It was 20 years ago today – Aug. 31, 1997 – that Barry Sanders began a magical romp through opposing defenses that produced the greatest individual single-season performance in Detroit Lions history and one of the best ever by any NFL player.
Sanders' rushing total for the season – 2,053 yards, second most in NFL history at the time and still No. 4 all time – is impressive in its own right.
But the way he did it, with his one-of-a-kind style and clutch performances that carried the Lions to a playoff berth, made it even more memorable.
Teammates on the 1997 team look back on the season with admiration.
"It's always electric in the stadium on game day," said kicker Jason Hanson. "Barry made it super electric."
Asked what he remembered, Pro Bowl center and close friend of Sanders Kevin Glover replied simply: "A lot."
A lot, indeed.
A 2,000-yard season seemed a long way off on the evening of Aug. 31, 1997, after the Falcons had held Sanders to 33 yards in the Lions' opening-day victory. It seemed more remote a week later when the Bucs held him to 20 yards, for a two-game total of 53.
Under new head coach Bobby Ross, the Lions were adjusting to a new offensive scheme that used a fullback.
The Lions stuck to the scheme, the offense adjusted, and Sanders broke loose in Game 3 for 161 yards on 19 carries against the Bears.
"You can't give up on a guy like Barry," said Glover. "It shows how special he is as a player and a person, that he can excel in any type of offense."
After Chicago, there was more to come – a lot more.
Sanders ran off 14 straight 100-yard games, which is still a record. He went over 200 yards twice -- 215 in a rematch with the Bucs in Game 7, and 216 against the Colts.
He had three touchdown runs of 80 yards or longer, including two against the Bucs in Game 7 on sprints of 80 and 82 yards.
The golden capstone on the season for Sanders – and the Lions – was his bravura performance in the final game against the New York Jets at the Pontiac Silverdome.
With 1,869 yards, Sanders needed 131 for 2,000.
For the Lions, with a won-loss record of 8-7, it was win-or-else to make the playoffs.
They got both, but the 13-10 win and 2,000-yard mark were in doubt for a long time.
All of that took a back seat to the life and death drama on the field, when Lions linebacker Reggie Brown had to be resuscitated on the field after sustaining a neck injury. He eventually made a nearly full recovery.
As for the game, the Jets had held Sanders to 23 yards on 12 carries until the last play of the third quarter. He exploded for a 47-yard run, then dominated the fourth quarter with 114 yards on 10 carries, including a 15-yard TD run for the winning score.
For the game, Sanders had 23 carries for 184 yards. Even more impressive was the 161 yards he gained on 11 carries in the last 15:30.
On man's opinion: Sanders' closing segment was the greatest running performance in the history of football.
The offensive linemen carried Sanders off the field on their shoulders after the game.
True to his character Sanders seemed embarrassed, but the small smile of accomplishment – for himself and his team – was unmistakable.
Glover recalled the postgame scene in the locker room, and Sanders' reaction.
"It was not about the 2,053 yards," Glover said. "It was more about the team, the victory – and congratulations to him for getting to 2,000."