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Barry Sanders Biography

Slow Starter, Triumphed in the NFL, Retired on the Edge of Glory


Professional football player

Barry Sanders was one of the greatest football players of the 1990s and perhaps of all time. Although he always described himself as an "average person," Barry Sanders' accomplishments playing football are truly extraordinary. In his three years at Oklahoma State University, Sanders broke or tied 24 NCAA records on his way to winning college football's top honor, the Heisman Trophy. He followed by signing a $6.1 million pro football contract with the Detroit Lions, one of the largest ever offered to a first-year player. His rookie year in the National Football League was also impressive: he fell ten yards shy of the season individual rushing title, was selected as a starter for the Pro Bowl, and was named the league's Rookie of the Year. Over the course of ten seasons, Sanders was consistently one of the top performers in the league, and by averaging over 1,500 yards rushing per season he was on pace to shatter the all-time NFL rushing record. Sanders took football fans by surprise, however, when he announced in 1999 that he had lost the desire to compete and retired from the NFL.

Slow Starter

Barry James Sanders was born on July 16, 1968, in Wichita, Kansas. He was one of 11 children born to William (a roofer) and Shirley (a registered nurse) Sanders. From early on, the Sanders siblings learned the value of hard work and dedication. As soon as they could handle the tools of the trade, he and his two brothers were pressed into service as roofer's assistants by their father. Of Sanders' boyhood apprenticeship, Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press wrote: "All day they would labor, with the hammers, with the tar, sweating in the hot summer sun. You did not complain in the Sanders family. Not unless you wanted a good whupping."

Sanders was a natural athlete, and the sport he loved most was basketball. His father, however, felt that he had a better chance of winning a college scholarship if he played football, and so Barry played football. Sanders didn't see much playing time until his senior year at North High School in Wichita. In the last five games of his senior year Sanders finally saw action and came to life, rushing for more than 1,000 yards, giving him a total of 1,417 yards for the year and nearly setting a city record. His late blossoming won him All-State and honorable All-American honors, but Sanders was overlooked by many Division 1-A schools because of his small size. Just a few colleges offered scholarships to Sanders, and he accepted the offer from Oklahoma State University in parts because of its strong business program.

The demands of big-time college football came as a shock to Sanders. He later told the Sporting News: "I remember in my freshman year we didn't have any days off. I couldn't believe it, and it never got any better. They pretended (football) wasn't the main thing you were there for, but you were doing it 50 or 60 hours a week. I fell behind in my schoolwork." As in high school, Sanders didn't see much playing time at first. But there were glimmers of his future greatness, as he led the nation in both kick-off returns and punt returns during his sophomore year. During his junior year Sanders set 13 NCAA rushing records, including gaining the most yards in one season (2,628) and the most touchdowns in one season (39). As a result, Sanders overwhelmingly won the 1988 Heisman Trophy, becoming only the eighth junior to receive the award, and winning in the tenth-largest point margin ever.

Triumphed in the NFL

Sanders decided to forego his senior year at college and make himself eligible for the NFL draft, a move prompted by the NCAA putting the OSU Cowboys on probation after the 1988 season and Sanders' desire to relieve financial burdens on his family. His $6.1 million, five-year contract with the Detroit Lions—which carried with it a $2.1 million bonus—was one of the largest ever offered to a rookie. And as the statistics in his first year indicate, Sanders was worth the money. Although he didn't start the first two games of the season and missed parts of two others, Sanders managed to set the Lions' season rushing record and came just 10 yards short of the NFL's individual season rushing record—which he accomplished with 90 fewer carries than the winner, Christian Okoye.

People were impressed by Sanders' numbers, naturally, but they were even more impressed by the way he piled up the yards. Sanders was an amazingly difficult running back to tackle; he kept a low center of gravity and used a dizzying arrays of spins and turns to elude tacklers. "I remember bracing myself to hit him," recalled Chicago Bears defensive end Trace Armstrong in Sports Illustrated. "He just stopped and turned, and he was gone. He's like a little sports car. He can stop on a dime and go zero to 60 in seconds." After watching two of Sanders' performances in his first season, ex-Chicago Bear Walter Payton, then the NFL's alltime leading rusher, said of the speedy 5′-8″, 200-pound running back: "I don't know if I was ever that good." Green Bay Packers linebacker Brian Noble similarly remarked: "He runs so low to the ground and is so strong and elusive; it makes him very difficult to get a piece of him. You never get the shot at him. Usually, when you get to him, he's not there anymore." Pat Jones, Sanders' college coach, had this to say in Sporting News: "If someone was to ask me who the most explosive back I've coached is, that would be Barry, as far as a guy who can take your breath away and is liable to score on every down…. I don't know that I've ever seen anyone like him with my own eyes."

Nearly as striking as his accomplishments on the field was Sanders' modest demeanor off the field. Sanders was notoriously reticent to discuss his play, preferring instead to divert attention toward his teammates. He told the Sporting News that he was "uncomfortable being valued because of how well I play football" and that he sees a liability in realizing he is an exceptional player. "If that's the case, I can prove it on the field. I don't have to talk about [it]. That's where athletes have problems off the field. People treat them differently and you start thinking you're better than everybody else. You're not."

During his second season game with the Lions, Sanders had the opportunity to enter the last game of the season and obtain the 10 yards he needed for the league season rushing record. Sanders insisted, however, that Coach Wayne Fontes continue playing back-up running back, Tony Paige. When Sanders was later asked if he had any regrets about not winning the rushing title, he told Austin Murphy in Sports Illustrated: "I satisfied my ego last season." A deeply religious person, Sanders also prefers to keep that side to himself. Said Fontes in Sports Illustrated: "He doesn't wear his beliefs on his sleeve…. Barry's not the type of guy who scores a TD and kneels down in front of everyone in the world. He's not for show, he's for real."

Retired on the Edge of Glory

At a Glance …

Born on July 16, 1968, in Wichita, Kansas; son of William (a carpenter and roofer) and Shirley (a registered nurse) Sanders; married Lauren Campbell, November 11, 2000; children: three children. Education: Attended Oklahoma State University, 1985-88.

Career: Detroit Lions, National Football League, Professional football player, 1989-98.

Awards: Sporting News College All-America Team; 1987, Heisman Trophy Award, 1989; Sporting News NFL Rookie of the Year; 1989-90, Pro Bowl selection, 1989-98; NFC Most Valuable Player, NFL Players Association, 1991; Sporting News Player of the Year, 1997; inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, 2004.

Addresses: Office—c/o Detroit Lions, 222 Republic Dr, Allen Park, Michigan 48101-3650.

Over the next nine seasons as a Lion, Sanders continued to chalk up amazing numbers. Averaging 4.5 yards per rushing attempt in 1991, he compiled a total of 1,548 yards and scored 16 touchdowns rushing. In 1992 his total rushing yardage slipped 1,352, and he averaged 4.3 yards per rushing attempt. Plagued by injury in 1993, Sanders managed to pile up only 1,115 rushing yards, yet he pushed his average per rushing attempt to 4.6 yards. Sanders broke through for 1,883 yards during the 1994 season, averaging 5.7 yards per rushing attempt but scoring only seven touchdowns rushing. The next year he averaged 4.8 yards per rushing attempt for a total of 1,500 yards and 11 touchdowns rushing. In 1996 Sanders averaged 5.1 yards per rushing attempt for a total of 1,553 yards and 11 touchdowns rushing. In 1997 he dashed for 2,053 yards, averaging a stunning 6.1 yards per rushing attempt. Sanders' rushing yardage slipped just below the 1,500-mark in 1998, when he averaged only 4.3 yards per rushing attempt. At the end of the 1998 season, Sanders had a career total of 15,269, trailing the career record of 16,726 set by Walter Payton by only 1,457 yards. Around the NFL, people spoke openly about the chance that Sanders might break the career rushing record during the 1999 season.

The expectations of the football world were crushed, however, when Sanders announced just prior to the opening of training camp in 1999 that he was retiring from football. "The reason I am retiring is simple," Sanders said in a press release, "My desire to exit the game is greater than my desire to remain in it. I have searched my heart through and through and feel comfortable with this decision." Fans and sportswriters agonized over Sanders' decision, wondering whether Sanders was just holding out for more money or was trying to get traded to a team more likely to advance in the playoffs than the perennially hapless Lions. He engaged in an acrimonious dispute with the Lions over the money remaining on his contract, and was eventually ordered to return several million dollars to the team. In the end, Sanders remained true to his word and stayed retired. His enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2004, alongside Carl Eller and Bob Brown, seemed to end the persistent rumors about his return to football. In his induction ceremony Sanders proclaimed that the only thing that he missed in his career was the thrill of playing in the Super Bowl. He still lives in the Detroit area with his wife, Lauren, and their three children.



Knapp, Ron, Sports Great Barry Sanders, Springfield, NJ: Enslow, 1999.

Sanders, Barry, with Mark E. McCormick, Barry Sanders (includes DVD), Indianapolis: B. Sanders with Emmis Books, 2003.


Detroit Free Press, December 17, 1989.

Jet, January 9, 1989; February 13, 1989; May 29, 1989.

New York Times, November 23, 1988; December 4, 1988; January 1, 1989; March 31, 1989; April 5, 1989; September 12, 1989; September 15, 1989.

Sport, November 1, 1994; September 1, 1998.

Sporting News, October 24, 1988; April 24, 1989; November 20, 1989; January 15, 1990; December 4, 1995; July 21, 1997; August 10, 1998; September 7, 1998; August 9, 1999.

Sports Illustrated, April 10, 1989; September 10, 1990; August 9, 1999; February 3, 2003; December 6, 2004.


Barry Sanders: The Official Site. www.barrysanders.com (August 4, 2005).

—Michael E. Mueller and Tom Pendergast

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