Former Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders had many tantalizing attributes.
He was fast, smart, elusive, and part Harry Houdini.
Just when defenders thought they had him dead to rights, Sanders would plant a foot, spin, and disappear in an instant.
Highlight reels abound as a testament to the number of opponents grasping at air when attempting to hog-tie him.
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) March 4, 2022
More often than not, it took a group effort to catch Sanders and bring him to the turf.
For 10 years, Sanders was a human highlight reel for the Lions.
Unfortunately, the franchise couldn’t overcome its shortcomings and would consistently fall short of a Super Bowl appearance.
Then, just when he was in sight of the all-time NFL rushing record, Sanders abruptly retired and never looked back.
Although he left the game almost a quarter-century ago, Sanders still has the fourth-most rushing yards in league history.
This is the story of Barry Sanders.
Barry David Sanders was born on July 16, 1968, in Wichita, Kansas.
Happy 52nd, Barry Sanders!#Lions RB 1989-98
• PFHOF (2004)
• NFL 100 All-Time Team
• #3 All-Time Leading Rusher (15,269 yards)
• 1997 NFL MVP
• 10 Pro Bowls, 10x All-Pro (6x First-Team)
• 4 NFL rushing titles
• 1989 OROY
• 1994 OPOY
• 2,053 rush yds in 1997 pic.twitter.com/TIcsWknxwa
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) July 16, 2020
At an early age, Sanders was shown the value of good, honest work, whether it was his idea or not.
His father was a roofer and carpenter and young Barry would often find himself at job sights along with his dad.
“All day they would labor, with the hammers, with the tar, sweating in the hot summer sun. You did not complain in the Sanders family. Not unless you wanted a good whupping,” wrote writer Mitch Albom about the Sanders family.
When he arrived at Wichita North High School, Sanders was a tailback for the football team and started for the Redskins during his sophomore year.
As a junior, he was beaten out for the starter’s spot by his brother, Byron.
Byron Sanders shined for Wichita North and would graduate with a scholarship in hand to play at Northwestern University.
As his senior season was about to begin, Barry Sanders was moved to the wingback position on the team.
The wingback typically lines up just outside of the tight end and is used to block, take a handoff, or catch a short pass.
Sanders’ coach moved him to the position because he felt Sanders’ small size would be a detriment to the team.
He also believed that Sanders did not like to take contact from opponents.
“That coach that had me at wingback retired after my junior year and goes to athletic director,” Sanders recalled. “He hires a new coach and plants the seed to the new coach [Dale Burkholder], ‘Don’t play Sanders at running back, he’s probably not tough enough.’ So [Burkholder] keeps me at wingback.”
That notion changed by the Redskins’ fourth game of the year when Sanders was inserted as the starting tailback and proceeded to rush for 274 yards and four touchdowns.
During one run in particular, Sanders zigged and zagged to paydirt, leading his coach to declare that the play was, “one of the greatest runs I’ve ever seen by a high school running back.”
In the final seven games of the season, Sanders would rush for a jaw-dropping 1,417 yards (10.2 yards per rush average), earning him all-state and Honorable Mention All-American honors.
Heisman Trophy winner Barry Sanders from Wichita North High School. pic.twitter.com/QRt4esJUgJ
— Kansas Pictures (@KansasPictures) December 9, 2013
Because of his small size, a number of ground-based colleges, such as Oklahoma and Nebraska, passed on Sanders.
In fact, the only schools to offer him a scholarship was Emporia State University, Iowa State, Tulsa, and Oklahoma State University.
Even though his father initially didn’t agree with the decision, Sanders accepted the OSU scholarship and headed to Stillwater, Oklahoma.
“Nebraska missed the boat. OU missed the boat. He would’ve been fabulous in their wishbone,” said Burkholder in 2018.
Stuck Behind Thurman
Oklahoma State coach Pat Jones had an embarrassment of riches in his offensive backfield.
In addition to Sanders coming aboard in 1986, OSU also had Thurman Thomas entering his junior year.
Thomas was a slick runner who would eventually star for the Buffalo Bills in the NFL.
During his freshman year, Sanders didn’t get a lot of playing time as the lion’s share of the carries went to Thomas.
He did see action in eight games and ended the year with 325 yards on 74 attempts and two touchdowns.
Sanders was also used as a kick returner and averaged 23.7 yards per return.
In 1987, Sanders got a little more playing time though he was still stuck behind Thomas.
Barry Sanders, Thurman Thomas, Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State 1987 pic.twitter.com/QAqrQcjs4s
— College Teammates (@NCAATeammates) July 19, 2019
However, opposing coaches saw enough of Sanders that they knew he would be trouble if he became the starter.
In fact, after Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer watched film to prepare for an upcoming game against OSU in ‘87, he burst into a meeting room filled with assistant coaches and shared his observations.
“I told them, ‘You better hope Thurman Thomas doesn’t get hurt,’ ” Switzer said to his bewildered staff.” Because Switzer told them, Sanders is even better.
Sanders would play in 11 games and rush 105 times for 603 yards and nine scores as the Cowboys went 10-2 and defeated UTEP in the Sun Bowl.
Once the ‘87 season ended, Thomas was off to the NFL where he surprisingly dropped to the second round before being selected by the Bills.
Now a starter for the first time as a collegian, Sanders thoroughly decimated his opponents.
As OSU progressed through the 1988 season losing only two games, Sanders looked like a man among boys as he averaged an astounding 238.9 yards per game.
He would ride that average to an unheard of 2,628 rushing yards and 37 touchdowns (not a typo).
Barry Sanders, Oklahoma State. 1988 Heisman Trophy winner. pic.twitter.com/XD8Q2AO5fH
— SI Vault (@si_vault) December 13, 2015
Sanders had five consecutive 200-yard games, scored at least two touchdowns in eleven consecutive games, and nine times he scored at least three touchdowns.
Sanders also had 19 receptions for 106 yards.
As if that wasn’t enough, Sanders was still used on special teams and he became the first player to open two consecutive seasons with a 100-yard kick return.
During the season, the Sooners came to town and Switzer’s panic from the year before was realized during the game.
At one point it looked like Oklahoma defenders had Sanders dead to rights.
Then, Sanders faked Sooners safety Kevin Thompson nearly out of his shoes and sprinted 67 yards for a touchdown.
“Barry gave him a little stutter-step and boom, skipped on by him,” Sooners quarterback Charles Thompson said. “You knew right then you were watching somebody that was great.”
By the end of the Cowboys’ regular season, most of the country understood that they were witnessing a once-in-a-generation talent.
“You can argue about a lot of different people, who’s the best ever in whatever sport,” said Mike Gundy, who before becoming OSU’s head coach was Sanders’ college quarterback. “LeBron James and Michael Jordan in the NBA. Jim Brown and whoever else in pro football. But college football? There’s nobody that can touch the guy. Just can’t. There’s nobody that compares to him.”
Heisman Winner and Holiday Bowl
Despite Sanders’ otherworldly stats, the Heisman trophy buzz surrounded Southern California quarterbacks Troy Aikman from UCLA and Rodney Peete from USC.
Thankfully, the Heisman voters were not swayed by the signal-caller hype and named Sanders as the 1988 winner.
At the time, Sanders and OSU were in Tokyo preparing to play Texas Tech in the Coca-Cola Classic and he accepted the award via satellite.
On this day in 1988, Oklahoma State RB Barry Sanders won the Heisman. He finished the season with 2,628 rushing yards and 39 total TDs. pic.twitter.com/2daanM0TKV
— Yahoo Sports (@YahooSports) December 3, 2016
In the Holiday Bowl against the University of Wyoming a month later, Sanders crushed the Wyoming defense to the tune of 222 rushing yards and five touchdowns for a resounding 62-14 victory.
Combined with his regular-season stats, Sanders’ totals from the Holiday Bowl would put his 1988 totals at 2,850 rushing yards on 373 carries and 42 rushing touchdowns.
“I look back on that year and just say that it was the best that ever was,” said Switzer. “Nobody was better. I don’t have many people arguing about it.”
“He only played in the fourth quarter in two games,” Gundy added. “Otherwise he’d have had 3,700 yards rushing.”
With the season concluded, the accolades continued to pour in for Sanders.
He was a unanimous All-American, Big Eight Offensive Player of the Year, Maxwell Award winner for the best all-around college athlete, and Walter Camp Award winner for the collegiate football player of the year.
Several of Sanders’ records obtained at OSU still stand including most rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, most touchdowns, most all-purpose yards, and most points scored in a single season.
Sanders is Permitted to Leave School Early
Until 1990, the NFL did not permit college underclassmen into the NFL Draft.
Although Sanders had initially said he would return for his senior year, he was given a lifeline when he expressed interest in bolting a year early.
At the time, OSU was under NCAA investigation and was found guilty of numerous infractions.
The school was then handed a list of penalties that would begin in 1989.
Some of the penalties included no nationally televised games for the Cowboys and OSU would be ineligible for a bowl game.
Given that information, then NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle granted Sanders permission to enter the draft a year early.
This started a chain reaction for the teams picking early in the 1989 draft.
The Dallas Cowboys didn’t blink when taking Aikman with the first overall selection to help them turn around their fortunes.
Then, Green Bay took Michigan State tackle Tony Mandarich with the second pick.
33 Years Ago Today: SI calls Tony Mandarich “the best offensive line prospect ever.”
He gets picked second overall and is a bust.
Pick 1. Troy Aikman, HOF
Pick 3. Barry Sanders, HOF
Pick 4. Derrick Thomas, HOF
Pick 5. Deion Sanders, HOF pic.twitter.com/q6tJYtFFjr
— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) April 23, 2022
With the third overall pick of the draft, the Lions selected Barry Sanders.
The Atlanta Falcons would then select Deion Sanders with the fifth pick
Detroit coach Wayne Fontes offered uniform number 20 to Sanders in tribute to former Lions players Lem Barney and Billy Sims and Sanders accepted.
Years later, Sanders questioned whether or not he would have enjoyed playing in Green Bay if the Packers had taken him with the second pick.
“I don’t know what I would’ve done if I was drafted by Green Bay, I don’t know if I would’ve wanted to play in Green Bay, I don’t think I could’ve handled this weather every day.”
Sanders would hold out of his first Lions training camp while negotiating a contract and eventually signed a five-year $9.5 million deal.
Rookie of the Year
Because he held out of training camp, Sanders was not the starter for the Lions during the first two weeks of the ‘89 season.
However, it didn’t take long for Fontes to name Sanders the starter and, in Week 3, he had his first career 100-yard rushing output against the Chicago Bears.
Sanders would miss parts of two other games due to injuries, but by the end of the season, the Detroit organization knew they had drafted a gem.
For his rookie year, Sanders rushed for 1,470 yards and 14 touchdowns and added 24 catches for 282 yards.
His rushing total set a Lions’ franchise record and nearly led the league that year.
With only one game remaining, Sanders and Kansas City’s Christian Okoye were neck-and-neck for the NFL rushing title.
1989 NFL Rushing Yards Per Game Leaders:
(1) Christian Okoye – 98.7 yards
(2) Barry Sanders – 98.0 yards
(3) Eric Dickerson – 87.4 yards
(4) Bo Jackson – 86.4 yards pic.twitter.com/1DawZUF0qq
— 80s Sports N Stuff (@80sSportsNStuff) August 11, 2018
Sanders could have easily taken the title when Okoye’s game ended and the coaching staff found out that Sanders only needed 10 yards to pass Okoye and get the title.
At that point, the Lions led the Atlanta Falcons 31-10 and there was plenty of time left.
Already sitting on the sideline after running for 158 yards, Fontes asked Sanders if he wanted to return to the game and get the rushing title.
Ever humble, Sanders declined in favor of his teammates receiving more playing time.
That meant Sanders just missed getting the NFL rushing title as a rookie.
However, for his troubles that year, he would still be named the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year and be voted to his first of 10 Pro Bowls and the first of six first-team All-Pro nods.
Near Miss in 1991
In the 1950s, the Lions were one of the best franchises in the NFL.
Between 1952 and 1957, the team won three NFL Championship games and lost another.
In the early 1960s, the team appeared in the third-place Playoff Bowl for three consecutive years.
After that, the organization would only see the postseason three more times in the next few decades.
Initially, that didn’t change even with Sanders in the backfield.
In 1989 and 1990, the franchise posted 7-9 and 6-10 records.
Sanders set the team record for most yards in a season in ‘89 and followed that up with 1,304 yards, 13 touchdowns, 36 receptions, 480 receiving yards, and three more scores in 1990.
His rushing total led the league and also made him the first Lion to lead the NFL in rushing during a season since Byron White in 1940.
Slowly, but surely, the Lions continued to add solid pieces to their roster, and the stars aligned for the team in 1991.
As Sanders rushed for 1,548 yards and an NFL best 16 touchdowns (also a career-high) and 103.2 yards per game average, the Lions finished the year 12-4 and would win a playoff game for the first time since 1962 when they dispatched the Dallas Cowboys 38-6.
Barry Sanders and Josef the Lion hang out at a 1991 SI photo shoot: pic.twitter.com/BYBASFSm
— SI Vault (@si_vault) July 16, 2012
With Sanders in the backfield, Detroit had Erik Kramer throwing the ball and receivers Brett Perriman, Willie Green, and rookie Herman Moore catching the ball.
The defense included linebacker Chris Spielman, safety Bennie Blades, and corner Ray Crockett.
A week after their win over Dallas, the Lions’ season ended when the Washington Redskins sent them home with a 41-10 drubbing.
More Playoff Failures for Detroit While Sanders Sizzles
Over the course of the next four years, Detroit would make the playoffs three times.
All three times the Lions would lose in the Wild Card round, which included losing to the Packers in 1993 and 1994 and the Philadelphia Eagles in 1995.
By then, the likes of Kramer, Andre Ware, Rodney Peete, Dave Krieg, and Scott Mitchell found consistent targets in Moore, Green, Perriman, Aubrey Matthews, and Johnnie Morton.
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) May 5, 2022
Meanwhile, Sanders ran for 1,352 yards and nine scores in 1992, 1,115 yards and three touchdowns in 1993, an NFL best 1,883 yards and seven touchdowns in 1994, and 1,500 yards and 11 scores in 1995.
After a 1996 season where Detroit went 5-11, the organization fired Fontes and hired former San Diego Chargers coach Bobby Ross before the 1997 season.
That same year, Sanders led the NFL in yardage again when he ran for 1,553 yards and 11 scores as Detroit went 9-7 and lost in the Wild Card round to Tampa Bay.
Then, in 1997, he racked up several games of 100 plus yards and eventually became the third running back in NFL history to gain over 2,000 yards in a season.
He would lead the NFL for the fourth time in yardage with 2,053 yards along with 11 touchdowns, and another league-leading mark of 128.3 yards per game.
Both his rushing total and yards per game marks were career highs.
It was a no-brainer when Sanders was named the NFL’s MVP and Offensive Player of the Year once the season concluded.
For many of his peers, Sanders was unequaled in talent.
Your yearly reminder that Barry Sanders was a beast pic.twitter.com/2fLEr5xnMi
— Footballism™ (@FootbaIIism) April 8, 2022
His small frame made the 5’8”, 200-pounder nearly impossible to tackle in the open field.
“I remember bracing myself to hit him,” recalled Chicago Bears defensive end Trace Armstrong. “He just stopped and turned, and he was gone. He’s like a little sports car. He can stop on a dime and go zero to 60 in seconds.”
Green Bay Packers linebacker Brian Noble similarly remarked: “He runs so low to the ground and is so strong and elusive; it makes him very difficult to get a piece of him. You never get the shot at him. Usually, when you get to him, he’s not there anymore.”
In 1998, Sanders rushed for over 1,000 yards for the 10th consecutive year.
He would finish the year with 1,491 yards and four touchdowns as the Lions struggled through a 5-11 regular season.
The following summer, Sanders shocked the sports world when he announced that he was retiring from football.
July 27/1999 – Barry Sanders announces his retirement with a a letter in the Wichita Eagle, his hometown newspaper. pic.twitter.com/08hlPQjmhp
— Today In History (@TodayThatWas) July 27, 2019
For many football fans and pundits, the announcement didn’t make sense as Sanders was still at the top of his game and within 1,457 rushing yards of Walter Payton’s NFL-best 16,726 mark.
The idea that Sanders could be so close to the all-time record and not want to pursue it baffled the public.
However, to those that knew him best, that was just Sanders’ nature.
“I never valued it (the career rushing yardage record) so much that I thought it was worth my dignity or Walter’s dignity to pursue it amid so much media and marketing attention.”
Sanders also shared that he just believed it was time to leave the sport.
“The reason I am retiring is simple,” Sanders said in a press release, “My desire to exit the game is greater than my desire to remain in it. I have searched my heart through and through and feel comfortable with this decision.”
Sanders would later admit that the Lions’ perpetual rebuilding and organizational turmoil were partly responsible for his decision.
Ultimately, he just grew tired of football.
“I was feeling like I’d done enough, ready to move on…I was never that guy who was going to stay and play until they had to cart me off the field. Some guys have that love of the game where they’re going to get every last play. At year 10, I lost that determination to do it every day,” said Sanders in 2013.
For his career, Sanders had 15,269 rushing yards (the highest total rushing yards ever by any NFL player in a 10-year span), 352 receptions, 2,921 receiving yards, and 109 touchdowns (99 rushing and 10 receiving).
He was a rookie of the year, NFL MVP, a two-time NFL Offensive Player of the Year, four-time league leader in single-season rushing yards, six-time first-team All-Pro, four-time second-team All-Pro, 10-time Pro Bowler, and league rushing touchdowns leader once.
Additionally, Sanders was selected as a member of the NFL’s 1990s All-Decade Team and 100th Anniversary All-Time Team.
His number has been retired by the Lions and he is a member of the Pride of the Lions team and the Lions All-Time Team.
Comeback Rumors and Quiet Life in Retirement
As one might expect, the Lions’ front office was not happy with Sanders’ sudden retirement.
Just two seasons earlier, he had renewed his contract with the team that included a hefty $34.56 million over six years with an $11 million signing bonus.
After his retirement announcement, the Lions demanded Sanders repay $5.5 million of his bonus.
Sanders refused and both sides squabbled over the issue until an arbitrator ruled in early 2000 that Sanders had to repay $1,833,333.33 (a sixth of the bonus) immediately, with the remaining bonus to be repaid over each of the three years Sanders had left on the contract provided he stayed retired.
While the relationship between Sanders and the team remained contentious for several years, the rumor mill of Sanders’ return to the NFL was an annual affair.
Several times Sanders had to squash the notion that he was returning to the NFL.
It took a while, but fans eventually realized he was serious when the Pro Football Hall of Fame inducted him in 2004.
Sanders has also been included in the College Football Hall of Fame (2003), Kansas Sports Hall of Fame (1998), and Michigan Sports Hall of Fame (2003).
In the past decade, Sanders has reconciled with the Lions and in 2017 he became a team ambassador.
He has lived a relatively quiet and reserved life.
One of Sanders’ sons, Barry Sanders, Jr., followed in his dad’s shoes and played running back for Stanford and Oklahoma State.
Most rushing yards in NFL History:#Cowboys Emmitt Smith: 18,355#Bears Walter Payton: 16,726#49ers Frank Gore: 16,000#Lions Barry Sanders: 15,269#Vikings Adrian Peterson: 14,918#Jets Curtis Martin: 14,101#Chargers LaDainian Tomlinson: 13,684 pic.twitter.com/o0OO3syvxt
— NFL Numbers 🔢 (@nflnumber) April 3, 2022
As of 2022, Sanders is the NFL’s fourth all-time leading rusher behind Emmitt Smith, Payton, and Frank Gore.