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Barry Sanders

This past weekend I was hanging out with some of my boys and we got to talking about football. A few shots of Patron and a tall cup of Conjure and Coke later, we got on the subject of some of the best RBs to play the game. Someone in the group brought up Emmitt Smith. Emmitt Smith played football about 30 min. down the road from where I stay so he’s popular ‘round these parts. Needless to say, a debate got going for those of us who disagreed, and the question of if Barry Sanders was better than Emmitt Smith came up. I personally look at Barry Sanders as light years ahead of Emmit Smith, but the thing is, we’ll probably never know if Barry would have achieved the greatness he desired as an NFL RB, because he retired too soon.

I remember being a little kid in NC and sitting in front of the TV watching ESPN highlights of what Barry Sanders had done to whatever team a couple of hours before because we didn’t get much Lions football in Fayetteville. Thanksgiving was personally my favorite time of year because the Detroit Lions always played on Thanksgiving Day, and even though they probably lost, I got to watch Sanders do amazing things for 3 hours while I fought off the ‘Itis from all the turkey I had eaten. Barry was my football hero. I remember going out in the field next to my house and playing football for hours on end with the neighborhood kids while I tried to do my best Sanders impression. When I played high school ball, I patterned my game after his. Speed and power was what it was about. Even playing semi-pro football, I continued to model my style after Sanders.

Barry Sanders stood 5’8” and 203lbs. He didn’t even play RB in high school until the last seven games of his senior year. He was slept on by many colleges because of his size, but eventually was recruited by the Oklahoma State Cowboys. He backed up Thurman Thomas for two years before he took over as the no. 1 RB in 1988. In one year he absolutely terrified the NCAA. He averaged an astonishing 7.6 YPC average, rushed for over 300 yards four times, amassed 2,628 yards on the ground, scored 37 rushing TDs and won the Heisman Trophy. In the Holiday Bowl that year, he rushed for 222 yards and scored 5 TDs in only 3 quarters of play. He entered the NFL after that one season.

He played in the NFL for 10 seasons and was practically a human highlight reel throughout his whole career. If you didn’t have the pleasure of watching him, you can YouTube his highlights and watch him in action. He would do anything to get to the end zone. He would run 20 yards in the wrong direction with defenders on his heels only to shake them all only to gain of 2 yards total. He would break your ankles just as quick as he would run over you. And it normally took more than one defender to bring him down. If he got in the open field, it was pretty much a wrap because he was as quick as hiccup. Simply put, the boy was amazing (Dat boy good!). There was no way to game plan defensively for him, although some coaches were rumored to have their players chase after chickens as practice. At the end of his career he had amassed a total of 15, 269 rushing yards, at that time he was only about 1,500 yards short of the record then held by football great Walter Payton. Other achievements include: 10x Pro Bowler, Offensive Rookie of the Year, owned the rushing title 4, times, and co-MVP with Brett Favre in 1997. He did all of this in only 10 seasons.

For all of his success, Sanders never saw the Super Bowl. The closest he came to the Super Bowl was in 1991 when they lost the NFC Championship game to the Washington Redskins. He spent all 10 years on the Lions running behind a suspect line and a team that had developed a losing culture. Losing became so wounding, that before the 1999 NFL season, Barry Sanders walked away from the game. He was healthy; in fact he was only 31 when he walked away. His heart wasn’t into the game anymore. It was said, that in the final game of his career, there were tears in his eyes as he sat on the sidelines when the Lions lost the final game of his career.

We’ll never know what he could have accomplished had he kept playing a few more years. I don’t think he would have ever won a Super Bowl, mainly because of how the Lions developed over the years. But, I still would have loved to see how things would have ended up especially after seeing Emmitt Smith retiring with the rushing title. I still hold Barry as the better RB over Emmitt even though Emmitt was able to accomplish more, mainly because Barry did just as much with less at his disposal. Barry Sanders, one of the greats that left the game too soon.