I saw the Barry Sanders show live as the beat writer covering the Lions for The Detroit News. Every carry – all 3,062 of them – every yard he gained (15,269), every signature cut and move made it a privilege to have a front-row seat to watch the original, uncut version of Sanders' career.
It was 10 seasons of unmatched brilliance by a running back with a singular style. There has never been a runner like Sanders – in Detroit or anywhere else.
Sanders left a footprint on the NFL that was much larger than his 5-foot-8, 203-pound body might warrant. The memories, how he performed on the field, and how he carried himself off it, are priceless treasures.
Here is a personal review from watching a great player's football life – how it started, the unfulfilling end, great long runs, the greatest run that lost yardage, the first warning sign of trouble, and other reflections.
1. The start, 1989: Sanders was part of a star-studded crop of players taken at the top of the 1989 draft. Sanders went third overall to the Lions, after the Cowboys took Troy Aikman and the Packers took Tony Mandarich. Next off the board after Sanders were Derrick Thomas and Deion Sanders.
Only Mandarich is not in the Hall of Fame. Aikman was the only top pick who was not a contract holdout for training camp. The others fell in line after the negotiating logjam broke just before the start of the season.
Sanders signed late in the week before the first regular-season game. He had one day of practice to prepare to face the Cardinals in the opener at the Pontiac Silverdome.
Sanders arrived with a big reputation, having won the Heisman Trophy the previous year at Oklahoma State. Despite signing late, the atmosphere was heavy with anticipation for his debut.
Because of his limited practice time, the offensive coaches had Sanders hit a blocking dummy in the end zone in the pre-game warmups – just to get him used to contact.
Sanders didn't play in the first half. His impact was immediate when he entered the game in the third quarter. He gained 18 yards on his first carry, and the Silverdome crowd roared.
Three carries later, Sanders had his first touchdown – a three-yard run.
For the game, Sanders had nine carries for 71 yards.
The show was on.
2. Scouting trip: Sanders made it known that he would challenge the NFL rule that required players to be out of high school for four years to be eligible for the draft. He spent three years at Oklahoma State and wanted to turn pro.
The league bent, changing the rule to three years.
NFL teams had not yet scouted Sanders thoroughly. There was no question about his talent, but they still wanted to work him out in the flesh. A "pro day" workout was scheduled at Oklahoma State, and all the teams attended.
I was one of a small group of media members present.
Sanders made an impact before running his first drill. As he walked onto the field, he passed under one goal post. Casually, Sanders jumped, grabbed the crossbar with one hand, chinned himself, and dropped to the turf nonchalantly.
In the vertical jump, he leaped from a standing position and touched the 43-inch mark. Scouts were impressed.
One person thought it wasn't good enough.
"I think I can get one more," Sanders said.
On his second leap, he hit 44 inches.
After running the 40-yard dash – his times were 4.43 and 4.39 seconds – Sanders did a few more drills, including running patterns and catching passes.
Wayne Fontes, the Lions' head coach at the time, was locked in on drafting Sanders with the third pick. Fontes had a flair, and he lit a big cigar.
"That's enough," he said loudly, indicating he wanted the drills to end.
Marty Schottenheimer, then coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, laughed.
"Wayne's saying, ‘Don't get my player hurt,'" Schottenheimer said.
3. Perfect teammate: The Lions played at Atlanta in the last game of Sanders' rookie season. Sanders was unstoppable – 20 carries, 158 yards and three touchdowns before leaving the game late in the fourth quarter.
Tony Paige, a popular veteran, replaced Sanders at running back.
Sanders had 1,470 yards for the season. In the press box, the Lions' public relations staff saw that Chiefs running back Christian Okoye had finished his game and had 1,480 yards. A staff member called down to the Lions' bench with word that the rushing title was within easy reach for Sanders.
When Sanders was approached about going back in, he declined.
"Let Tony play," he said.
The game was played on Dec. 24, and Sanders demonstrated his good will toward teammates in another way. He gave Rolex watches to all of the offensive linemen – starters and reserves.
4. Loss for the ages: It is impossible to pick out one run as the best of Sanders' career.
He had great long runs – 80 and 82 yards for TDs in the same game against Tampa Bay in 1997.
In a 1994 game, he changed direction twice on a 39-yard run that spun Patriots defensive back Harlan Barnett into the turf like a corkscrew.
He even turned heads losing yardage, as he did in 1991 against the Buffalo Bills.
On his fourth carry of the game, Sanders was trapped in the backfield, with the Bills' defenders swarming to tackle him. He managed to escape with moves that no other back could make. At one time both feet were off the turf as he spun away, and it looked like the side of his helmet touched the turf on his escape.
He was finally brought down – for a two-yard loss.
It was the greatest two-yard loss in history – and part of his highlight package.
5. Style points: In a 1997 game at New Orleans, he caught a pass almost near the left sideline. Sanders cut across the grain to his right and kept spinning and eluding tacklers until crossing the goal line in the right corner of the end zone.
Officially, it was a 17-yard TD reception. Realistically, he probably covered 75-80 yards.
He was asked later what he saw that allowed him to make that run.
It was something that a coach once told him.
"Run with my eyes," Barry said.
He saw things that other backs couldn't dream of seeing.
6. Freezing Reggie White: The Lions faced the Packers twice a year, and that matched Sanders against Reggie White – perhaps the greatest defensive lineman in history – twice a year in the regular season from 1993-98.
They were great battles. White won some. Sanders won more than his share.
On one play, White had Sanders stopped dead at the line of scrimmage – until Sanders darted away with a quick cut that left White grabbing air.
There was only one way for White to react. White threw his hands into the air and laughed, in mutual respect between two all-time greats. Barry had gotten him again.
7. Barry vs. Emmitt: Showdown at Texas Stadium on Monday Night TV.
A rivalry developed when Emmitt Smith entered the NFL in 1990 as a first-round draft pick by Dallas.
Their running styles were different. Smith ran between the tackles more. Sanders used the entire field. But they were the two best in the NFL. From 1990-97, each man winning four NFL rushing titles.
They'd met in other games, but the real showdown was Game 3 of the 1994 season. Sanders didn't say anything leading up to the game. He did his talking on the field – running with abandon to gain 194 yards on 20 carries.
In his post-game interview, Sanders spoke calmly as he knotted his tie – with a small, satisfied smile on his face.
The look said everything. He won.
8. Family values: Barry's father, William, was outspoken and liked the limelight, but he also was a hard worker. Barry's mother, Shirley, was the glue in the large family. Barry was proud of both parents, and he spoke about the work ethic they passed to their 11 children.
Barry grew up in Wichita and once talked about a comment his father made when someone asked about Barry having a role model.
"I'm my son's role model," William Sanders said.
Barry also talked about his mother going back to school to get a nursing degree after all of the children had been raised.
One of his proudest moments, Barry said, was seeing his mother at her graduation ceremony.
9. Two grand for words: The 1997 season became special for the Lions. They got off to a slow start, and so did Sanders. He had to adjust to a new offense, using a fullback as a blocker. He had only 53 yards in his first two games.
He adjusted fast. He finished the season with 14 straight games of 100 or more yards rushing, and the Lions won five of their last six to make the playoffs with a 9-7 record.
The Lions needed to beat the Jets in the last game to make the playoffs, and Barry needed 131 yards to reach the 2,000-yard mark for the season.
The Jets had Barry hemmed in until his last carry of the third quarter. His first 12 carries gained 23 yards, and the Lions were in danger of losing.
All of that changed in an instant.
Sanders exploded for a 47-yard gain on the last play of the quarter. It was the start of the greatest stretch of running in the history of the NFL.
Sanders carried 10 times for 114 yards in the fourth quarter and scored the clinching TD on an 18-yard run to give the Lions a 13-10 win.
Sanders never spiked the ball in his career, but he shook his fist in celebration as he sped into the end zone.
In the last 15:30 of the game, Sanders gained 161 yards on 13 carries. No back ever ran better than he did in that span.
Only one player ever came close – Barry Sanders.
10. Work ethic: Sanders never took his skills for granted. He worked and trained hard.
When the regular season started, he would run 100-yard sprints to maintain endurance for the 16-game grind.
In those days, the Lions ran gassers after practice. One day, a teammate grumbled about doing the running.
"Come on," Barry said, tapping him on the back. "This is the best part of the day."
Off they ran – together.
11. Awe struck: The Motor City Bowl used to be held at the Pontiac Silverdome. Marshall beat Louisville in the 1998 game, and players from Marshall waited in the tunnel to begin their practice session as the Lions walked off the field after practice.
Every player on the Marshall team watched one player – Barry Sanders.
He was that big of a superstar.
12. Trouble brewing: The 1998 season was a disaster. Coach Bobby Ross benched quarterback Scott Mitchell after two games and replaced him with Charlie Batch. Mitchell was ineffective and not a leader, but the season disintegrated.
The Lions went 5-11, and Sanders vented his frustration in a post-game interview. There was nothing inflammatory about his remarks, but it was clear that he wasn't happy.
He avoided all team functions in the offseason. He always participated in mandatory mini-camps, but he even skipped that.
The signs were there that Barry was thinking about his future. On a whim, I called his father, William, to ask about his son's state of mind.
William Sanders unloaded.
"He's sick of them; he's sick of losing," William Sanders said.
Barry didn't do any interviews, so the only insight into his mood was the comments by William Sanders. Some people discounted them, and there were many in the Lions' organization who thought Barry would report to training camp in late July.
William Sanders was proven to be right.
On the eve of training camp, Barry sent the Lions a letter stating his intention to retire. His agents, David Ware and Lamont Smith, confirmed his intention.
The scene and reaction can only be described as bizarrely surreal.
Rather than report to camp at Saginaw, Sanders flew to London, where a wire service photographer snapped a photo of him pulling a suitcase.
At the Silverdome, a press conference was heavily attended by local and national media. So many cameras were set up that it looked like a presidential speech.
13. Reconnecting: After his retirement, Sanders maintained a distance from the Lions. His first official visit back was before the last game of the 2003 season – a victory over the St. Louis Rams at Ford Field.
At the team's Allen Park headquarters, Sanders was met by owner William Clay Ford, who broke the ice with his greeting.
"You doing anything Sunday?" Mr. Ford asked.
It was a great line, meant as a joke – but Barry was only 35.
Anybody want to bet he still couldn't have run the ball?
It would make a heck of a sequel - "Barry Sanders: A Football Life II."