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Run Barry, Run
Sanders' humility makes him distinctive
By M.B. Roberts
Special to ESPN.com
"If there was ever an artist, he was a Picasso. He was one of the few that would make other athletes' jaws drop. You'd go, 'Oh, man, did you see that?' You'd call up another top running back and go, 'Yo, Dickerson, did you check that out?' "said Hall of Fame running back Marcus Allen on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.
Think of Barry Sanders as a coin.
"Heads" is the record-setting running back who was described as electrifying, explosive, mesmerizing and unstoppable.
Flip a coin. You got either a terrific player or a nice guy.
First, the player. His best year was 1997, when the 5-foot-8, 200-pound Sanders became the third runner to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season. His 2,053 yards put him behind Eric Dickerson (2,105 in 1984) and ahead of O.J. Simpson (2,003 in 1973).
Sanders, who played 10 years with the Detroit Lions, is third all-time in NFL rushing, trailing only Emmitt Smith and Walter Payton. He had 15,269 yards when he unexpectedly retired before the 1999 season. He decided that breaking Payton's record of 16,726 yards was not all that important to him and it was Smith, who started in the NFL a year after Sanders, who snapped Payton's mark.
Buffalo Bills running back Thurman Thomas, the only man Sanders ever played behind (for one year at Oklahoma State), explained Sanders' greatness: "He didn't take a big hit. Guys were off-balance playing against him. Barry's was in a Michael Jordan-like zone. He was electrifying."
When he came to the NFL in 1989 after his junior, Heisman-winning year at Oklahoma State, Sanders already had a record collection bigger than Wolfman Jack's. He established 13 NCAA season records, including yards rushing (2,628), yards gained rushing per game (238.9), touchdowns (39) and touchdowns running (37).
Sanders remained a statistician's dream in his post-college career. His 14 games of at least 100 yards rushing in 1997 are a league record. He had 76 100-yard games in his career, second only to Payton's 77. He owns virtually every Lions' offensive rushing record. He scored 109 touchdowns and every season he rushed for at least 1,100 yards.
So what does Sanders, a math-whiz, think of his numbers?
"I'm very competitive when it comes to winning and losing and playing well," said Sanders. "And I did put up big numbers. There were some times in 1997 when I could have gone back in to pad my numbers, but I wasn't as competitive with the numbers as I was about winning and losing."
Sanders was born on July 16, 1968 in Wichita, Kan. He grew up in a small house with two brothers and eight sisters. Showing off was not tolerated, especially by his father William, an old-fashioned disciplinarian who once worked shooting cows in the head on a slaughtering line.
Most of the time, his father worked as a roofer. Young Barry often worked with him during the sweltering, tar-bubbling Kansas summers.
"It was just like being in a sauna," Sanders said. "There's no shade and there's no relief from the heat. But the toughest part was working with my dad. He'd tell you to go get him a screwdriver and you'd bring him one, and then he'd go into this tirade. He'd start yelling, 'I didn't tell you to bring me a Phillips head! I wanted a flathead!'"
Despite the outbursts, Sanders said the experience was good for him.
"I don't know many kids who get the chance to spend a day with their father working," he said. "And I learned a trade, so if I ever blew out my knee, I had something to fall back on."
Sanders was a star running back at North High School in Wichita. As the final game of the regular season drew to a close in his senior year, Sanders was only 33 yards shy of the league rushing title. But with his team leading 35-12, he passed on a chance to go back in. He didn't want to risk injury since a playoff game was next.
Sanders' junior season at Oklahoma State was perhaps the finest ever by a college running back. He rushed for more than 300 yards an NCAA-record four times in 1988 and for five consecutive games he ran for more than 200 yards, another mark.
Two more records: He scored at least two touchdowns in all 11 regular-season games, and nine times scored at least three touchdowns.
Sanders only reluctantly attended the Heisman Trophy presentation (live, via satellite, as his team was playing Texas Tech in Japan). Before he won, he said he thought another nominee, Southern Cal quarterback Rodney Peete, deserved the award.
Pat Jones, his coach at Oklahoma State, said Sanders didn't mind winning the Heisman, he just didn't want to talk about it. As his mother Shirley taught him: "Glory to God, not to yourself."
With the third selection in the draft, the Lions chose Sanders. He didn't disappoint, rushing for an NFC-leading 1,470 yards to break Billy Sims' team record and scoring 14 touchdowns as a rookie. In 1990, he won his first NFL rushing title, though he gained 166 fewer yards than he had in his first season. His 1,304 yards put him seven yards ahead of former teammate Thomas.
In 1993, it looked as if Sanders would win his second NFL rushing title, but an injury to his left knee in the Thanksgiving Day game caused him to miss the final five regular-season games. He finished with 1,115 yards, his lowest total as a pro.
Sanders won three more rushing titles, with 1,883 yards in 1994, 1,553 yards in 1996 and the 2,053-yard outburst in 1997. In his 10 seasons, Sanders never averaged less than 4.3 yards a carry or ran fewer than 243 times (1993).
Despite Sanders' credentials, not even his own father rated him as the NFL's greatest running back.
"I'm so proud of Barry, but I'm also a realist," William said. "I watched Jim Brown play for the Cleveland Browns and he was the best I have ever seen. Playing football back then was harder."
Sanders refused to take reporters' bait regarding his father choosing Brown over him.
"What kind of a son would I be to take away my father's hero?" he said.
Just to have his father talk about him in the same league with Brown is a compliment, he said.
Sanders on the field was a slick, fast, showman. The moment play stopped, though, he became quiet and gentlemanly. He handed his touchdown ball to the nearest official. He didn't trash talk or dance in the end zone. He learned this approach from his parents.
"They are get-up early, hard-working, go-do-your-job people," Sanders said. "They don't want anything from anybody. They want to take care of their own. That was exactly my approach to football. I wasn't necessarily looking for fame and fortune. I tried to make sure I upheld my end. I took care of business and then went home."
After games, he returned to his modest-by-millionaire standards ($180,000) home in Rochester Hills, a Detroit suburb. Sanders, who left $20.9 million in salary and bonus money on the table when he retired with four years left on his contract, also turned down millions in endorsement opportunities.
"It probably was not wise if you want to live by the Business 101 textbook," he said, "but I value my privacy over endorsements."
In November 2000, Sanders married Detroit television reporter Lauren Campbell. Nine months later, they had a son, Nigel. Sanders sold his home in Rochester Hills and in 2003 the family moved to a larger house in Southfield, another Detroit suburb.
Within six days in August 2004, Sanders was inducted into both the Pro Football and College Football Halls of Fame.
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