This is coming from a man whose favorite team has the running back who holds the all-time rushing record. It is also coming from a man who has seen plenty of outstanding and versatile backs in my day. However, there is no one who ever made football fans, in my lifetime, get more excited by carrying a football than Barry Sanders.
There is also no one who ever provided the biggest “wow” factor before training camp than Barry Sanders. It was on this day, 12 years ago, when he abruptly charged it to the game and retired from the NFL.
One can make the case that Barry Sanders, as beloved as he is by the football public, is still underappreciated. This is a man who was on his way to shattering the all-time rushing record held by The Great Jim Brown, but he left the game before doing so. Back then, as a wild-eyed high schooler, I didn’t totally understand why Sanders would leave the game when he was in his prime.
Some people say he quit, and while the initial reasons for his departure were uncertain, there was never a time when the word “Quit” was uttered by me, or any of my boys who grew up on some Barry Sanders.
There was a part that was angry at him for retiring and depriving the fans from seeing him juke defenses, run wild on Thanksgivings, and score touchdowns, but there was the bigger part that was sad that the Lions could never get their stuff together, so he would feel compelled to stick around and continue at the game and at the position that he pretty much mastered.
Think about today’s backs; as good as they are, is there even one that you would feel comfortable putting against Barry Sanders and making a claim that they are as explosive, dominant, and as feared as him? Hell, even people put Tom Brady’s name next to Joe Montana these days, but you hardly hear anyone say that about a dominant running back today, in regards to being as nice as Sanders. That speaks to the level of play that Sanders performed at his entire career.
How many of you all would watch Sanders run, and then go and try and do a Barry Sanders Juke outside when you were playing against your friends? Back then, we were too young and dumb to realize how hard that was. I can speak for cats in my demographic and say that if the thought even crept up about doing a Barry Sanders Juke on a defender in intramural football, let alone tackle, I’d tear up both my ACLs before the defender even got to me, and others would say the same if they tried anything similar.
Barry Sanders was one of those guys that made you hold your breath every single time he touched the football. When the Lions were on offense, there was no getting up to go to the bathroom, no answering the phone, and no getting up to see who was at the door. All eyes were on #20.
The man would get the ball and it was if he had all the defenders on a string, making them look foolish, out of place, and as overmatched as possible. People see the Lions in their present state and while they are making strides, just ask someone about how loud the Silverdome used to get when Sanders was in there, and you may be hard-pressed to think we’re talking about the same Detroit Lions.
Think about the dominance from not only a numbers standpoint, but from what could be seen with the butt-naked eye. He led the league in rushing four times, and no disrespect to his offensive line, but what people will always ask is what would life had been like for him if he had a truly dominant offensive line. As scary as he was, if he had that type of supporting cast, life would have been downright unfair.
To his credit, he never complained about his teammates (not that I know of) which speaks, once again, to how it was all about playing the game he loved, and not so much about anything else.
As I said earlier, Barry Sanders is the greatest running back mine eyes have ever seen, and when you factor in the element that many of sports fans grew up on, the video game element, he’s probably the most dominant video game player the sports world grew up on. Come on now; Barry Sanders in Tecmo Bowl??? Absolutely dominant, but as crazy as he was on there, we all saw enough in real life to know he was every bit as good as he was on the game.
Training camp opens up this weekend, and in this time of frenzy for the NFL, some fans are doing everything possible to keep up with the mad dash of signings, free agency, and the usual craziness. It’s understandable, and we know The Shield is doing their part to keep the public engaged. However, make sure you slow down today and pay homage to a player who is legend, who is royalty, and who is a gridiron god.