The first entry of Barry Week comes from Greg Eno. If his seminal Detroit sports blogs Out of Bounds and Where Have You Gone, Johnny Grubb? weren’t enough, he’s a longtime freelance sportswriter, co-host of Detroit sports talk show The Knee Jerks, and--oh yeah--is the Director of Public Information for the Wayne County Commission.
For the mortal pro football player, training camp is a necessary evil. It’s two-a-days in stifling heat, having to make football moves with a body that can dehydrate quicker than a kitchen counter spill attacked with Bounty.
The mortal pro football player has to prep his body—gird it for 20 weeks of exhibitions and regular season tilts, not counting any playoff action. For the mortal players, training camp is the ultimate battle of attrition. If it’s not a competition against another player for a roster spot or starting role, it’s a secret war against one’s self.
For the mortal player, the idea of starting a season without training camp is both exhilarating and terrifying. The latter usually wins out.
Pity the mortals.
Barry David Sanders wasn’t drafted by the Detroit Lions in 1989, he was unleashed by them onto the National Football League. And that unleashing came with Barry having not spent a single minute in Lions training camp.
In the first of several contract disputes Sanders would have with the Lions, Barry missed the entire training camp and exhibition season in his rookie year in ’89. His shoulders never touched pads. His feet never slid into cleats. I don’t know if he even picked up a football between April’s draft and September’s regular season debut.
Sanders finally signed his first pro contract the Friday before the Lions’ season opener at home against the then-Phoenix Cardinals. Despite the game being less than 48 hours away—barely enough time for the ink to dry on Barry’s signature—the Lions announced that their new jitterbug running back would be in uniform and activated for the game against the Cards.
That Sunday, the first half came and went. Sanders teetered in the Lions’ bench area, shifting his weight from his left foot to his right, his helmet usually on. Sometimes he would sit down. Coach Wayne Fontes had said that Barry would play, though no one knew when, or how much.
The second half began.
The Silverdome crowd kept one eye on the football game and the other on Sanders, fiddling around near the bench. Sometimes they kept zero eyes on the game and both on Sanders. No one wanted to miss the moment when his number—20, after Lem Barney and Billy Sims—would be called.
Then it happened.
Fontes called for Barry. There came a rumble from the bowels of the ‘Dome that swelled as Sanders jogged onto the field. The Cardinals looked on, like gawkers at a bad accident. They weren’t sure what they were going to see, but they were pretty certain it was going to be bad.
The Cardinals were right.
On his very first carry, Sanders swung left, deked right, shot forward, and slithered away from half the Cardinals defense for an 18-yard gain.
Training camp, shmaining camp.
Three carries later, Sanders scored his first NFL touchdown. By the end of the game, there had already been a call asking for a sculptor in the house to help cast Barry in bronze for Canton.
The Lions lost that game against the Cardinals, and that was probably appropriate. Barry was pretty much the only reason you’d pay to see the Lions in 1989, or any other year for that matter.
Sanders didn’t need training camp—that was obvious by what he did to the Cardinals on carry No. 1. He also didn’t appear to need any blocking, not that he got much of it while playing for the Lions.
But in defense of the Lions offensive lines during Sanders’ career (1989-98), which would never be mistaken for those of the Cowboys or the 49ers, you didn’t block for Sanders so much as you tried to stay out of his way. Because no one really knew where Barry was going—including Barry himself.
Sanders ran with the football like a man on fire looking for the nearest source of water. You couldn’t create any running lanes for him because that’s not how he operated. He didn’t run North-South—he was a man who used the entire compass, usually on the same play.
Sanders’ runs on the scoresheet looked like typos. They would go like this: 2, -1, 1, -4, 3, 79, -3, 1, 27, 0. He was as inconsistent as a politician’s stance.
I think one of the best Barry Sanders runs I ever saw—and I was fortunate enough to see his entire career in my adulthood—netted him a three yard loss.
It was in Buffalo. The Bills’ Cornelius Bennett nabbed Sanders in the backfield and flung him toward the turf like he was trying to skip Barry across Lake Erie. Yet somehow, Sanders’ knee never touched the ground, though his fingertips did. Barry was forced into a 180 but never went down. Bennett’s jaw touched the turf before Barry’s knees did.
A couple Bills players came upon the scene and finished the play, for the aforementioned three-yard loss—some ten seconds later.
I will leave you with this. Barry Sanders, every game, did something that you’d never seen an NFL running back do. Every. Single. Game. For ten seasons.
He was the best I ever saw, and ever will see. Without Barry, Lions football over the past 25 years would have been even more insufferable than it already has been. Think about that for a moment.