Building Barry

>> 10.30.2010

The next entry in the Barry Week series comes from Michael Schottey. Besides his excellent work covering the NFL for Bleacher Report, he also manages B/R internships, guest blogs about the Lions at Mlive.com, and has his own Lions blog at BlueandSilverPride.com.  But, for the purposes of this post, the most relevant work he’s done is draft prospect scouting/evaluation—you can see his stuff at DraftTek, amongst other places.

Clearly, Barry Sanders was one of the most special athletes to ever grace the gridiron. The brightest star during an era Detroit sports wasn't exactly filled with marketable names or elite athletes. Barry was in a league of his own in so many ways. Arguments about the best running back ever will always ignite fanbases--Barry? Sweetness? Emmitt? Jim Brown?--everyone has their favorite. As Lions fans, many of us will always say Barry. Yet, even outside observers will almost always place the former Lion at or near the top of their lists as well. The NFL Network just put him as number 17 on their top 100 players of all time!

If Barry were still in his prime, he would likely be lighting up the league just as he did in the 90's. His talents translate to the football field no matter what era he would have played in. As time goes on, pundits will look to smaller, quicker, more agile backs and compare them more and more to Barry. While a total comparison of any current NFLer to the 17th best NFL player ever is a bit of a stretch, some athletes do certain things just as well. Using current running backs, which possess each of Barry's best attributes.

Strength:
An underrated bit of Barry's game, he was never going to run over players like Jim Brown did, but he did have impressive leg drive and upper body strength for his size. Every highlight reel is going to showcase Barry's elusiveness, but most of his better runs also involved yards after first contact, broken tackles, and ridiculous stiff arms.

Current backs like Peyton Hillis, Brandon Jacobs, and Adrian Peterson are much stronger than Barry ever was. However another back in today's NFL that has similar strength to Barry is Ahmad Bradshaw. This year, Bradshaw exploded into a lead back role with the New York Giants. While fans compare him to the much bigger Jacobs, Bradshaw is an underrated power runner as well. While he never is looking to run anyone over, Bradshaw--like Barry--can pull away from tackles and punish smaller defenders.

Speed:
Watching Barry, it always seemed like he was going faster than he really was. Remembering him, many might overestimate his speed. Speed was a huge part of Barry's game, but is wasn't as if he had a four-flat forty. He was fast, not all-time fast, not track-star fast, he wasn't the fastest Sanders in the NFL and he wouldn't be the fastest Lion today. Yet, his 4.37 40-yard-dash at the combine was impressive and when an athlete runs that fast, coaches and scouts take notice. When a football player continues to run that fast with pads and a football in his hand, he makes an impact.

CJ Spiller ran that exact same 40-time in Indianapolis last April. Moreover, he has a similar type of speed that Barry once used to electrify the league. Able to stop on a dime and immediately reach top speed moments later, the Bills took a chance on Spiller who has yet to make much of an impact for a winless team in Buffalo.

Balance/Agility/Elusiveness:
Yes, Barry is second to none when it comes to balance, agility, elusiveness, whatever you want to call it. It was his greatest attribute and even if his strength, speed, and everything else were diminished, his ability to evade defenders and stay on his feet would have kept him in the league much longer than he actually stayed. Saying anyone is more elusive or as elusive as Barry Sanders is blasphemy to Lions fans. However, it isn't as if no current backs aren't close.

DeAngelo Williams has been injured (either out entirely or limited by nagging injuries) for much of his NFL career but is always a consistent performer when he is on the field. Williams has that same type of ability Barry once had--not as much, of course, but it's close. Williams, at 100% is never taken down before the other team has him absolutely surrounded, and even then, like Barry, Williams can usually find a way to bounce it to the outside.

Leadership:
Leadership isn't something that is usually (ever?) talked about when it comes to Barry. Not only was he a quiet athlete who didn't do a lot of talking, many consider his retirement "too early" and "abandoning" the team.  Take note: leadership isn't always the kind that Ray Lewis, Drew Brees, or Donovan McNabb display. Barry carried the team on his back while he never had the help that other top backs had. He came to work and did his job.

Adrian Peterson--while not exactly loved by Lions fans--has that same mentality. He's not quiet to a fault, but he's not a big talker either. I had the privilege to cover Peterson while I did sports radio in Minnesota. In my years there, I never saw him address the locker room or yell at a player on the practice field, but everyone looked at the example he set with his work ethic and his play.

Does it all add up?
So, if you were able to play Doctor Frankenstein and add Ahmad Bradshaw's strength to CJ Spiller's speed; a dose of Deangelo Williams' balance and Adrian Peterson's quiet leadership, would you have a 2nd coming of Barry? Probably not. Barry, above everything else, excelled because he was the perfect combination of the attributes and he also had a runner's instinct that was second to none. For that reason (among others), Barry is one of the most unique athletes to ever play the game.

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Barry The Quitter

>> 10.28.2010

NFL FILE: Barry Sanders of the Detroit Lions.


It hit me like a punch in the gut.  I was shaking with the helpless, adrenalin-fueled palsy of someone who’s just been in a car accident.  I wanted to claw the radio out of my car, rip the words out of the wires, tear them up and make it not true.  It couldn’t be true—could it?  He couldn’t do that to us—could he?  He wouldn’t do that to us—would he?

He would, he could—and he did.  In the wee small hours of the first day of training camp, Barry faxed a letter to his hometown paper, the Wichita Eagle, that said:

"Shortly after the end of last season, I felt that I probably would not return for the 1999-2000 season. I also felt that I should take as much time as possible to sort through my feelings and make sure that my feelings were backed with conviction."

" . . . Today, I officially declare my departure from the NFL. It was a wonderful experience to play in the NFL, and I have no regrets. I truly will miss playing for the Lions. I consider the Lions' players, coaches, staff, management and fans, my family."

. . . and just like that, he was gone.

Barry was spotted later that day in London, and told reporters, "I don't know the right way to retire. This is just my way of doing it."  Well, Barry, you decided you were going to retire at the end of the season, felt sad about it for months but didn’t tell anyone, then on the morning of training camp, you faxed a letter to your local rag and hopped the pond for a European vacation before your coaches or teammates even knew you’d gone.  It was pretty damned obvious that you didn’t know the right way to do it.  You couldn’t have done it more wrong if you tried.

Barry said in his statement that he considers the players, coaches, and fans his family.  It’s a funny thing about family . . . there’s no greater love—but only a beloved member of your family can really, truly hurt you.  No Lion has ever been more universally beloved than Barry Sanders.  No Lion has ever meant more to the franchise or fans (apologies to Dutch Clark).  To leave when he did, how he did, ducking and running without any real explanation—and with no chance for the Lions’ leadership to make a legitimate move at running back?  It repaid a decade of boundless adoration with a knife in the back.  He screwed over his coaches, his teammates, and his fans.  Many of us swore we’d never forgive him.  Indeed, some still haven’t.

Quitter.

Is there any more degrading insult for an athlete?  From elementary-school youth leagues to the highest levels of professional sports, the only unforgivable sin is giving less than your best.  It is the very essence of sport: if every athlete is not giving everything they have, it’s not true competition.  Worse yet, when an athlete gives up—surrenders without seeing it through—they not only invalidate themselves as a competitor, they strip their opponent of the win they deserve!  There’s no point in playing against someone who’ll take the ball and go home if they don’t get their way.

Unfortunately, that word, and that decision, will always stain Barry’s legacy.  He’ll always be just a little bit short of Walter Payton.  He’ll always be a little less great—or a lot less great—in the history books than he was on the field.  He’ll never be able to claim, without dispute, the crown that rightfully belongs to him: The Greatest of All Time.  That forever will be his punishment for refusing to play the game on anyone’s terms but his own.

[Ed.—I wrote this one myself.  Don’t worry, I still love Barry and think he’s awesome and everything.]

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Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith: By the Numbers

>> 10.27.2010

Forget what you know.  Forget what you’ve heard.  Forget what you thought you understood about the circular arguments that have swirled ‘round and ‘round these men for nearly two decades.  Here are the numbers; this is the truth.



Age Year Year Att Att Yds Yds TD TD Y/A Y/A Rnk Rnk PBL PBL
21 1989*+ 1990* 280 241 1470 937 14 11 5.3 3.9 2nd 10th 0 0
22 1990*+ 1991* 255 365 1304 1563 13 12 5.1 4.3 1st 1st 1 0
23 1991*+ 1992*+ 342 373 1548 1713 16 18 4.5 4.6 2nd 1st 1 2
24 1992* 1993*+ 312 283 1352 1486 9 9 4.3 5.3 4th 1st 1 3
25 1993* 1994*+ 243 368 1115 1484 3 21 4.6 4 5th 3rd 1 3
26 1994*+ 1995*+ 331 377 1883 1773 7 25 5.7 4.7 1st 1st 1 4
27 1995*+ 1996 314 327 1500 1204 11 12 4.8 3.7 2nd 8th 1 4
28 1996* 1997 307 261 1553 1074 11 4 5.1 4.1 1st 12th 1 2
29 1997*+ 1998* 335 319 2053 1332 11 13 6.1 4.2 1st 5th 1 2
30 1998* 1999* 343 329 1491 1397 4 11 4.3 4.2 4th 4th 0 2
T 10* 6+ 8*, 4+ 3062 3243 15269 13963 99 136 5 4.3 - - - -


These numbers are from Pro Football Reference.  “Y/A” is raw yards-per-attempt, “Rnk” is ordinal rank amongst NFL running backs, by yards.  “PBL” is the number of Pro Bowl offensive linemen on the each player’s team that season.  A “*” denotes Pro Bowl selection. “+” denotes First Team All-Pro.  Barry’s Pro Football Reference page; Emmitt’s Pro Football Reference page.  As you see, I have aligned the stats to begin at their rookie years, and end when Barry retired.  I have also bolded the “better” of each statistic pair.

A few talking points:

  • Barry Sanders went to the Pro Bowl at the end of every season he played in the NFL, and was first-team All Pro in six of those ten seasons.  Emmitt went to Hawaii eight of fifteen seasons, and was first-team All Pro four times.
  • In 1993, Barry missed five games due to a season-ending injury, but was still 5th-best in the NFL with 1,115 yards on 243 attempts.
  • Omitted are Emmitt’s last five seasons, where he added 4,392 yards on 1,166 attempts (3.77 YpC).  He finished 13th, 15th, 20th, 61st, and 21st in the NFL in rushing in those seasons.
  • Lately I have heard talk of Barry having run behind “two Pro Bowl offensive linemen,” and this is true—but never both at the same time.  Left tackle Lomas Brown was a Pro Bowler from 1990 until the Lions let him walk in 1995.  Center Kevin Glover was a Pro Bowler in '96 and ‘97—and then the Lions let him walk.

Let’s discuss in the comments.

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The Inner Game of Barry

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 Freep.com.  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 na├»ve, 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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Once in a Lifetime—Weekly.

>> 10.26.2010

Our next Barry Week post comes from Josh of Roar of the Lions.  Josh, besides his writing his own excellent articles and film reviews, also provides sanctuary for The Lions Congregation—the roundtable of the best Lions bloggers around, plus me sometimes.

What was Barry Sanders?  He was a lot of things to a lot of people, players and fans.  His ability and his impact on the game on any given Sunday can't be described in a hundred words, or a thousand words, or more.  When you watched him you had to suspend belief because what you were seeing wasn't possible on a football field.

Expectedly Unexpected.  Commonly Unique.

What Barry did was make every game he was in a thrill to watch no matter what the score was.  Points, winners, losers -- it all seemed to fade when Barry touched the ball.  Breath held, we waited to see what was going to happen next.  One tackle behind the line.  Two.  Three.  Four.  Five - wait - Magic!

You knew you were going to see something special, and yet every time he slipped a tackle, spun two defenders around, leaped over one player while simultaneous ducking another tackler and somehow still staying on his feet and headed to the endzone we sat and stared, mouth agape and mind unable to believe what we were seeing even though we expected to see it.

Barry had more negative runs than anyone else.  He had more awe inspiring runs than any three other backs combined.  Emmitt ground out the rushing record over time.  Barry was the only back who could run about 100 mind numbing perplexing yards for a 20 yard touchdown.  Spinning, juking faking.

He knew what defenders were going to do before they did, and then he avoided it.  Jumping through holes that didn't exist, rolling away from hits that should have leveled a Mack truck.  Lowering his shoulder like he was going to be tackled, and then jumping back as defenders fell to their knees in front of  him and taking off as those behind him did the same in an ironic type of homage as they grasped for that which couldn't be caught - couldn't be harnessed.

Barry Sanders was like an optical illusion on a football field.  He wasn't the biggest.  He wasn't the strongest.  He wasn't the fastest.  But when he touched the ball science stopped and Barry started.  Inertia no longer existed and we saw angles and cuts and moves that defied the laws of physics but somehow conformed to the rules of the Gridiron.  Barry's rules.  Rules no one else could comprehend, much less follow or duplicate.

Watching Barry play made being a Lions fan something special.  It wasn't about wins and losses -- it was about the mystical.  The enchantment.

It was about once in a lifetime -- weekly.


[Ed.—for dramatic illustration of the above, I have included this convenient visual aid.]



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Barry Sanders: An Angel in Hell

>> 10.25.2010

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.



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Barry Sanders: Man on Fire

>> 10.24.2010

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.

No matter.

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.



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