Barry Sanders: "Mr. 99"

I show a video of Barry Sanders spinning, shaking and shimmying his way through defenders to my 8-year old son, and as he looks on, mouth open, he asks me this incredible question: Is that real or is this a new video game?

I don't think I've ever heard a better summation of Sanders' skills.

When I was growing up playing football games like "Tecmo Super Bowl" and "Madden," Sanders was so fierce, so fast, that we would ban the Lions from play (funny even to think about banning the Lions because they were too good). If only the real defensive coordinators throughout the NFL had had that option, they wouldn't have had to watch tape after tape of their linebackers tackling air.

And now Sanders returns once again to the virtual gridiron that helped cement his legacy as one of the greatest cyber athletes of all time. In "Madden NFL 10," Sanders is one of more than 150 legends whose characters gamers can assume, and even draft to their franchise if they want to add a mix of Hall of Famers to their fantasy team.

Barry's ratings? You might as well call him Mr. 99, as he hits the near-perfect 99 mark for overall ability, speed, agility, acceleration, spin, carrying and ball-carrier vision while scoring a perfect 100 rating for elusiveness.

"I definitely appreciate coach Madden and the designers of the game for the honor of these ratings," Sanders tells me, not wanting to boast about his skills.

An honor so well deserved that my son is still trying to figure out which moves are real and which ones are reserved for PlayStation.

ESPN: You're unstoppable once again in the new "Madden." Do you realize the legacy you're leaving in the video-game world and how great your character has been throughout the years?

Barry Sanders: It's cool because kids who never got to see me play can play as me in the game. They can experience to a certain degree the type of player I was, and from what I hear from fans, these kids are giving me respect for what I did based on "Madden." It's a way for me to live on long after I'm done playing. You always run into people who want to talk about some of the things you've done in "Madden," and they talk about it like it meant as much as something I did for real, so it's pretty funny.

ESPN: Now a new generation of kids understands the frustrations of trying to tackle you.

Barry Sanders: [laughs] It helps to know what you're doing with the controller, but it feels good to know they gave me such high marks.

ESPN: "Madden" is such a cultural phenomenon now, but do you remember what it was like back in the day when you were first in the game?

Barry Sanders: I played a lot more back then, and it's amazing how big it has gotten, but we thought it was pretty big even back then. Maybe it was because we were in the game, but we thought it was a big deal back then. It just kept growing and growing to where it is today, but even when it first came out, it was still such a remarkable improvement from the other games. That's what I remember, turning on the game and thinking how realistic it was. Now look at it.

ESPN: One of the new features in "Madden NFL 10" is the fumble pile where players battle for the ball, and throughout the mini-game, the ball can change hands multiple times. What really goes on at the bottom of those piles?

Barry Sanders: That's pretty realistic. Anyone who has played the game professionally, you're always taught that the ball is the most important, most precious thing, so when the ball hits the ground, it's always a mad scramble. It's amazing how many times there is a fumble, and the person who recovers it initially doesn't walk away with the ball. At the bottom of the pile, people will do just about anything to wrestle it out of your arms.

ESPN: Are we talking about scratching? Fingers getting bent back? Worse?

Barry Sanders: All that stuff. Absolutely.

ESPN: Another feature they have is the ability to take over a franchise and draft the entire league from scratch using a fantasy draft. If you had to start a team today, who would be three players you would like to build a team around?

Barry Sanders: If I could start with anybody, I would initially draft Tom Brady. Then I would go get Ray Lewis, and then maybe an offensive lineman, or somebody like Adrian Peterson.

ESPN: Do you think Peterson is the top guy at your old position these days?

Sanders If I could start with anybody, I would initially draft Tom Brady. Then I would go get Ray Lewis, and then maybe an offensive lineman, or somebody like Adrian Peterson.

-- NFL legend Barry Sanders

Barry Sanders: I think so. As far as someone who is a complete runner and a game-breaker, you can make that argument.

ESPN: Do you still get excited about watching football and watching other running backs on Sundays?

Barry Sanders: I still watch, but now I'm more of a casual fan enjoying the game. But I definitely still pay attention to the game.

ESPN: How do you think the league has changed since you were a rookie?

Barry Sanders: The biggest change is how much more coverage the league gets. The game seems to be so much bigger. I think the basic way the game is played is pretty much the same. There are more teams who do dual running back or they do the spread offenses, but I don't think it's that much different than when I played.

ESPN: Watching your highlights and playing as you in "Madden" really brings back the memories of some of those spins and juke moves you had. Did you train a specific way to help make you so shifty?

Barry Sanders: [laughs] I think a lot of it is natural instinct, but you have to do the work on top of it. You run, you do different agility exercises, and by working hard, you can enhance those talents.

ESPN: As a kid, did you play a lot of street football? Ever get tackled into a car?

Barry Sanders: Oh yeah. As a kid, I played my share of football in the street or in a vacant lot. When we were playing in the street, it was more touch football, so we didn't hit each other into cars. I'm from Kansas, so there were a lot of vacant lots and open fields to tackle each other in so we could avoid tackling each other on the street. But running on the street and trying not to get taken down on the concrete, that will make you fast, that's for sure.

ESPN: I'm on the committee to elect players to the new Madden Hall of Fame. Do you think your Madden character deserves in?

Barry Sanders: I'm going to have to leave that vote up to you. Play some more of the game and do your research. Hopefully I'll score some touchdowns for you.

ESPN: You were so good in the old "Madden," my friends used to ban the Lions from our games.

Barry Sanders: That's too funny. It's also a great compliment. I appreciate you not being able to play as me. [laughs]