On this day 25 years ago – April 23, 1989 – the gods of luck smiled on the Lions to let them take Sanders with the third pick in the draft.
One of pro football’s all-time great players, and perhaps the most exciting running back ever, fell into their hands that draft day. It was like placing the ball on a shelf and letting them walk away with it uncontested.
The rest is history – Sanders’ 10 seasons of highlight reel runs as a Lion, his rushing titles, Pro Bowls, 100-yard games, a 2,053-yard season and MVP Award shared with Brett Favre in 1997 and enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2004.
Even the way he left the game, by retiring in 1999 on the eve of training camp, has added to his legend.
From his rookie season of 1989 through his final year of 1998, Sanders was the linchpin of the best and most exciting generation of Lions football since the 1950s, when they won three NFL Championships. The Lions made the playoffs five times from 1991-97, won two division titles and had three seasons of 10 or more wins.
The Lions’ roster was stocked with Pro Bowl players – Lomas Brown, Kevin Glover, Bennie Blades, Herman Moore, Chris Spielman and others – and Sanders was the brightest star.
He rushed for 15,269 yards and 99 rushing touchdowns in his career. The stats are impressive, but the style points were even more dazzling. Every time he touched the ball, fans held their breath and defensive players bit down a little harder on their mouth guards in anticipation of what might be coming.
In retrospect, Sanders became a Lion thanks to one the biggest draft errors in history by the Green Bay Packers.
Four of the first five players drafted in 1989 are enshrined in the Hall of Fame. The chain of royalty started with quarterback Troy Aikman of UCLA, who officially was drafted first overall by the Cowboys after signing a pre-draft contract.
That left the Green Bay Packers on the clock with the second pick and three future Hall of Famers sitting on the board – Barry Sanders, Derrick Thomas and Deion Sanders.
The Packers passed on all of them. Instead, they took Tony Mandarich, a giant offensive tackle from Michigan State – and a gigantic flop in draft history.
The Lions did not hesitate in taking Sanders with the third pick.
“It was a no-brainer,” Charlie Sanders, a Lions assistant coach at the time and current member of the pro personnel department, says now.
With the next two picks, Derrick Thomas went to the Chiefs and Deion Sanders to the Falcons. Not that the Lions cared. They had the player they coveted most.
Barry Sanders entered the 1989 draft as a ground-breaker before he began breaking ankles of would-be NFL tacklers.
Getting Sanders was actually the Lions’ second stroke of good luck in the 1989 draft. The first stroke was that he was made eligible in the first place.
After winning the Heisman Trophy in 1988 as a true third-year junior at Oklahoma State, Sanders made it known to the NFL that he wanted to enter the 1989 NFL draft. At the time, the NFL draft was limited to players who had fulfilled a requirement of spending four years in college, except for special circumstances.
In early April of 1989, NFL spokesman Joe Browne said that Sanders would be allowed to enter the draft because Oklahoma State was on probation, and that Sanders had the support of Oklahoma State’s coaching staff and athletic department officials.
NFL teams already had game tapes of Sanders’ play at Oklahoma State, but with the draft less than a month away, a workout was set up on Oklahoma State’s campus in Stillwater.
As a beat writer covering the Lions for The Detroit News, I was fortunate to be present for Sanders’ workout. And I don’t use the word “fortunate” lightly.
It was more than a workout. It was an athletic highlight show, with Lions Coach Wayne Fontes and Chief Operating Officer Chuck Schmidt in attendance along with representatives of other NFL teams.
The show started with an unintended display of raw ability by Sanders. As he walked from the locker room toward the football field, Sanders passed under the goal posts. Barely breaking stride, he leaped and half-chinned himself on the crossbar. Keep in mind, he’s only 5-8.
Sanders ran the 40-yard dash twice in times of 4.39 and 4.43 seconds. He soared in the vertical jump like a miniature Saturn missile to reach 43 inches. That created an impression on everyone – except Barry Sanders.
Sanders told the scout running the drill that he thought he could do better with another attempt. And he did – 44 inches.
Sanders had a few more drills to run for the scouts – taking handoffs, running routes, catching passes – when Fontes stepped in and called a halt to the workout. He’d seen enough.
Marty Schottenheimer, then coach of the Chiefs, shot a zinger at Fontes.
“Wayne says, ‘Don’t get my player hurt,’” Schottenheimer shouted, bringing a laugh from the crowd.
Less than a month later – draft day on April 23, 1989 – those words came true.
It’s an anniversary to celebrate.