STILLWATER — The early Heisman Trophy chatter of 1988 focused out west, where UCLA's Troy Aikman and USC's Rodney Peete owned the spotlight as elite college quarterbacks.
Way off the radar, lying low in Stillwater, Barry Sanders was about to burst onto the scene, essentially out of nowhere.
While they knew they had something special in Sanders — he was an All-American kick returner the year before — coaches, players and others around the Oklahoma State program didn't know just how special.
“Even in '86, when Barry was a freshman, coach (Pat) Jones was walking down to the running backs drills and saying to me, ‘Hey, look at this guy. There's something special here,'” said Steve Buzzard, who was OSU's sports information director at the time.
“Knew he was a good player. Knew he had a chance to be something special. Had no idea we were looking at, in my opinion, the best player to ever put a uniform on, regardless of position.
“And I will forever believe that.”
There are plenty of reasons to believe, like an '88 season universally hailed as the greatest in college football history: 34 NCAA records, 2,850 rushing yards, four 300-yard rushing games, 42 rushing touchdowns, kickoff and punt returns for touchdowns.
By one man.
One quiet, humble man who had no interest in the spotlight, playing at a place far from the national eye, all but hidden from sight, making his run from obscurity to the Heisman all the more fascinating.
Reflecting on the 25th anniversary year of Sanders’ Heisman season, it was a different landscape in 1988 – different for OSU and for the national media and for Heisman campaigns.
But then, Barry Sanders was different, too.
Out of nowhere
Thurman Thomas dazzled as OSU's No. 1 tailback in 1987, running for 1,767 yards and 21 touchdowns on his way to Associated Press All-American honors. Sanders was superb in a complementary role, running for 622 yards and providing four return TDs.
Heading into the '88 season, Jones kept fielding questions about the difficulties of replacing Thomas. Playing coy, Jones hinted that the job was open and could even come down to a by-committee approach.
“We low-keyed it,” Jones said. “We didn't want to demoralize the other backs, because we had a lot of good backs.”
Announcing his candidacy
The low-key approach didn't last long.
Sanders returned the season-opening kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown and added 178 yards and two touchdowns rushing in a rout of Miami (Ohio). The next time out, in an anticipated matchup with Texas A&M, Sanders ran for 157 yards and two scores and returned a punt 61 yards for a score that ended the third quarter with the Cowboys' final points in a 52-15 win.
That's when Jones and Buzzard first considered the thought: Heisman Trophy.
“A&M was supposed to be pretty good,” Buzzard said. “Statistically, A&M wasn't his best game of the year, but the way he played, the way he handled himself, the impact he had on that game, on television, against a quality opponent and a quality opponent we handled pretty easily …
“It was at that point that I thought, ‘I think this is something pretty special.'”
And it was only beginning.