Barry Sanders is the greatest Detroit Lion of his generation, and perhaps the franchise's all-time best player. The man who retired in 1998 with more than enough left in the tank to set a pace on the all-time rushing yardage list that nobody else could match looks back with no regrets. Instead, he's become like everyone else who's been watching the Lions with love from that long-suffering perspective — overjoyed that after nearly a decade of historic incompetence under Matt Millen, the new men in charge (general manager Martin Mayhew and head coach Jim Schwartz) are putting the kind of Lions team on the field that can be an inspiration to a recovering city. At 6-2, these Lions are putting to their opponents in ways the Motor City hasn't seen since Sanders himself was in his prime.
I caught up with the man recently to talk about his recent project. As part of the "Hometown Hall of Famers" program, Sanders was honored with a plaque at Wichita North High School in Wichita, Kan. The program, which is presented by Allstate and the Pro Football Hall of Fame, endeavors to recognize some of the NFL's all-time greats at a high school level. Sanders is the second such athlete in the series, following former Raiders great Howie Long. But as much as he was happy to talk about his days at Wichita North and Oklahoma State, it seemed that the most joy in Sanders' voice came from discussing these new Lions of Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Ndamukong Suh.
"It feels good," he said. "We definitely, definitely went through a tough time there … we deserve it. You know, Michigan has pretty loyal fans. They've supported the team even in bad times. Our loyal fans are being rewarded now, and we have a young team, we have a long ways to go, but I think we've come a long ways. I think we saw at the end of last year that there was a lot of good pieces with this group. Hopefully, we can just keep them together and keep them healthy."
Sanders' own Lions teams came close to postseason greatness a couple of times, but they never got over the hump to transcend the great teams of the era. In the 1990s, the Dallas Cowboys, San Francisco 49ers, Green Bay Packers and Denver Broncos ruled the roost, and the Lions couldn't catch up. That was never the fault of Sanders, who acted as his own offensive line much of the time and created opportunities for every quarterback who lined up in front of him by forcing defenders to key on him at all times.
"I would have to tip my hat to the teams that won Super Bowls during that time," Sanders said when asked why the Lions were never there at the end. "We went up against some very good teams. Maybe we could have snuck one here or there, but when you look at the Packers, when you look at the Cowboys, when you look at the Niners from those years, I think it was those three teams that won [the most] Super Bowls when I was in the NFL. The Redskins, Packers, Niners, Cowboys — those were dynasties, or close to it.
"I just think we came up against some really good teams. You look at the Redskins and all the Hall of Fame players, and the Hall of Fame coach. You look at the Packers in our own division who won one with bringing Reggie White there, Mike Holmgren, Brett Favre. We had some good players, but we didn't necessarily have those types of players on our teams."
Lightly recruited out of Wichita North, Sanders found a home at Oklahoma State and went on to follow Thurman Thomas in the backfields of some very talented and bowl-winning teams. He had just one breakout year in college, but what a season it was. In 1988, he ran for 2,628 yards and an astonishing 37 rushing touchdowns on just 344 carries. After one of the NCAA's best single seasons at any position, it was time for the pros.
Sanders was selected third overall in the 1989 NFL draft and joined a team that had enjoyed just five winning seasons in the previous 20 years. But that was about to change in Detroit, and Sanders was the main reason. In his 10 years with the team, the Lions put up five more winning seasons, including seasons of 10 wins twice and 12 wins once. There were playoff games, but perhaps because the franchise could never settle on the right quarterback, that was as far as the Sanders-led Lions went.
Still, when remembering that era, Lions fans don't talk about Wayne Fontes or Scott Mitchell as much as they remember the man with more highlight-reel runs than perhaps any other runner in NFL history. Having amassed 15,269 rushing yards and 99 rushing touchdowns in just 10 seasons, was Sanders especially conscious of any particular defenders he faced?
"It's hard to pick out one because … I would be lying if I said wasn't very conscious of certain guys on the other side of the ball," he said. "I was very conscious of let's say a Mark Carrier, when he played for the Bears all those years. Or Mike Singletary, who played on that team. Or Lawrence Taylor when we played the Giants my rookie year and in the following years. Or a John Lynch. You knew that if you gave a guy like that a chance, he was going to hit you and it was going to hurt. I played a lot of games well aware of who the defenders were. Reggie White. I mean, when we played Reggie, he would manhandle guys who were just his size or larger. You know, it was amazing. We knew we had a real fight on our hands. So there were a lot of guys I was very conscious of."
And what of the backs today? Who does Sanders enjoy watching?
"I think there are a couple of guys that are fun to watch," he said. "I think that you look at Adrian Peterson and just how skilled he is. The combination of things that he has going for him. And then you look at a guy like Maurice Jones-Drew, who is kind of built more along my size. He's elusive, but runs with probably a little more power than I did. And guys like that, I still enjoy sitting down and watching certain running backs in the game."
Looking back, does he regret retiring early? "You know what, I don't. I think I'm perceived with all these great awards. It would be nice to have been the NFL's leading rusher. And maybe I just wasn't good enough to get it in 10 years. But I don't regret it. I had a great run. I retired when it was the right time for me. I'm thankful for the career and the accomplishments that I did achieve."
When I talked to Sanders, the Lions were going through several running back injury issues and trying to rebound from two straight losses. Had anyone from the organization, jokingly or otherwise, suggested that Sanders suit up again? And how does he think he'd fare against behemoths like Suh, who'd just as soon flatten him if he could ever catch up the Hall of Famer?
(Note: the picture of Sanders making the ridiculous cut in shirt and shorts was taken just two years ago).
"One of the coaches mentioned that when I went to last week's game," he said with a laugh. "Man, those guys sure look big out there. I don't know if I could get away with the same things now that I did then. ... That's true [about Ndamukong Suh], but I don't know, man. They all look big and scary to me at this point."
No, Sanders is happy with his life now. He's got family and business, and a connection with the franchise he helped define. As long as the Lions keep growing, the spirit of Sanders will be with them.
Still, it makes you wonder … what would this version of the Lions look like with that running back?
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