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Barry Sanders Biography

Barry Sanders Biography

By Loot, NFL Handicapper,

For most historians of the game, Jim Brown is the greatest old-school running back, with Barry Sanders pulling down honors as the greatest back of the past half-century or so. He amazed viewers with moves unlike anything seen before or since on a gridiron. Like Brown, he got out of the game while still on top, leaving an image of everlasting excellence in the minds of fans.

For ten seasons, Sanders dominated, compiling 15269 yards--an average of over 1500 yards per season. In his second-to-last season, he almost broke the all-time single season record with 2053 yards on the ground. As if that weren’t enough, Sanders also caught 352 balls. All this while being the obvious top choice in the Detroit offense, attracting the total attention of opposing defenses. It didn’t matter. Sanders was heads and tails above everyone on the field.

In a lot of ways, Sanders was responsible for keeping Detroit from being downright awful. During his decade-long tenure with the Lions, they were .500 or better 5 times. Before he came, they hadn’t been .500 since 1983. After he left, it would be another 13 years before the Lions won 10 games.

Despite a standout high school career in Wichita, Sanders received few scholarship offers. At 5’8,” he was considered too small, but that perception would soon change. At Oklahoma State, he exploded onto the national consciousness. After two years as a returner and productive backup for Thurman Thomas, Sanders’ junior season was the stuff of legend. In 12 games, he ran for an astounding 2850 yards with a mind-blowing 44 touchdowns. It is generally considered perhaps the greatest season of any single player in college football history.


Sanders was selected with the 3rd pick by the Lions in the 1989 NFL Draft, behind Troy Aikman and Tony Mandarich. It didn’t take long for Sanders to get rolling. He was the Rookie of the year, just a few yards short of the rushing title with 1470 yards. Any talk of him being too short for the position was soon a foregone memory. Sanders was incredible--lightning fast and quick, with off-the-charts smarts and anticipation. Sanders in the only guy in NFL history who would routinely make moves on the field that were out of The Matrix. With strong and churning legs perched below a short frame, the images of Sanders making defenses look foolish are some of the greatest moments from recent NFL history.

Sanders was the rushing champion in his second season, with 13 rushing touchdowns, including 3 more as a pass catcher. In his third season, he ran for 1541 yards, while leading the league with 16 touchdown runs. He helped lead the Lions to a 12-4 record and the NFC title game, which they lost to the Cowboys. It was still an amazing turnaround for a franchise long mired in a losing tradition.

Sanders had a good year in 1992, even as Detroit slipped to 5-11. In 1993, the Lions were 10-6 and again made the playoffs. They also made the playoffs in ’94, with Sanders winning the rushing title with 1883 yards rushing and 44 pass receptions. 1995 saw the Lions get to the postseason for the 3rd straight year, with Sanders picking up another 1500 yards.

In 1996 and 1997, Sanders won the rushing title with 1553 and 2053 yards, respectively. When he joined the 2000-yard club, he began the season with 53 yards rushing in his first two games, gaining exactly 2000 yards in the last 14 games of the season. His form at this time was as stellar as anything ever seen on a pro football field. Sanders singlehandedly forged the Lions into the playoffs.

His form seemed to dip a tiny bit in 1998, but 1491 yards was still considered a banner season. Despite being in the midst of a 6-year deal, Sanders retired abruptly, which came as a surprise to all in the game. The rushing record of Walter Payton was in sight, but Sanders thought better of it, opting instead to leave the game while still at his relative peak at 30 years of age.

A Pro Bowler in every single season he played, Sanders was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2004. He is the only running back to gain 1500 yards in 4 straight seasons, but rattling off Sanders’ records doesn’t even do justice. To know him is to watch him, as Sanders was perhaps the most captivating player to ever grace the field.

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