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NFL Great Barry Sanders

Updated on September 9, 2014
Barry Sanders
Barry Sanders

Remembering Barry Sanders Career

Growing up in northern Michigan, it always seemed that I started following sports based on the success of the professional teams in Detroit. The Tigers won the World Series in 1984 and I've been a baseball fan ever since. I started following the NBA as the "Bad Boys" Pistons became a championship level team and won it all in 1989 and 1990. With the NFL, it was different. I sorta followed it for a few years, but became a big fan when a certain player came into the league - Barry Sanders. It certainly didn't hurt that he played for the Lions.

Despite the Lions overall lack of success (though they would actually make the playoffs now and then in those days and even made it to the NFC Championship game after the 1991 season), they were always watchable thanks to Barry. He's gone down as one of the most entertaining players to watch in NFL history. There were countless times where he would turn a play that looked like it was going be negative into a huge gain. All the flash with Sanders was in the way he played, as you didn't see anything over the top from him when he broke off a big play or scored. In fact, it's well known that he didn't even spike the ball when he reached the end zone, opting to just toss the ball to the nearest referee. That would certainly be refreshing to see in today's NFL.

While NFL football is still my favorite sport to watch, no player has come close to passing Barry on my list of all-time favorite.

Barry Sanders Early Life

Barry David Sanders was born on July 16, 1968 in Wichita, Kansas. He played high school football at Wichita North High School and didn't even play running back until the final seven games of his senior season. However, he earned all-state honors for his performance in these games and enrolled at Oklahoma State to play college ball.

Barry Sanders College Career

From 1986 to 1988, Barry Sanders played his college ball for the Oklahoma State Cowboys, wearing #21. He backed up All-American (and future NFL Hall of Famer) Thurman Thomas during his freshman and sophomore seasons. When he finally got his shot to start during his Junior season, Sanders responded with possibly the greatest season in NCAA history. He set many NCAA rushing records, including 2628 yards (in 11 games), 37 TDs (39 total), four games of over 300 yards, and 3249 total yards. These season totals don't include the Holiday Bowl in which Sanders ran for 222 yards and scored 5 TDs in 3 quarters. Most of the college season rushing records Barry set remain to this day.

Sanders won the Heisman Trophy for his incredible 1988 season, and opted to leave Oklahoma State to enter the NFL draft.

1989 NFL Draft

After Barry's record-breaking junior season at Oklahoma State, he entered the NFL draft. Despite the lingering doubts about his size he was picked third overall by the Detroit Lions after quarterback Troy Aikman went first to the Dallas Cowboys and offensive lineman Tony Mandarich went second to the Green Bay Packers. The Lions considered taking Deion Sanders (who went fifth overall to the Atlanta Falcons), but ended going with Barry. In fact, with Deion a virtual lock to be inducted into the Hall of Fame and Aikman, Barry, and fourth overall pick Derrick Thomas already in, 4 of the top 5 picks in 1989 will be Hall of Famers. Barry wore #20 for his NFL career - the same number as ex-Lions running back Billy Sims.

Barry Sanders Rookie Season

From his first NFL carry for 18 yards, Barry Sanders was a superstar. He rushed for 71 yards and one touchdown on only 9 attempts in his first game. Barry's first 100 yard game came against the Chicago Bears in Week 3 by rushing for 126 yards on 18 carries. His first game of over 150 yards rushing came against the Green Bay Packers in Week 8 when he ran for 184 yards on 30 carries. Barry Sanders had a strong finish to his rookie season, rushing for over 100 yards in 5 of the Lions last 6 games. He rushed for 158 yards on 20 carries and scored 3 TDs in the final game of the season against the Atlanta Falcons. This was perhaps his best performance of the season, and he turned down the chance to win the rushing title (which he lost by 10 yards to Christian Okoye of the Kansas City Chiefs) late in the game.

For the 1989 season, Barry finished with 1470 yards on 280 carries for an average of 5.2 yards per carry and scored 14 rushing TDs, along with 24 receptions for 282 yards. He finished second in rushing and touchdowns. He was named the 1989 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, was a first team All-Pro selection, and made the Pro Bowl team.

Barry Sanders 1990 Season

1990 was another excellent year for Barry Sanders. On the season, he led the league by running for 1304 yards and had 13 touchdowns along with 36 catches for 480 yards and 3 receiving scores. Season highlights include a career high 135 receiving yards (along with 90 rushing yards) in Week 6 against Kansas City and 176 rushing yards against the Raiders in Week 14. Sanders broke 100 yards rushing in a game 4 times on the season.

in 1990, Sanders was again a First-Team All-Pro selection and made the Pro Bowl team.

1991 Season

For the 1991 NFL season, Barry Sanders ran for 1548 yards (2nd in the NFL) and led the league with 16 rushing TDs. He also had 41 catches for 307 yards and 1 TD. He broke 200 rushing yards in a game for the first time in his career when he ran for 220 yards on 23 carries against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 13. This game was also the only 4 touchdown game of his career. Sanders had a 4 game stretch of 100+ yards rushing and did it 8 times total for the season.

1991 was easily the best year the Detroit Lions had during the Barry Sanders era. The team went 12-4 and made it to the NFC Championship game. With a big win against Dallas and a big loss against Washington, Barry didn't end up with very many rushing attempts and finished with 113 yards rushing on 23 carries for the playoffs.

In '91, Sanders was named to the NFL First-Team All-Pro team and the Pro Bowl for the third straight year.

1992 Season

Barry Sanders ran for 1352 yards and 9 scores in 1992. He also caught 29 passes for 225 yards and 1 TD. His season high for rushing yards was 151 in Week 12 against the Bengals and he logged seven games of over 100 yards rushing on the season.

Sanders made the Pro Bowl for the fourth straight year in 1992 and was a Second Team All-Pro selection.

1993 Season

Because he missed the final five games of the season due to injury, Barry Sanders had a career low 1115 rushing yards in '93. He also scored 3 rushing TDs and had 36 receptions for 205 yards. His best game of the season came against Tampa Bay in Week 10 when he ran the ball 29 times for 187 yards. he broke 100 yards rushing four times on the season. Sanders did come back to play in the Lions close playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers and had a huge game, rushing for 169 yards.

Barry was once again named to the NFL All-Pro Second Team and named to his fifth straight Pro Bowl in 1993.

1994 Season

NFL legend Barry Sanders came back strong from his injury-shortened season in '93 to rush for 1883 yards in 1994, which led the NFL and is tied for the eighth best single-season total. He also scored 8 touchdowns (7 rushing, 1 receiving) and caught 44 passes for 283 yards. His 237 rushing yards in Week 11 against Tampa Bay was his career high and he had games of 194 rushing yards against Dallas in Week 3 and 188 rushing yards against Green Bay in Week 14. On the season Sanders ended up with ten games of over 100 yards rushing and five games of over 150 yards rushing. Unfortunately, he had a horrible game (probably the worst of his career) in the playoffs in a loss against Green Bay, carrying the ball 13 times for -1 yards.

In '94, Barry won the NFL Offensive Player of the Year award. He also made his sixth straight Pro Bowl appearance and was named to the NFL All-Pro First Team for the fourth time.

1995 Season

In 1995 Barry Sanders ran for 1500 yards (which was second in the league) and had 12 scores (11 rushing, 1 receiving) and caught 48 passes for 398 yards. In Week 9 against Green Bay, he ran for a season high 167 yards and had a game of 157 yards rushing, along with 3 TDs, against Cleveland in Week 6. For the '95 season, Sanders had 7 games of over 100 yards rushing. In the Lions playoff loss to Philadelphia, Barry ran for 40 yards on 10 carries.

Sanders was named to the NFL All-Pro First Team for the fifth time and made his seventh straight Pro Bowl appearance in 1995.

1996 Season

NFL great Barry Sanders had another big year in 1996, leading the NFL for the third time in his career with 1553 rushing yards and scored 11 touchdowns, along with 24 receptions for 147 yards. Week 17 against San Francisco saw him run for a season high 175 yards and he broke 100 yards rushing in a game seven times.

In '96, Sanders made his eighth straight Pro Bowl and was named to the NFL All-Pro Second Team for the third time in his career.

Barry Sanders 1997 Season

1997 was, without a doubt, the best season of Barry Sanders career. His 2053 rushing yards was the second best single season mark to Eric Dickerson's record 2105 in 1984, and remains the third best all time (Jamal Lewis ran for 2066 yards in 2003). Of course, he would very possibly have the record if he hadn't rushed for only 53 yards total in the first 2 games of the season. In the remaining 14 games of the season, he ran for 2000 yards (comparable to O.J. Simpson's 2003 yards in a 14 game season in 1973), breaking 100 yards in each of them. Along with the record 14 games over 100 yards rushing, Sanders had 5 games of 150+ rushing yards, and 2 games of 200+. Against Indianapolis in Week 13 he rushed for 216 yards and 2 TDs and had an 80 yards touchdown run. He had 215 rushing yards and 2 scores with an 82 yards TD run against Tampa Bay in Week 7. Barry also had 33 catches for 305 yards and 14 total TDs (11 rushing, 3 receiving) on the season.

After such a great regular season, Barry had a so-so game in a playoff loss to Tampa Bay, running for 65 yards on 18 carries and catching 5 passes for 43 yards.

In 1997, Barry Sanders was named the NFL Offensive Player of the Year and was the NFL co-MVP along with Brett Favre of the Packers.

1998 Season

1998 turned out to be Barry Sanders final season, and he finished strong. He barely missed out on his fifth stright season of over 1500 yards rushing by finishing with 1491 yards. He also had 4 rushing TDs and 37 catches for 289 yards. Barry's best game in '98 was against Cincinnati in Week 2 when he rushed for 185 yards and 3 scores. He had 8 games of over 100 yards rushing (including 5 straight) and 2 games of over 150. In Sanders final game, he ran for 41 yards on 19 carries against Baltimore.

Sanders made the Pro Bowl for the tenth straight time and was named to the NFL All-Pro Second Team for the fourth time in '98.

Barry Sanders Retirement

Shortly before the beginning of the 1999 season, Barry Sanders abruptly retired. This came to a surprise to everybody, as he had signed a six-year contract a couple of years before and was less than 1500 yards away from Walter Payton's career record. It was disappointing, and there were rumors here and there (more like wishful thinking from Lions fans) that maybe he would come back for the next few seasons, but he never did. In hindsight, it's hard to blame him for retiring. He was going to be 31 going into the 1991 season, an age when running backs usually start declining. It was also shortly before the horrible Matt Millen era of the Lions, which they are still trying to recover from. At least we didn't have to watch Barry get old on the field like so many other sports stars.

Hall Of Fame and Getting His Number Retired

 Barry Sanders was a first ballot inductee to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was inducted alongside Bob Brown, Carl Eller, and John Elway in August 1994. He was only 36 at the time of his induction. Later that year, the Lions retired his #20 before their annual Thanksgiving Day game.

Barry Sanders Career Stats

At the time of his retirement, Barry Sanders was second to Walter Payton (16,726) of the all-time career list with 15,269 rushing yards. Emmitt Smith has since broke the rushing yards record (18,355), so Sanders stands in third all-time. However, Payton had almost 800 more carries and smith have over 1300 more carries than Sanders. he averaged 5 yards per carry and 99.8 rushing yards per game for his career, which is second to Jim Brown's 104.3. Sanders is also fifth on the all-time yards from scrimmage list. Barry was the first running back to rush for over 1000 yards in his first 10 season (every one of his career) and broke 1500 yards a record five times (four straight). he also had the most career games of over 150 yards rushing and from scrimmage, along with the most runs of over 50 yards.

Barry Sanders Running Style

To say Barry Sanders was one of the most electrifying players of all time is an understatement. With his ability to stop and start on a dime he faked out defenses regularly throughout his career. Even a 2 or 3 yard gain from Barry could be entertaining, as he would run backward and from one side of the field to the other in an effort to get positive yardage. Of course, this running style did lead to him setting the record for carries of negative yardage. In fact, he lost close to 1000 yards in his career due to these plays.

Though Barry was considered too small by many when he came into the NFL, this actually worked to his favor. He was short at 5 ft 8, but still weighed over 200 pounds - and a lot of this weight was in his leg muscles. I can remember a commentator talking about how he would do 500 lb. squats after practice. His height also made it tough for players on the defense to get clean tackles on him. This combination of lower body power and elusiveness contributed to the success he had.

These Days

Sanders stays out of the spotlight and still lives in the Detroit area today. His son, Barry James Sanders is in high school and considered a future prospect. Maybe we'll get to see another great Barry Sanders in the next 5 or 6 years.


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    • superbowlsaints profile image


      8 years ago

      Great hub!! I miss that guy, he was a machine!

    • Tom T profile image

      Tom T 

      8 years ago from Orange County, CA

      Thank you for sharing this. Barry is one of my to 5 players of all time. Great Hub!


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