Barry Sanders “Big Bad Barry”
Many football fans view Barry Sanders as the greatest running back in NFL history, and without a surprisingly abrupt retirement, those fans would likely be able to point to one key statistic to back their point.
Following his 10th pro season in 1999, Sanders faxed a letter to his hometown newspaper, The Wichita Eagle, to announce his retirement. During the 1998 season with the Detroit Lions, he rushed for 1,491 yards and was still very much among the elite running backs in the league.
More notably, he was within 1,457 yards of Walter Payton’s all-time record for rushing yards. That record, however, is the only feather not in Sanders’ cap.
More than two decades following his retirement, Sanders remains No. 4 on the NFL’s all-time rushing list. Emmitt Smith has since passed Payton, and Frank Gore passed Sanders.
Sanders was voted NFL Most Valuable Player in 1997, one of four seasons in which he led the league in rushing yards. He was a two-time NFL Offensive Player of the Year and a six-time First-Team All-Pro. He also made the Pro Bowl in all 10 of his seasons.
Sanders amassed gaudy statistics and superlative awards despite playing without a fullback or tight end to help block for him for most of his career. The Lions used a run and shoot offense for his first eight seasons, so Sanders had to make great use of his incredible talent of making tacklers miss.
When the Lions switched to a more conventional offense for the 1997 season, Sanders had career-highs of 2,053 rushing yards a 6.1 yards per carry average.
Based on the way Sanders flashed in limited feature roles during high school and college, it was easy to predict he would be great in the NFL.
High school and college
In high school, he did not become the starting running back as a senior until the fourth game of the season. He rushed for more than 1,400 yards in those last seven games and averaged 10.2 yards per carry. It wasn’t enough to get him on the radar of a lot of college coaches, and he had only three Division I scholarship offers.
Sanders chose Oklahoma State over Iowa State and Tulsa, and once again had to wait his turn for the feature role because future NFL Hall of Famer Thurman Thomas was already on the team.
When Sanders did make it to the top of the depth chart as a junior, he had one of the most incredible seasons in college football history.
He rushed for 2,628 yards and 37 touchdowns, both of which were college records. He had five consecutive 200-yard games and scored three touchdowns in a game nine times. He was an easy pick to win that year’s Heisman Trophy.
Because he was only 5 feet, 8 inches tall, some thought he might be too small to succeed in the NFL. It didn’t take long after the Lions selected him No. 3 overall in the NFL Draft for Sanders to show he would be a great pro player.
His quickness and explosiveness were elite, and his strength was surprising for a smaller player.
Lions in the playoffs
The Lions made the playoffs five times during Sanders’ career and won two NFC Central division titles. Despite that consistency, they won only one playoff game. Their 1991 divisional-round win over the Dallas Cowboys is the Lions’ only playoff win since 1957.
When Sanders retired, he was two years removed from renewing his contract for six years, including an $11 million signing bonus. The Lions wanted Sanders to return half of the signing bonus, but he refused.
Eventually, an arbitrator ruled Sanders had to repay a sixth of the bonus ($1.83 million) right away and that the remaining bonus had to be repaid over the next three years.
Sanders asked to be released or traded, but the Lions refused. It led to a rocky relationship for a while, but the two sides eventually made amends. In 2017, Sanders joined the Lions as a paid team ambassador.