Nobody questions the excellence of Barry Sanders during the 1988 season. The former Oklahoma State running back was a sight to behold during his Heisman-winning campaign, slithering through defenses with relentless consistency and eye-popping production.
One season before, Thurman Thomas was almost as lethal with an OSU decal on his helmet.
Thomas was an Associated Press All-American and Big Eight Offensive Player of the Year, rushing for 1,767 yards and 21 touchdowns in 1987. Yet Sanders’ greatness the following season -- he recorded 2,850 rushing yards and 39 TDs in the regular season -- completely overshadowed one of the best seasons in Cowboys history from Thomas the year before.
“There’s no question [his greatness was overshadowed],” said former Oklahoma State coach Pat Jones, who coached the duo during the 1987 season. “What Sanders did was so unworldly. This is the only time in the history of college football that two running backs overlapped in their college careers and ended up in Canton. That speaks volumes for how good they were. It’s happened one time and we were fortunate to be a part of it.”
Thomas averaged 147.2 rushing yards per game and 6.2 yards per carry in 1987 while sharing time with Sanders, and both players earned All-America accolades (Sanders earned All-America honors as a kick returner as a sophomore). Thomas rushed for more than 100 yards in 11 games that season, including 173 against Oklahoma and a 293-yard performance against Iowa State.
“Thurman’s true greatness collegiately was overshadowed by the unbelievable year Sanders had in 1988,” Jones said.
Thomas remains OSU’s leading all-time rusher with 5,001 career yards and 50 touchdowns during four years in Stillwater. And his excellence rubbed off on Sanders, helping to create a foundation for what Sanders accomplished in 1988.
“The most impressive thing about Thomas was how he was on a daily basis,” Jones said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been around a more competitive, tougher guy. It helped Sanders' development to be around Thurman. It did Sanders a lot of good; by the time Sanders got going, Thomas was a legitimate All-American. Work habit-wise, maturity-wise, study-wise, all of it. It was invaluable to him to be around that guy, and there never was any animosity between them.”
Thomas’ 1987 season was overshadowed excellence, but excellence nonetheless.
“He had virtually every honor you could have outside of a Heisman Trophy,” Jones said. “A lot of Thomas’ stuff has gotten overshadowed just because of the sheer volume of what Sanders accomplished.
“The bust in Canton totally validates what [Thomas] was.”