On Barry Sanders’ 50th birthday, two things struck me: I’m old, and there are plenty of fans who weren’t around yet to see Sanders play.
What a shame. There is a list of players who you made sure to watch extra close, because you knew you’d be telling stories decades later of how exhilarating the experience was: Moss, Favre, Sayers, Deion, Bo, LT, the other LT, Rodgers, Seau, OBJ, Vick, to name a few. And at the top of that list is Sanders.
A few other guys have an argument as the greatest running back of all time. If you want to put Emmitt Smith, Jim Brown or Walter Payton above Barry on the list, it’s not crazy. But no player in NFL history was more exciting to watch.
On Sanders’ 50th birthday, let’s look back at his legendary career:
What’s the best highlight of Sanders’ career?
The best way to sum up Sanders’ career is that it’s nearly impossible to pick just one highlight as his greatest run.
My favorite is his touchdown run against the Indianapolis Colts. Sanders spin-moves one defender into oblivion, then cuts back and leaves another flailing. Lions quarterback Rodney Peete throws up a touchdown signal even though Sanders is at about the 25-yard line. He knew. Once Sanders got into the open field, it was over. Yet, there are a couple dozen other Sanders runs that could top the list.
If you were a fan of another team, nothing was more terrifying than facing Sanders. He could take any handoff all the way.
Sanders’ best season didn’t come in Detroit
Sanders had one of the great NFL seasons in 1997. He rushed for 2,053 yards at a 6.1-yard average and won MVP. And that’s not his best season.
Sanders’ masterpiece actually happened at Oklahoma State. His 1988 season looks like a typo. His worst game was a 154-yard, two-touchdown day against Missouri. That. Was. His. Worst. Game.
He had four 300-yard games and three five-touchdown games. Sanders rushed for 2,628 yards and 37 touchdowns. That came long before college football teams quit playing defense. He won a Heisman Trophy, and if there was one all-time Heisman Trophy for the greatest single season ever, Sanders should win that too.
Sanders’ NFL MVP season was a masterpiece too
Sanders’ MVP year was incredible as well.
Sanders had 53 yards after two games. He had exactly 2,000 in the remaining 14 games. He rushed for 100 yards in 14 straight games, with a couple 200-yard games in that stretch. When he needed a big game to break 2,000 yards in a season, he had 184 in the finale against the Jets.
It was one of the best seasons ever from a running back. Unfortunately, it would end up being Sanders’ second-to-last NFL season.
Sanders had a stunning retirement
Sanders, like Jim Brown before him, stunned the NFL world by retiring before the 1999 season. He told the Lions he was done shortly before training camp. Imagine Le’Veon Bell announcing his retirement later this month … even that wouldn’t be nearly as shocking as Sanders walking away.
Sanders was 1,457 yards behind Walter Payton’s all-time record when he retired. Sanders had gained at least 1,491 yards in each of his previous five seasons. Instead of beating Payton and then walking away, Sanders just left.
What would Sanders’ career have looked like had he not stepped away?
Part of Sanders’ legend is leaving us wanting more. He left in his prime, on the verge of breaking one of the sport’s most revered records. Emmitt Smith ended up breaking Payton’s record, and finished with 18,355 yards. Sanders retired with 15,269 yards. Would Sanders have ended up with more yards than Smith had he continued playing? Would he have been a 20,000-yard rusher? We’ll never know.
The Lions famously wasted Sanders’ career, and that’s one reason he stepped away. Detroit won just one playoff game during his 10 seasons. But those who got to watch Sanders will never forget how fun it was.
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