A Tribute to Barry Sanders: What Made Him Great

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A Tribute to Barry Sanders: What Made Him Great
Tom Pidgeon/Getty Images

(This article originally delivered as a speech.)

They say he could have been the greatest of all time.

Unquestionably the most elusive running back to ever play the game, his 10-year career seemed to be a perpetual highlight reel.

Barry Sanders was great.

As Dick Vermeil, former coach of the St. Louis Rams, said, “We use that word—great—too lightly. Many come close to great, but not many truly are.”

Barry Sanders was great.

Barry racked up accomplishment after accomplishment, record after record and yard after beautifully gained yard. Then, one day, he just walked away from the sport forever.

His legacy, in the eyes of many, forever tainted by the few things that overshadowed his wondrous talent on the field—such as his lack of a Super Bowl ring.

This morning I want to pay tribute to a man whose career was astonishingly spectacular, unquestionably awesome—and yet disastrously short-lived.

Today I pay tribute to Barry Sanders.

Drafted as the third pick overall in the 1989 draft by the Detroit Lions—having just come off a Heisman-winning season at Oklahoma State—Barry Sanders' impact was felt immediately.

The Lions nearly passed on Sanders that year, thinking about the possibility of acquiring a different Sanders, one with the first name Deion. But head coach Wayne Fontes wanted Barry—be it as it was that he was undersized and not nearly strong enough to be a running back.

All doubters were soon silenced, though, as Barry ran for his first professional touchdown on just his fourth carry. Barry finished that season as Rookie of the Year.

Over the next few seasons that Barry spent in the league playing for the Lions, the accolades were ceaseless.

Barry was the NFL’s leading rusher in four of his 10 seasons and the only running back to ever have four consecutive 1,500-yard seasons.

Adding to his rushing totals were his receiving yards, equally as impressive, with 352 career receptions for 2,921 yards and 10 receiving touchdowns as a professional.

Barry was a first-team Pro Bowl selection in all 10 seasons he played; Randall McDaniel holds the record with 12 consecutive appearances.

Over Barry’s career, including college, he averaged over five yards per carry, which is astonishing, as he also holds the record for most carries for negative yardage.

In 1997, Barry rushed for over 100 yards in 14 consecutive games, a record he shattered and still holds today.

Numbers can speak volumes about what a person does in their lifetime, no matter what they do; but when it comes to Barry Sanders, you can’t sum up what he did on the field with numbers on a sheet of paper.

You cannot capture his grace with statistics, or his finesse with figures.

You can’t encapsulate his elusiveness with charts or columns.

Numbers are ambiguous and can be misinterpreted when you don’t include the context of the plays he made on the field.

When it came to Barry’s on-field production, you had to see it.

You had to watch replay after replay when cameramen would search feverishly through a mass of bodies hurling through their frame, only to find that flash of Honolulu Blue and silver break away seconds later, tearing arms and hands away from him as he churned and fought down the field.

John Teerlinck, the Minnesota Vikings defensive line coach in 1994, said that the only way they could figure out how to simulate his abilities during their practices was to have the defensive linemen chase chickens around the field.

That is what he did to opposing defenses.

What Barry did with a football was different than anything the world had seen before.

He didn’t hit holes—he created them.

He didn’t run through defenses—he went around them.

And just when you thought you had him, suddenly, he was gone.

That same statement—suddenly gone—can be used to describe the way Barry’s career ended as well.

After a record-setting season in 1997 and a 1998 year that put him within arm’s length of the all-time rushing record, held at the time by Walter Payton, Barry said, "No more."

He retired, walking away from football forever at the age of 30.

For the longest time, when asked about this decision, he declined to comment.

But when the silence was finally broken, Barry told the world that it was his frustration with the losing mentality in Detroit and years of being the single, one and only weapon for an entire team had robbed him of his competitive spirit and love for the game.

He did not have it in him, in his words, to continue to play only for the record.

Some call it selfish; others say it's ridiculous—to walk away when you still have so much in the tank.

I think it is admirable.

I think it is selfless.

I think it is what makes Barry Sanders the greatest of all time.

And so today I pay him tribute.

His numbers were astounding.

His play was impressive, and his humility was unmatched.

No one ever has, or ever will, play the game of football the way Barry Sanders did.

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