The second Barry Week entry comes from Neil at Armchair Linebacker. As many of you know, I’m a huge fan of his Lions writing; I often say we’re opposite sides of the same coin. He’s also a gifted comedy writer and satirist—I am not—so check out Neil’s work at Heavy.com, too. But first . . . read this.
On January 5, 1991, I sat in the stands at the Pontiac Silverdome and I watched Barry Sanders get gang tackled by the Dallas Cowboys in a playoff game. Only a half second later I watched Barry Sanders sprinting towards the endzone while fans screamed in joy and disbelief and the Cowboys all lay on the turf, beaten and demoralized by something not of this earth. I was eleven years old and I will never forget that moment for as long as I live.
Barry Sanders came to us like some sort of exotic angel, and for a fanbase which has spent most of its existence in the company of demons, trying desperately to avoid the terrible flames of hell, it was almost impossible to comprehend that a figure of such beautiful light could walk among us. But walk among us he did. He walked, he danced, and he ran – oh, how he ran – among us, and while he did, we were reminded that there is a better place, that angels are real, and we believed – if only for a while - that maybe, just maybe, we could be saved.
And really, that’s the legacy of Barry Sanders. His stats are magnificent. His runs were ridiculous and otherworldly. Football historians and fans will argue for years and years and years about where he fits in historically, and most of them will conclude that he is one of the top three or four running backs of all time. But, to us, he was something more than all that. He was something more than just a football player. He was our champion, he was our angel, he was our savior, he was our hope.
We are a doomed fanbase, haunted by failure, damned to hell for something none of us understand. We don’t get to experience happiness. We don’t understand joy. Our only hope is that the flames don’t hurt too badly when they take us yet again, game after game, week after week, year after year, decade after decade. And yet, when Barry Sanders came to us, like some agent of heaven, an angel too pure to be hurt by the fires of hell, we found ourselves believing that we could escape if we just followed him.
Barry danced in the fire, but he never got burned. He darted away from the flames, moved like he was dancing some sort of cosmic dance, a dance to save our souls. And when he danced, our souls moved with him, and when we were all swaying together to the beautiful rhythm that only he could hear, the flames seemed to die down and even the devil himself hid from him.
And then it was just Barry, dancing alone, a beautiful angel, twirling and stutter stepping, dancing, dancing, dancing, and it was as if our sins could be washed away, our pain forgotten, our souls redeemed as long as he danced, and as long as he kept those flames and the devil behind them safely at bay.
It’s almost impossible for other people to understand that. They see Barry Sanders and they see a great player. They admire his talent, they smile when they remember some of his more memorable runs, and they mention him in the same breath as Emmitt Smith, Jim Brown, Gale Sayers and all the other great backs who will live forever in Canton. But what they can never understand is that, to us, Barry was more than just a football player. Barry was the angel who dueled with the devil and won. Barry was the angel who danced and danced and danced so that the flames wouldn’t burn us anymore. Barry was the angel who made a bunch of damned souls believe in heaven.
To us, the numbers are just a pale reflection of the man. His stats, his legacy, his place in the historical pantheon of great backs – none of these really matter. They are all just ways for everybody else to make sense of Barry’s career. To us, there is just the man and our memories, memories not just of the same runs that everyone else remembers, but memories of how they made us feel as Lions fans, memories of the way they made us shriek in excitement, memories of the way they made us feel joy, memories of the way they made us believe.
In the end, Barry Sanders was not perfect. He couldn’t dance forever and we all knew it. We just hoped that he would dance long enough so that we could all escape. We almost did. But we never quite got free of our own personal hell. And the thing about hell is that it can defeat even the best of us. It can strip us of our hopes and dreams and our memories of even the idea of heaven. And that’s what happened to Barry. He danced for so long, fought for us for so many years amidst the flames and the darkness that he grew tired and he began to forget that there was something better, that there was a heaven out there and that heaven was his true home. And this scared him and so he walked away before the flames could consume him, left before his essential goodness, before the thing that made him great was stripped from him just as our own hopes and dreams had been stripped from us.
It was a terrible moment, and we all wailed and we all begged him to stay just one more year, to dance for us just a little longer, to give us just one more chance to get free of our own terrible prison. But he couldn’t. And when he walked away, the flames returned and the devil stormed back into our lives and it was even worse than it was before. The devil was angry and he was going to have his terrible vengeance. But the light that was Barry Sanders never quite died. It always lived in our hearts and although it was now tinged by pain, touched by sadness, it sustained us. Its memory kept us moving forward, kept us believing in a better world, a better fate, in a heaven we could all one day call home.
And that’s Barry Sanders’ legacy. That’s what he’ll always mean to Lions fans. On that Sunday in January, 1991, when Barry Sanders broke away from the pack and ran towards the end zone, he was running towards our salvation and for a moment, a moment so fragile that it would shatter only a week later, it seemed that all we had to do was follow Barry and we would be free.
It was never quite the same after that. It was always an unwinnable fight against fate. And I think on some level we all knew that. But in that moment, Barry Sanders ran, and no one, not the Dallas Cowboys, not the fires of hell, and not even the devil himself, could stop him, and in that one moment we were free and we knew that heaven was real, and all we had to do to get there was scream and cheer with great joy as we watched Barry Sanders run, run, run. In our hearts, he could run forever, and as long as he did, anything and everything was possible and hell was just a word.