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O'HARA: No. 20 a symbol of excellence in Lions' history

Among all the honors, accolades and recognitions that cornerback Lem Barney and running backs Billy Sims and Barry Sanders accumulated in their careers with the Detroit Lions, a bond that ties them together for eternity has a cherished place of its own.

The No. 20 that all three wore on their uniforms sets them apart as a special trio in franchise history.

It was worn by Barney as a rookie in 1967 through his final season in 1977.

Sims, who wore No. 20 as a high school player in Hooks, Texas, was next to wear it when the Lions drafted him first overall out of Oklahoma in 1980. Sims wore 20 until he sustained a career-ending knee injury in Game 8 of the 1984 season.

No. 20 was taken out of its brief retirement and given to Sanders when the Lions drafted him third overall in 1989 out of Oklahoma State.

The number was retired for good when Sanders retired after the 1998 season.

In a special event as part of the Lions' annual Homecoming Week, the three franchise icons participated in a Zoom chat last week to discuss their careers.

Their mutual respect for each other was obvious.

Sims referred to Barney as "the real No. 20" when the three players began talking about what No. 20 means to them. All three earned numerous awards in their careers.

Barney and Sanders both have been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Sims was on course for a spot in Canton until the injury shortened his career.

Sims won the 1978 Heisman Trophy and was runner-up to Charles White of Southern Cal in 1979. Sanders won the Heisman in 1988.

"It's just a joy and a pleasure," Sims said of being one of "Three 20s."

"I'm just proud to be in the same arena with those guys. With Lem and Barry, any time you mention those guys' names, the three coins are going to come up. I think all the fans in the state of Michigan will be proud of No. 20 and the guys who played for the organization."

Sims retired as the franchise's career leader with 5,106 yards rushing. Sanders rushed for 15,269 in his career and is considered by many to be the greatest runner in NFL history.

Sanders was a fan of the Oklahoma Sooners and grew up admiring Sims. Having his number passed on to him was an honor.

"It was probably one of the biggest honors of my life," Sanders said.

He thanked Wayne Fontes, the head coach for his first eight seasons with the Lions, for arranging to have him inherit the number.

"He was the one who told me shortly after I was drafted that he was going to put me in Billy's number," Sanders said. "It was a big honor for me. I wore 21 in college. I assumed that's what I would get here.

"I have to ask him (Fontes) one day if he thought I was going to be anywhere near as good as Billy. I'd say probably there was a little added pressure. I knew I was following in the footsteps of greatness. For me, it was such a huge, huge honor.

"And then to learn about Lem, the Hall of Famer who was the one who wore it before Billy. To sum it up, it was one of the biggest honors of my life."

Barney and Sanders remained in Metro Detroit after their careers ended. Sims lives in the Dallas area but returns to Detroit often to supervise the restaurants in the area that are part of his expanding chain.

All three participate frequently in Lions related events.

All three made spectacular debuts as Lions.

For Sims, it was rushing for 153 yards and three TDs in an upset win over the Los Angeles Rams in his first game as a pro. It was the first glimpse Lions fans had of the powerful explosion he had that made him one of the NFL's top backs until his career ended prematurely.

Sanders did not report to the Lions until three days before the opening game of the 1989 season. He watched the first half from the sideline before entering the game to the cheers of the fans in the second half in the old Pontiac Silverdome.

Sanders was an immediate hit. He carried nine times for 71 yards and a TD.

Barney's debut may have topped them all, which was fitting for a man of his style, on and off the field. A trademark derby hat and stylish dress are part of his legend, but his performance was even more compelling.

His star status carried over off the field. One example: He sang backup with the late Mel Farr, a former Lions running back, in Marvin Gaye's iconic "What's Going On" hit.

Barney intercepted 10 passes in a 14-game season as a rookie.

He gave quarterbacks a sign of what was to come in his first game as a Lion. Against the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field, Barney intercepted the first pass thrown in his direction by Hall of Fame quarterback Bart Starr and returned it for a touchdown.

From that play, through Sims' career to Sanders' final carry in 1998 and now in retirement, the No. 20 was a symbol of excellence.

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