As a running back for the Detroit Lions, Barry Sanders made the Pro Bowl in each of his ten seasons. He was first team All-Pro a staggering six time, and second team All-Pro in his other four seasons. He won an NFL MVP award in 1997, and his 15,269 rushing yards place him third all time. But the record books don’t tell the entire story of the man many believe was the best running back to ever play the game. Every football fan has a story of the time they saw Sanders trapped behind the line of scrimmage for a loss, only to change directions at top speed and an impossible angle, and he was gone. At the peak of his game, only 1,457 yards away from Walter Payton’s all-time record, potentially one more season’s gains, he was gone again, retiring from pro football and never looking back. Sanders was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2004 during his first year of eligibility. Now 17 years removed from playing the game he loved, we finally catch up to the NFL’s most elusive ball carrier ever.
Can you recall the first time you picked up a football growing up in Wichita?
I was around the game and really driven by it at a young age. I absorbed a lot of it very early, thanks to my dad being a sports fan. He liked football, and it was always around. We were always at high school games, watching it on TV, and always playing it in my neighborhood. I was around 9 or 10 years old when I joined a team, but I was playing before that with the kids in and around the area—very early, at least by probably seven or eight. I remember some of those early running backs in the NFL, early for me, guys like Terry Metcalf. I was a Raiders fan so it was Mark van Eeghen and Pete Banaszak, and I remember a little of Larry Csonka. It definitely had an impression on me at an early age.
In terms of football, how much were you motivated by always seeming to need to prove something to somebody?
That was certainly there, but I think when I look back and see how I was motivated as a kid in 1977, ’78, watching Tony Dorsett, it wasn’t some of those same things that carried me through my career. Being a running back in the NFL and in college—it was a special unique skill to be able to display, and to be able to do that was truly amazing. I think about guys like Tony Dorsett and Marcus Allen, who I remember watching, and Billy Sims, all these great guys that came through college and the pros that I loved to watch, and Walter Payton, the list goes on and on. I’m sure some of it was that motivation you talked about, but some of it was the pride in being able to play at that level. Whenever you step on the field and play against great athletes, there’s great motivation. If you’re a competitor, there’s great motivation, and there’s something about that where you just thrive on it. But certainly, once you get to a certain level, you have your critics and people that doubt you and I think that’s a part of it as well.
When you got to college at Oklahoma State, there was Thurman Thomas ahead of you, and you were waiting for opportunities to play. How much were you chomping at the bit to play?
I think there were different forces at play there. I came to Oklahoma State, and they had several guys that were already there who were very good players out of Texas and Oklahoma. And me coming from Kansas—understanding that, OK, all your really good players come from Oklahoma and Texas, right? That’s what you learn growing up, that those are football factories, those places (laughs), so for me I just loved being there, just in that environment, because I’d always wanted to play college football. Being that Thurman was there, that’s a great narrative now, but for me, Thurman was the last thing on my mind, because there were all these other guys there. Had Thurman been the only thing to worry about, my life would have been extremely easy. Fortunately for me, I stayed healthy, I stayed eligible—some guys were [Proposition] 48, some guys had grade issues or health issues, so, literally, Thurman was the last of my worries. We had tons of running backs, and there was no chance I’d see the field anytime soon. But I just came in with the attitude that I wasn’t ever recruited, and my thought was I was thrilled to death just to be there and get the few offers I did, because it happened very late and I was very appreciative, honestly. I was in the weight room, I put on a little weight and continued to get faster and bigger. So really it was just between the ears. I’d been taught pretty well by mom and dad just to see the opportunity and about circumstances in life, because going into my senior year of high school, I had no offers from anyone. (laughs) I had no offers from anyone!
It does seem preposterous now.
One of the kids on my high school team, Joel Fry, we played little league football together, and he’s a big ol’ kid, and he ended up signing with Oklahoma State. I happened to be talking to him one day, and he told me he’d signed there, and we had a conversation. Joel’s dad mentioned something to Oklahoma State, and they came down to see me play, and that’s how they found me. But if you’re talking about my perspective at Oklahoma State, a lot of it was based on the fact that going into my senior year of high school, I had no offers from anyone. I had been around other kids who had gotten letters, my brother [Byron, who became a leader rusher at Northwestern], the year before, had gotten letters, so I understood that it was getting really late in the game. I was a little worried. So if you fast-forward to my perspective, I was always extremely appreciative. Then I got in and played and, as a sophomore, that was a real breakout year for me. I made All-American as a kick returner. That was big for me; that was huge. I had played a lot of running back; I was probably second or third guy behind Thurman, but to me, that was plenty.
You seem to have always had a methodical approach to the game. How did that approach evolve?
For me it was very serious business. It was fun, but it wasn’t “amusement park” fun. It was serious fun. I couldn’t let myself go in a jovial way. It was serious business, and so I could go only so far in terms of excitement. As time went on, I relaxed a little more but that’s how I grew up perceiving the game, especially when you step on the field, and certainly as a professional. I was always in my comfort zone being very reflective about the game, very introspective and continually thinking about what I wanted to do and being creative. I felt better prepared to play getting in those quiet moments and almost being meditative in a certain sense.
One thing that I always associate with you is patience. We’re always told that great athletes have an ability to slow the action down. Even if something is happening in a split-second, you’re watching a play unfold and then making your best move. Is that an accurate description of what you were like in the pros as a running back?
I would say so. It really is a very difficult balance; I would almost say an artful balance between all those intense physical things that happen, and the patience. Again, as I sat back as a kid, watching Marcus Allen, the year he ran for 2,000 yards at USC, you saw the grace that he ran with. He didn’t even look like he was playing football; he looked like a ballet dancer. There was something very graceful about the way he ran the ball, so I think I learned how to include some of those things into those very intense moments where you have to balance being patient with using your athletic abilities. I had that same reaction watching other players play, just to see how in a very violent game they can include, and play with, some of those other abilities you wouldn’t necessarily attribute to football. Like, how can you be patient when you’re running the ball, and you’ve got these 300-pounders chasing you? It’s a very delicate balance but I think certain players are able to do it.
You played your whole career for the Detroit Lions, and the team had limited success despite your personal success. People often talk about the Jets game in 1997, where you passed the 2000-yard mark for the season, and the Cowboys playoff game in 1991, where the Lions recorded one of the franchise’s few playoff victories. There seemed to be a different level of determination for you in those games, which must have made victory more gratifying.
It is. There are no guarantees you’ll get 2,000 yards. [For the game, Sanders needed at least 131 yards; he ended up gaining 184.] We knew we were playing against a tough Bill Parcells-coached defense; they were always in the right place. They didn’t give up big plays. They’d pretty much done a good job of containing our offense for the first three-quarters. Certainly, they’re coming into the game as a defense thinking, we don’t want to be remembered as the team that gave up the yardage to a 2,000-yard rusher. There were a lot of great things that happened that season for me, and in that game, patience was a part of it. It’s not easy to keep running in there, when the yardage isn’t there and you know they’re keying on you. You know you’re a big part of their game plan. They’ve got so many resources on defense devoted to stopping you. That’s why it’s such a great game, because of those challenges. And for runners who have those abilities, that was one of those memorable experiences, one that you cherish, because you don’t have that opportunity often.
Shirt, Calvin Klein, Vest, Perry Ellis; Jeans, Levi’s; Tie, Kenneth Cole; Watch, Versace
After all these years away from the game, how do you regard your legacy, the plusses and minuses of playing this game?
It’s hard for me to speak about it. It was an awesome treat to spend that time in the NFL, partially because of the great platform I have now in life, and also because of all those years beforehand, dreaming about football, and those days I didn’t know if I would get a scholarship to college. I love the game and follow so many players and coaches. So many of those moments in the NFL shaped my formative years, so to end up playing at a high level like was a treat. Still, sometimes it’s surprising, my own individual journey to the NFL. I’m a privileged person; especially so if the fans out there remember me the same way that I was influenced by so many of the great players that I watched.
You’ve been asked a billion times about the way your career ended. And I’m wondering, if Barry Sanders was drafted in the first round of 2009 instead of 1989, given the way things are now, could pro life have been different or gone in a different direction?
I don’t know. I really can’t speak to the nuances and details of how different it is, because I’m pretty far removed from the game, and it would be tough to leave the game in any era. It was certainly tough to leave the way I did. I don’t know. I think at the same time, the game is more popular than ever now, and I think in today’s game, I could find a home; I think I could enjoy it as much. It’s still a great game to participate in. The game has always been big to me. It’s always been the hugest, biggest thing going even in the ‘70s when I was watching as a kid and even when I played it and even now. People say it’s bigger now. Well, it’s always been pretty big to me.
You’ve become a big spokesperson for a medical condition known as PBA or psuedobulbar affect—is there a personal connection to why this means as much to you as it does?
PBA is uncontrollable laughing or crying that doesn’t match what you feel. It’s a condition that can come from brain injury, and we’re seeing some cases in sports, specifically football, but it can come from other neurological conditions—Alzheimer’s, stroke, and dementia. Brain injuries are a hot topic today in sports, and [there’s a] connection between pro football and PBA. A recent survey by Gridiron Greats [Assistant Fund] showed that of the 99% of those players that participated in the survey that had a head injury, one-third had PBA-like symptoms, and they hadn’t really discussed it with their doctor. So we want to make sure they do that. And another important point, a lot of those players who have these symptoms, they don’t really associate it with a brain injury, which is another reason we want to make sure they go to their doctors and discuss anything that could be concerning them. And now you can go to tacklepba.org and do a self-assessment test. It’s impacting the football community but it’s not limited to football. Soldiers coming back from the war are also experiencing it.
As we reach the end zone, one last question about Barry Sanders the player—you never spiked the ball after a touchdown. Why was that non-gesture as important to you as it was?
I think some of it was my dad’s influence on me. Some of it was just, that’s the way I played. Again, the game was serious business to me. I could have fun to a certain extent but there’s always more work to do. Also, I’m one of the guys who sometimes will fight the trends, and it seemed like that became the popular thing to do, that celebration (laughs). But that was my personality. For me, when you score, there’s no greater celebration or thing you can do after that. Obviously, it is a fun game and you want to celebrate with your teammates and celebrate big plays but I was just more reserved in that sense. When you score, everything else is anticlimactic.