The Inner Game of Barry

>> 10.27.2010

Our fourth Barry Week entry comes from Jamie Samuelsen, decade-plus veteran of Detroit sports radio.  Every morning, Jaime and Ken Calvert co-host the 94.7 WCSX morning show—and three times a week, Jaime blogs at  Besides all of that, Jaime’s very active on Twitter, at @jamiesamuelsen—follow him . . . when you’re done reading this tremendous piece.

The best run I ever saw Barry put together was when he screwed the Patriots’ Harlan Barnett into the ground on the Silverdome turf.

The best run I ever saw Barry put together off the field came a few years later. The media had just been let into the Lions locker room, and unlike virtually everything else in his life, Barry hadn’t anticipated this very well. I saw him quickly duck out of a side door and try to head for the players lot. I followed him out, desperately needing to talk to him, or so I thought. I burst through the same door that Barry did and there standing all alone in a small vestibule was Barry Sanders.

He looked at me. I looked at him. For a second, I’m not sure that either one of us knew what to do.

“Um, are you talking today Barry,” I asked him.

“I forgot my coat,” he replied.

“Oh. Um…okay,” I said not really sure where this was going.

“Tell you what. If you grab my coat from my locker, I’ll talk to you,” he said.

“Ohhhhh-Kay,” I said totally unsure of what this meant. Was he trying to duck me? Was he putting me on? Was I getting “Punked” by Ashton Kutcher (even though that show wasn’t on the air yet)?

So I went back into the locker room. I made sure to tell the Lions media relationship staff that I actually had permission to go into Barry Sanders’ locker and take his jacket out. I returned to our little meeting spot. We chatted. He was very cordial. There was nothing earth-shattering or news-making out of the interview. But I got what I wanted.

And more importantly, he got what he wanted. He got his coat, but didn’t have to wade back into the locker room and face the cameras and the microphones.

And in that moment, I learned that Barry usually got what he wanted. There’s little doubt that Barry Sanders is the greatest running back in NFL history. There’s little doubt that he rose to that position because of his superior ability and his otherworldly instincts and reflexes. But lost in the shuffle sometimes is the mental side of Barry’s game. He wasn’t arrogant and showy like Deion Sanders. But if you think Barry was just a simple, aw shucks, just happy to be here running back, then you missed the boat.

Barry was great, and he was well aware of just how great he was. In 1994, the Lions traveled down to Dallas to play the two-time defending Super Bowl champs. It was a Monday Night game and it was billed nationally as “Barry vs. Emmitt” as in Barry versus Emmitt Smith. The columns and the TV coverage and the radio shows leading up to the game all took sides debating who the better back was. The national consensus skewed unfairly towards Emmitt because of the two rings and because he was supposedly a more “complete running back”. I’ll never forget Barry talking to the media that week and answering all the questions about the comparison. I was young and naïve, so I really expected him to defer to Emmitt and say, more or less, I’d love to have what he has and I’d love to do what he’s done. Instead it was just the opposite. With a cool confidence, Barry simply said that he knew what Emmitt had done and he knew what he had done, and he was pretty comfortable in his own skin. It was classic Barry. He wasn’t thumping his chest and bragging to the world. But it was pretty clear that he was no shrinking violet either.

Final line on that game - Barry ran for 194 yards and the Lions won 20-17 in overtime. And anyone who watched the game that night saw Barry running with a little more purpose than usual. He knew of the debate. He knew what side he was on. And he wanted to prove it a little bit.

So Barry’s mind drove him to be greater, and it’s pretty clear that it drove him on the field as well. In one of those great NFL Top 10 countdowns, they feature the “Most Elusive Runners” with Barry of course being number one. In the piece, he says that when he runs, he has to turn off his mind and just rely on his instincts. Not to call Barry a liar, but I’m not buying it. Sure, his instincts are crazy. But his mind was always working. He saw things that no other runner saw. He saw openings that didn’t exist. And he saw would-be tacklers and constantly anticipated what they were going to do…and did the opposite. The football field was a constant chessboard, and no player in history could play five moves ahead better than Barry Sanders.

The downside of course is that his mind took him away from the game too. Despite his placid demeanor, Barry was totally frustrated and despondent by the constant losing and mismanagement by the Lions. It led to his contract holdouts. And it led to his sudden retirement from the team. It’s still a source of frustration for fans that he left on the eve of Training Camp and ignored repeated letters from Bobby Ross. (I still love the visual of Ross penning Barry long letters in the summer of ’99). He pretty much screwed over the team that had paid him so much money over the years. The Barry defenders will tell you that was completely his right based on how little the team had done to build around him over the decade he was here. But I thought it was still a little small of a rather large man.

But that was Barry. He wanted to play football until he didn’t. And when he didn’t - he quit. For years, we tried to dissect his reasons and his anger and what he was trying to prove. But he was just making up his mind, and sticking to it. He’s a stubborn dude. We benefited from it, but we paid the price for it.

We’ve been lucky enough as sports fans in the last 30 years to see Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan, Barry Bonds, Greg Maddux and Tiger Woods all in their primes. But no player ever thrilled me the way Sanders did. You literally never knew what was coming next. And if you ever looked away, you missed seeing the single greatest run in NFL history. Barry had about forty of those.

I’ll never forget those moments in the Silverdome. And I’ll never forget the time when I stole his coat out of his locker. And I’ll never forget the fact that Barry was just playing me as part of his larger game that afternoon. Much as he did throughout most of career - driving him to greatness.

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