One of the greatest running backs who ever played the game, Barry Sanders walked away from the NFL in the prime of his career. The NFL Network profiles Sanders, a former Oklahoma State and Detroit Lions standout, in the next installment of its “A Football Life” series, which debuts at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
Producers got Sanders, a humble superstar who generally detests the media spotlight, to open up about his football career. Combined with interviews from those who know him well, including family, friends, former teammates and coaches, the 60-minute show provides a revealing look at OSU's only Heisman Trophy winner.
Sanders' father, William Sanders, who died in June 2011, ranked his son No. 3 among NFL running backs, placing Jim Brown at the top of his list. But Sanders said he was never slighted by that ranking. “My dad was always my biggest supporter,” he said. “I don't think I'd be here without him.”
Growing up with 10 siblings in a small home in Wichita, Kan., Sanders started playing football at an early age. But his high school football coach believed he wasn't tough enough at 5-8 to play running back and used him as a cornerback. After a coaching change before his senior year, he switched to tailback and rushed for more than 1,400 yards.
Choosing between offers from OSU and Tulsa, Sanders disappointed his outspoken father by selecting OSU. His father, a huge OU fan, wanted him to go to Tulsa so he could play right away.
Playing behind Thurman Thomas for two seasons, he didn't start at running back until he was a junior, when he rushed for 2,628 yards and 39 touchdowns to run away with the Heisman Trophy.
Selected No. 3 overall by the Detroit Lions, Sanders went on to rush for more than 1,000 yards in 10 straight seasons and excite Lions fans with his quickness and ability to reverse fields in a split second.
“We had a chance to get to the playoffs because we had Barry Sanders, the absolute X factor of any football team, that could take you from the depths of despair to the height of glory in one carry,” Lions radio analyst Jim Brandstatter said.
Sanders' lone playoff victory came in 1991 when the Lions defeated the Dallas Cowboys 38-6 as he faced off against Emmitt Smith.
In 1997, Sanders became only the third player to rush for 2,000 yards, running for 184 yards in the final game to finish with 2,053.
Coming off the Lions' 5-11 season in 1998, Sanders shocked the world by announcing his retirement in a fax to the Wichita Eagle newspaper just before the Lions' 1999 training camp was to begin. Sanders then flew to London to avoid the media spotlight.
Interviewed in his living room, Sanders explained his decision, noting he wasn't trying to go to another team.
“I just felt like that was my time,” he said. “I played the game long enough. The real drive and determination and enjoyment of the game had left.”
After Smith went on to break Walter Payton's career rushing record, Lions fans thought that Smith needed to credit Sanders and his early retirement for the record.
“If Barry had played 15 years, that record could have been 2,500 yards,” said Thomas, a former Buffalo Bills star. “And Emmitt always said, ‘I'm glad he retired.'”
In retirement, Sanders said he has enjoyed watching his four sons play football, including Barry J. Sanders who starred at Heritage Hall High School and is now a freshman at Stanford.