontes: NFL Coach of the Year." Michigan State University. http://www.msu.edu/unit/msuaa/magazine/s92/wayne.htm (November 4, 2002).
Sketch by Don Amerman
Professional football player
Barry Sanders was one of the greatest football players of the 1990s and perhaps of all time. Although he always described himself as an "average person," Barry Sanders' accomplishments playing football are truly extraordinary. In his three years at Oklahoma State University, Sanders broke or tied 24 NCAA records on his way to winning college football's top honor, the Heisman Trophy. He followed by signing a $6.1 million pro football contract with the Detroit Lions, one of the largest ever offered to a first-year player. His rookie year in the National Football League was also impressive: he fell ten yards shy of the season individual rushing title, was selected as a starter for the Pro Bowl, and was named the league's Rookie of the Year. Over the course of ten seasons, Sanders was consistently one of the top performers in the league, and by averaging over 1,500 yards rushing per season he was on pace to shatter the all-time NFL rushing record. Sanders took football fans by surprise, however, when he announced in 1999 that he had lost the desire to compete and retired from the NFL.
Barry James Sanders was born on July 16, 1968, in Wichita, Kansas. He was one of 11 children born to William (a roofer) and Shirley (a registered nurse) Sanders. From early on, the Sanders siblings learned the value of hard work and dedication. As soon as they could handle the tools of the trade, he and his two brothers were pressed into service as roofer's assistants by their father. Of Sanders' boyhood apprenticeship, Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press wrote: "All day they would labor, with the hammers, with the tar, sweating in the hot summer sun. You did not complain in the Sanders family. Not unless you wanted a good whupping."
Sanders was a natural athlete, and the sport he loved most was basketball. His father, however, felt that he had a better chance of winning a college scholarship if he played football, and so Barry played football. Sanders didn't see much playing time until his senior year at North High School in Wichita. In the last five games of his senior year Sanders finally saw action and came to life, rushing for more than 1,000 yards, giving him a total of 1,417 yards for the year and nearly setting a city record. His late blossoming won him All-State and honorable All-American honors, but Sanders was overlooked by many Division 1-A schools because of his small size. Just a few colleges offered scholarships to Sanders, and he accepted the offer from Oklahoma State University in parts because of its strong business program.
The demands of big-time college football came as a shock to Sanders. He later told the Sporting News: "I remember in my freshman year we didn't have any days off. I couldn't believe it, and it never got any better. They pretended (football) wasn't the main thing you were there for, but you were doing it 50 or 60 hours a week. I fell behind in my schoolwork." As in high school, Sanders didn't see much playing time at first. But there were glimmers of his future greatness, as he led the nation in both kick-off returns and punt returns during his sophomore year. During his junior year Sanders set 13 NCAA rushing records, including gaining the most yards in one season (2,628) and the most touchdowns in one season (39). As a result, Sanders overwhelmingly won the 1988 Heisman Trophy, becoming only the eighth junior to receive the award, and winning in the tenth-largest point margin ever.
Triumphed in the NFL
Sanders decided to forego his senior year at college and make himself eligible for the NFL draft, a move prompted by the NCAA putting the OSU Cowboys on probation after the 1988 season and Sanders' desire to relieve financial burdens on his family. His $6.1 million, five-year contract with the Detroit Lions—which carried with it a $2.1 million bonus—was one of the largest ever offered to a rookie. And as the statistics in his first year indicate, Sanders was worth the money. Although he didn't start the first two games of the season and missed parts of two others, Sanders managed to set the Lions' season rushing record and came just 10 yards short of the NFL's individual season rushing record—which he accomplished with 90 fewer carries than the winner, Christian Okoye.
People were impressed by Sanders' numbers, naturally, but they were even more impressed by the way he piled up the yards. Sanders was an amazingly difficult running back to tackle; he kept a low center of gravity and used a dizzying arrays of spins and turns to elude tacklers. "I remember bracing myself to hit him," recalled Chicago Bears defensive end Trace Armstrong in Sports Illustrated. "He just stopped and turned, and he was gone. He's like a little sports car. He can stop on a dime and go zero to 60 in seconds." After watching two of Sanders' performances in his first season, ex-Chicago Bear Walter Payton, then the NFL's alltime leading rusher, said of the speedy 5′-8″, 200-pound running back: "I don't know if I was ever that good." Green Bay Packers linebacker Brian Noble similarly remarked: "He runs so low to the ground and is so strong and elusive; it makes him very difficult to get a piece of him. You never get the shot at him. Usually, when you get to him, he's not there anymore." Pat Jones, Sanders' college coach, had this to say in Sporting News: "If someone was to ask me who the most explosive back I've coached is, that would be Barry, as far as a guy who can take your breath away and is liable to score on every down…. I don't know that I've ever seen anyone like him with my own eyes."
Nearly as striking as his accomplishments on the field was Sanders' modest demeanor off the field. Sanders was notoriously reticent to discuss his play, preferring instead to divert attention toward his teammates. He told the Sporting News that he was "uncomfortable being valued because of how well I play football" and that he sees a liability in realizing he is an exceptional player. "If that's the case, I can prove it on the field. I don't have to talk about [it]. That's where athletes have problems off the field. People treat them differently and you start thinking you're better than everybody else. You're not."
During his second season game with the Lions, Sanders had the opportunity to enter the last game of the season and obtain the 10 yards he needed for the league season rushing record. Sanders insisted, however, that Coach Wayne Fontes continue playing back-up running back, Tony Paige. When Sanders was later asked if he had any regrets about not winning the rushing title, he told Austin Murphy in Sports Illustrated: "I satisfied my ego last season." A deeply religious person, Sanders also prefers to keep that side to himself. Said Fontes in Sports Illustrated: "He doesn't wear his beliefs on his sleeve…. Barry's not the type of guy who scores a TD and kneels down in front of everyone in the world. He's not for show, he's for real."
Retired on the Edge of Glory
At a Glance …
Born on July 16, 1968, in Wichita, Kansas; son of William (a carpenter and roofer) and Shirley (a registered nurse) Sanders; married Lauren Campbell, November 11, 2000; children: three children. Education: Attended Oklahoma State University, 1985-88.
Career: Detroit Lions, National Football League, Professional football player, 1989-98.
Awards: Sporting News College All-America Team; 1987, Heisman Trophy Award, 1989; Sporting News NFL Rookie of the Year; 1989-90, Pro Bowl selection, 1989-98; NFC Most Valuable Player, NFL Players Association, 1991; Sporting News Player of the Year, 1997; inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, 2004.
Addresses: Office—c/o Detroit Lions, 222 Republic Dr, Allen Park, Michigan 48101-3650.
Over the next nine seasons as a Lion, Sanders continued to chalk up amazing numbers. Averaging 4.5 yards per rushing attempt in 1991, he compiled a total of 1,548 yards and scored 16 touchdowns rushing. In 1992 his total rushing yardage slipped 1,352, and he averaged 4.3 yards per rushing attempt. Plagued by injury in 1993, Sanders managed to pile up only 1,115 rushing yards, yet he pushed his average per rushing attempt to 4.6 yards. Sanders broke through for 1,883 yards during the 1994 season, averaging 5.7 yards per rushing attempt but scoring only seven touchdowns rushing. The next year he averaged 4.8 yards per rushing attempt for a total of 1,500 yards and 11 touchdowns rushing. In 1996 Sanders averaged 5.1 yards per rushing attempt for a total of 1,553 yards and 11 touchdowns rushing. In 1997 he dashed for 2,053 yards, averaging a stunning 6.1 yards per rushing attempt. Sanders' rushing yardage slipped just below the 1,500-mark in 1998, when he averaged only 4.3 yards per rushing attempt. At the end of the 1998 season, Sanders had a career total of 15,269, trailing the career record of 16,726 set by Walter Payton by only 1,457 yards. Around the NFL, people spoke openly about the chance that Sanders might break the career rushing record during the 1999 season.
The expectations of the football world were crushed, however, when Sanders announced just prior to the opening of training camp in 1999 that he was retiring from football. "The reason I am retiring is simple," Sanders said in a press release, "My desire to exit the game is greater than my desire to remain in it. I have searched my heart through and through and feel comfortable with this decision." Fans and sportswriters agonized over Sanders' decision, wondering whether Sanders was just holding out for more money or was trying to get traded to a team more likely to advance in the playoffs than the perennially hapless Lions. He engaged in an acrimonious dispute with the Lions over the money remaining on his contract, and was eventually ordered to return several million dollars to the team. In the end, Sanders remained true to his word and stayed retired. His enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2004, alongside Carl Eller and Bob Brown, seemed to end the persistent rumors about his return to football. In his induction ceremony Sanders proclaimed that the only thing that he missed in his career was the thrill of playing in the Super Bowl. He still lives in the Detroit area with his wife, Lauren, and their three children.
Knapp, Ron, Sports Great Barry Sanders, Springfield, NJ: Enslow, 1999.
Sanders, Barry, with Mark E. McCormick, Barry Sanders (includes DVD), Indianapolis: B. Sanders with Emmis Books, 2003.
Detroit Free Press, December 17, 1989.
Jet, January 9, 1989; February 13, 1989; May 29, 1989.
New York Times, November 23, 1988; December 4, 1988; January 1, 1989; March 31, 1989; April 5, 1989; September 12, 1989; September 15, 1989.
Sport, November 1, 1994; September 1, 1998.
Sporting News, October 24, 1988; April 24, 1989; November 20, 1989; January 15, 1990; December 4, 1995; July 21, 1997; August 10, 1998; September 7, 1998; August 9, 1999.
Sports Illustrated, April 10, 1989; September 10, 1990; August 9, 1999; February 3, 2003; December 6, 2004.
Barry Sanders: The Official Site. www.barrysanders.com (August 4, 2005).
—Michael E. Mueller and Tom Pendergast
American athlete Barry Sanders (born 1968) is largely regarded as one of the most talented running backs in National Football League (NFL) history. Sanders first displayed his almost supernatural ability to elude tacklers during his years playing for Oklahoma State University (OSU), and his efforts earned him college football's top honor, the Heisman Trophy.
Sanders left OSU after his junior year, signing a lucrative deal with the NFL's Detroit Lions. He joined the team for its 1989-1980 season and quickly became the linchpin of the struggling franchise, earning the league's Rookie of the Year title. He continued to be one of the top scorers and rushers in the league, and stunned the sports world by abruptly announcing his retirement in 1999.
Sanders was born on July 16, 1968, in Wichita, Kansas, the seventh of 11 children of William Sanders, a roofer and carpenter, and Shirley Sanders, a nurse. William had worked at a meat scrap company before Barry was born, but was unfairly fired. He successfully sued the company and used his monetary award to open a roofing and contracting company, taking on his three young sons as assistants. William and Barry often watched professional football together on television, and the 5' 8" Sanders has cited some of the star running backs of the 1970s as early influences. "I probably picked up a lot of things from those great runners," he stated in a 1994 interview in Sport. "I remember watching guys like Tony Dorsett and [Terry] Metcalf when I was at a very impressionable age. I don't know if I made a conscious effort to be an O.J. Simpson or a Marcus Allen-type football player, but being small, I knew I had to be a creative, innovative runner - not your typical straight-ahead runner."
Demonstrated Early Talent
Sanders talent became apparent early on. He scored three touchdowns in his first youth league game for the Beech Red Barons, and although Sanders also played basketball, his father encouraged him to concentrate on football in the hopes of earning a college scholarship in the sport. William Sanders believed universities held more scholarship slots in football than basketball. Sanders' coaches at Wichita North High School were slow to take advantage of his talent, however, as they felt he feared getting hit and did not demonstrate the requisite agility. He played second-string for much of his high school career, but finally started at tailback with five games left in his senior season. In his last five games, Sanders rushed for 1, 417 yards. Demonstrating what would become trademark humility, he came within 34 yards of setting a city record for rushing. Since Wichita North was easily winning the game, Sanders left the field and, according to a 2003 article in Sports Illustrated, instructed his coaches to "let the young guys play." He made the All-State team and received honorable mention in the All-American contest.
Only a handful of universities recruited Sanders, and he ultimately chose Oklahoma State University, where he planned to study business. Team officials had promised him time to devote to his studies, but Sanders quickly found football obligations consuming his schedule, even though he was relegated to second string during his first two years. Despite the setbacks, by his sophomore year, he led the nation in both kick-off and punt returns. The following year, he set 13 NCAA rushing records, including most yards gained in one season (2,628) and most touchdowns in one season (39). As a result of his accomplishments, in 1988 he became only the eighth junior to be awarded the Heisman Trophy, college football's most coveted award. Again, Sanders avoided public attention, skipping a post-award luncheon with the president in order to finish his homework.
After the 1988 season, the NCAA put the OSU football team on probation. Perhaps in part due to this development, as well as pressure from his father and a desire to help his family financially, Sanders opted out of his senior season at OSU and entered the NFL draft. The Detroit Lions picked him and Sanders held out for an astounding $6.1 million contract. A deeply religious man, he donated one-tenth of his $2.1 million signing bonus to the Paradise Baptist Church in Wichita. He also used his earnings to pay for his siblings' college education. Sanders quickly established himself as the centerpiece of Detroit's offense, although the team maintained its lukewarm record, going 7-9 in his first season and 6-10 in his second. Still, Sanders shone, gaining 1,470 yards and scoring 14 touchdowns in the 1989-90 season, earning him a spot on the Pro Bowl team and the league's Rookie of the Year honors. Sanders had a much-anticipated opportunity to set the season's rushing record. In the last game of the season, however, with only 10 yards to go to break the record, set just minutes before, Sanders walked off the field and refused to return. He obtained the record the following season, posting 1,304 yards, and again earned a Pro Bowl slot.
Sanders continued to carry his team in the following seasons, and remained reluctant to give interviews or place himself in the spotlight. He became renowned for both his talent on the field and his uncharacteristic behavior off it. He refused to go to clubs with his teammates, he used laundromats instead of hotel dry cleaners on vacation, and in 1993, while in London for the American Bowl, he stood in line to enter the Hard Rock Café, even though the rest of the team used the VIP passes they had been given which allowed them immediate entry. He even slept during Lions' games, awaking just in time to execute another breathtaking maneuver. "One of the first games I played with Barry, I was screaming, 'Barry's asleep!' and everybody was laughing at me," recalled former Lions receiver Brett Perriman in a 2003 Sports Ilustrated interview. "I hit him and woke him up, and his eyes were blood red - I mean, from a deep sleep. He went in, and the play was a toss to him. He went 71 yards. I said, 'Get out of here. This is God's gift. It just ain't fair.' "
Sanders signed increasingly more lucrative contracts with the Lions in subsequent years, routinely holding out until the team would meet his demands, but he stunned the sports world in 1999 when, after failing to report for spring training, he announced his retirement. While some have speculated that the talented running back had tired of the Lions' losing ways–the team had only a 78-82 record during his tenure and made the playoffs only five of his ten years with them—or that the move was a ploy to be released from his contract so he could play for another team, Sanders issued a press release stating, as quoted in a 1999 issue of Jet, "The reason I am retiring is simple: My desire to exit the game is greater than my desire to remain in it. I have searched my heart through and through and feel comfortable with this decision." Sanders then headed for London, and when queried by a reporter at the city's Gatwick Airport about the reasons for his trip he responded, according to Jet, "I don't know the right way to retire. This is just my way of doing it." Sanders later became embroiled in legal controversy with the Lions, who refused to release him from his contract even after he offered to refund a portion of an $11 million signing bonus. The team ultimately prevailed and Sanders remained unable to sign with another franchise for the duration of his contract.
Once again, Sanders had stopped short of a milesone. With 15,269 total yards rushing in the NFL, he was only 1,459 yards shy of Walter Payton's all-time league rushing record. As the first player in NFL history to rush for at least 1,000 yards in ten consecutive seasons, Sanders could have easily bested Payton, likely within one more year. Sanders told Sport in 1994 that such accomplishments bore little significance to him, however. "My attitude came from just wanting to go out and play football in some vacant lot with my friends," he said. "Football is a team sport, and it's not always necessary to carry the football so much. There are a ton of great players in this league, and you have to be realistic about what you are going to do at this level." Sanders married Detroit newscaster Lauren Campbell. The couple have a son, Nigel. Sanders also has a son, Barry James Sanders, from a previous relationship.
In 2004, Sanders was inducted into both the College Football Hall of Fame in South Bend, Indiana, and the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. He was the third-youngest Pro Hall of Fame inductee, behind the Chicago Bears' Gale Sayers and Jim Brown. Following the honors, he told Jet he would have liked to have made it to the Super Bowl. "I do know I missed out on playin in the Super Bowl and that is something I will always regret," he said. Yet, he said, his love of the game was his primary motivation. "My biggest achievent was just being out there. The anticipation (of) what was going to happen on the next play - that's what really drove me." In a 2003 Sports Illustrated article, fellow running back Emmitt Smith, who has played for the Dallas Cowboys and Arizona Cardinals, summed up his competitors' contribution to the game: "To this day I tell any cat on that football field, you don't want to see Barry Sanders. B. Sanders would tear your kneecaps off. B. Sanders is one of the most creative, innovative runners who's ever played the game."
Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 1, Gale Research 1992.
Newsmakers 1992, Issue Cumulation, Gale Research, 1992.
Detroit News, May 13, 2003.
Jet, August 16, 1999; August 30, 2004.
Sport, November 1994.
Sports Illustrated, February 3, 2003.
(b. 16 July l968 in Wichita, Kansas), premier college and professional football running back, winner of the Heisman Trophy, and one of the leading rushers in the history of the National Football League (NFL).
Sanders is one of the eleven children of William "Willie" Sanders, a construction worker and maintenance engineer, and Shirley Sanders, a homemaker. Barry Sanders had a troubled childhood. Something of a bully who frequently had fights, he also stole candy and threw rocks at cars. But the values of his parents finally prevailed. He also learned the virtues of hard work in the classroom and in sports at North High School in Wichita, Kansas.
As a youngster, Sanders began perfecting a running style for which he later became famous. Playing sandlot football, he learned to make lightning cuts, to run fast laterally, to stop suddenly, to accelerate rapidly, and above all to do whatever else it took to avoid a tackle. His high school coaches, however, were not impressed. They believed he was too small to play running back, so they turned him into a defensive back. Only in the last five games of his senior season in 1985 did he get a shot as a running back, and he averaged a phenomenal two hundred yards a game. Though not widely recruited as a college prospect upon his graduation in 1986, Sanders entered Oklahoma State University (OSU) that fall on an athletic scholarship. He chose OSU primarily because he wanted to major in business, and he had heard that school had a first-class business college.
At OSU, Sanders was still underrated, this time because two good running backs were ahead of him. One was Thurman Thomas, who won some All-America honors and became an all-pro running back for the Buffalo Bills. Used mainly as a kick returner, Sanders had a respectable freshman season and began a program that increased his leg strength and his weight from 175 pounds to 200 pounds.
For most of his sophomore season Sanders ran behind Thomas while continuing as a kick return specialist. Sanders increasingly rotated into games as a running back and had three 100-yard games out of the last four. The year was highlighted by a Sun Bowl victory over West Virginia University by a score of 35 to 33, and Sanders was named an All-American as a kick returner. The fast finish set the stage for a brilliant 1988 season. With Thomas now running for Buffalo, Sanders came into his own as a quality back who could handle the football. He set thirty-four National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) records. He broke the rushing record by gaining 2,628 yards on only 344 carries, an astounding average of 7.6 yards per carry. In 4 games he went over 300 yards in rushing, an almost unheard of feat. Counting kickoffs and passes caught, he had 3,250 all-purpose yards for another NCAA record. His 39 touchdowns shattered yet another milestone. For the season he was the player most responsible for the OSU 9–2 record and a big win over Wyoming in the Holiday Bowl, a 62–14 blowout. Sanders's brilliant year virtually guaranteed him the Heisman Trophy as well as first-team All-America. The modest young man accepted the Heisman award but credited his offensive line and his blocking fullback for the honor.
Drafted by the Detroit Lions in 1989, after his junior year at OSU, Sanders made his mark in professional football his first year. Despite injuries that forced him to miss two complete games and parts of two others, he broke the Lions rushing record, gaining 1,470 yards, second in the National Football League (NFL), and averaging more than 5 yards per carry. His fourteen touchdowns were another Lion record. For his feats Barry was named the NFL Rookie of the Year and was selected to the all-pro team. His second year was also stellar with 1,304 yards and more than a 5-yard average per rush. He won the rushing title in 1990 and came in second in 1991 by gaining 1,548 yards. In the latter year he was also chosen NFL Player of the Year.
One good season followed another. Sanders won the rushing title again in 1994, 1996, and 1997. He was the National Football Conference's Most Valuable Player in 1994. In 1997 he was again NFL Player of the Year, and that year he churned for 2,053 yards, which then ranked as the second-best rushing season ever.
When Sanders retired abruptly just before the 1999 season, his rushing total stood at 15,269 yards, then an all-time second to Walter Payton, who rushed for a record 16,726 yards during his career with the Chicago Bears. No one could explain Sanders's sudden retirement while still in the salad days of his career and making millions of dollars to boot. Rumors held that Sanders became dissatisfied with playing on a lackluster team, that he wanted to be traded to a team that could contend for a Super Bowl victory. Yet Sanders made no serious attempt either to return to the Lions or to join another team. Even his father could not convince him to return to professional football. Perhaps interested parties should have believed what Sanders said, that he wanted to do other things. Could that explanation be true? Most likely. Sanders had never cared for records, for he was always willing to share glory with his teammates. Apparently he played the game for as long as it was fun for him. When it was no longer fun, he walked away. He never showboated, he never spiked a ball, he never danced on the field, he never taunted other players, and he never argued with referees. In 2000 he married Lauren Campbell, a Detroit newscaster. Even though he cut his career short, Sanders will long be remembered as one of the best running backs of all time, perhaps even the best of all time.
Biographies of Sanders include Nathan Aaseng, Barry Sanders: Star Running Back (1994); and John F. Wukovitz, Barry Sanders: 20 (1997). Also informative is Michael Wibon, "Barry Sanders: Beyond Compare," Washington Post (9 Nov. 1997). Sanders's seemingly abrupt decision to retire is discussed in Leonard Shapiro and Mark Maske, "Lions' Sanders Retires from NFL," Washington Post (29 July 1999). Also see Drew Sharp, "Sanders Says He's Happy and Enjoying Retirement," Seattle Times (20 Aug. 2000). Good websites are <http://barrysanders.hypermart.net> and <http://www.keyworlds.com/b/barry_sanders.htm>.
James M. Smallwoodm