By Mark Miller
He was known as one of the most humble athletes ever to play football during his three years at Oklahoma State University and 10 seasons with the Detroit Lions.
Rather than showboat after his many touchdowns, he simply would hand the ball to the nearest referee and return to his sideline. He epitomized the philosophy of acting like he’d been there before.
So it was no surprise when pro and college hall of famer Barry Sanders displayed that same humility Feb. 19 at the Hilton Anatole where he received the 2015 PwC Doak Walker Legends Award. When ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit was hoping Sanders would brag about himself when asked who was the greatest running back ever between him, Jim Brown, Emmitt Smith, and Walter Payton, Sanders refused to take the bait.
“If I had to pick one, I’d say Jim Brown because it was ingrained by my dad,” said the 47-year-old Sanders. His father was a big fan of the Cleveland Browns, and especially the legendary Brown to the point where he’d never brag about his son. It was the elder Sanders’ way to keep Barry’s ego in check.
Pressed more by Herbstreit, Sanders stayed true to form.
“Since when I was coming of age watching Walter Payton, I would say Walter,” he said. “I’m never going to say it was me.”
That’s the beauty of someone who hardly ever talks about himself.
“One of the good things I can look back at is I had a really strong family,” he said. “My dad was just a working guy. From the time I was 3, I would go to work with him so it was in my DNA. Later I would jog around the neighborhood. I would go up to the university and run laps and just do stuff. So I was always working. I didn’t know where it would take me until the floodgates opened.”
Sanders needed plenty of perseverance for that to finally happen. Standing just 5-feet, 8-inches tall and weighing only 170-175 pounds, he didn’t become the starting running back at Wichita (Kansas) North High School until his fourth game of his senior year. Though he rushed for 1,417 yards in the final seven games, he only received scholarship offers from three schools – Emporia State University, the University of Tulsa, and Oklahoma State.
Instead of being discouraged, Sanders used his situation as motivation.
“I think it was just the fact I had always loved playing the game,” he said. “I wasn’t starting at running back but was starting at defensive back and assumed maybe I’d go to college to play defensive back. I just loved being on the field. I just loved to compete.
“I was one of those guys whose dad would take me to local high school games or we’d watch some college games. I followed guys like Billy Sims, Tony Dorsett, Charles White, and Marcus Allen. I was the youngster who would watch those guys and be mesmerized. I didn’t hang my hat on it but figured I’d get a shot somewhere. I didn’t know how it was going to happen.”
Though he worried about what his future would bring, he maintained his dream of playing in the big time in college after growing up watching Big Eight Conference football. So he chose to go to Stillwater to play for the Cowboys.
He played sparingly his first two years at Oklahoma State because a fellow hall of famer named Thurman Thomas was the starting running back ahead of him. He had only 74 carries for 325 yards and two touchdowns as a freshman and 111 rushes for 622 yards and eight scores as a sophomore.
His junior year, however, proved epic. Sanders had what many still consider the greatest individual season in college football history in 1988. In 12 games including the Holiday Bowl, he rushed 373 times for 2,850 yards, an average of 7.65 yards per carry and 237.5 per game. He also caught 19 passes for 106 yards plus another 516 yards returning punts and kicks and had 42 overall touchdowns.
That was enough to convince him to skip his senior year and turn pro. The Lions chose him with the No. 3 pick in the 1989 draft in part because of the strong recommendation former Lions running back and 1978 Heisman Trophy winner Sims from arch-rival University of Oklahoma made to then coach Wayne Fontes: Take Barry Sanders, not Deion Sanders in the 1989 NFL Draft.
It turned out to be the right decision as he rushed 1,470 yards on 280 carries and scored 14 touchdowns to earn Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. He played just nine more seasons, amassing 15,269 yards on the ground, just 1,457 yards short of the most yards in National Football League history at the time and still No. 3 on the all-time list. He won his only NFL Most Valuable Player honor in 1991 but was a 10-time all-pro and four-time rushing champion.
Though healthy and still at the top of his game, Sanders abruptly retired in 1999. He told the world by faxing his hometown newspaper in Wichita though for years never said why. It later was revealed he lost his competitive spirit following a 5-11 season in 1998.
Does he regret the decision now, asked ESPN analyst Lee Corso?
“Coach, not necessarily,” he said. “I played 10 good years. I had a lot of great memories. Whenever I see (Dallas Cowboys hall of famer) Emmitt (Smith), I tell him I’d trade for just one of his Super Bowl rings for one of my rushing titles. But I don’t regret it because it was the right time for me. It was my time to go.”
He returned to Oklahoma to focus on his four sons, including Barry J. who will play his final season at Oklahoma State after transferring from Stanford University where he backed up 2016 Heisman Trophy candidate Christian McCaffery.
“We’re looking forward to him going to Stillwater,” the proud father said. “He’s excited about it. That’s where he grew up. Even now when he’d come home from college he’d go to Stillwater because that’s where a lot of his buddies are located.”
Sanders owns several businesses including a car dealership in Stillwater and currently helps community and charitable groups plus serves as an NFL ambassador. He was featured on the cover of EA Sports Madden 25th anniversary edition in 2013, the same year he appeared in two Pepsi and two Nissan TV ads.
He still follows pro football, especially the Lions but doesn’t see the type of graciousness for which he was known.
“It’s not out-of-touch with reality but it’s something you see less of,” he said. “I probably credit mom and dad Sanders for my humility. My dad had two rules – No. 1 is do what dad’s tells you and No. 2 always remember rule 1.”