From Kansas. A legendary collegiate running back for Oklahoma State University, winning the NCAA's Heisman Trophy as the best "amateur" football player in the US. His professional career, for the NFL's Detroit Lions, was even better, raising him to the rarefied air of the greats, like Jim Brown, O.J. Simpson, and Walter Payton, performing magic in spite of the mediocrity of his teams and the fact that opposing defenses were psyched up to stop him, week after week.

But the mediocrity of the Lions - a top-down thing, for the players and head coach Wayne "Yabba Dabba Doo" Fontes were merely victims of management's perennial recursive bad juju - led Sanders to, first, demand a truckload of money to suffer the ignominy that nestles in the astroturf of Pontiac Stadium, then, in 1999, "retire" in hopes of coercing his way out of Dodge.

If I watched only one NFL game all year, it was the traditional Thanksgiving Day game in Detroit, just to see Barry. This year, he sits in Kansas, probably still collecting paychecks from his endorsements, probably still in possession of Detroit's bonus money; the only exciting moves he's making today are from the stovetop to the gravy bowl, and the only running he's doing is to answer the phone, in hopes that his agent has some good news.

Thanksgiving isn't about the launch of the fuckery against the indigenous (I forgive - Lord's Prayer and all that); it isn't about launching the xma$ season (bah! humbug!). (It is, at best, about genuinely giving thanx - and it should be a 24/7 thing, not one day a year - but play along with me here). Thanksgiving's about chowing down, becoming a couch potato for Just One Day, and seeing Barry magically turn a broken play into a highlight-reel touchdown run, dammit!

Where's Barry now? Not on my idiot box, where he's supposed to be. He's watching the idiot box. Enjoy the turkey, you stupid @#$!%(# diva!

I feel better now.

We were late, and there wasn't much we could do about it. Chris was the only one with a car large enough to carry the greeting party, and he was the proud owner of a Chevrolet Blazer apparently built around the Cambrian period - it accelerated like a a newly-evolved fish crawling out of the water, gasping and wheezing all the way. We used the extra time to put finishing touches on the banner. We really, really wanted to embarass Rob.

Not that that was hard - Rob was the quiet, unassuming member of my freshman dorm floor in college, and he would blush at eye contact. So we, bored out of our minds, decided to greet him on his way back from his Winter Break in Detroit. With a large, loud banner. And noisemakers. And other, utterly juvenile implements of ego destruction.

We race in to Will Rogers Airport, check the flight - delayed. Yes! The passengers begin to 'deplane' as we reach the gate, red-faced, out of breath. We set up hurriedly and wait for Rob.

There he is! He's almost running for some reason - probably wants to avoid the crazy people. We yell and honk. He power-walks by us without a glance. We yell and honk, this time with a little anger (our beautiful plan - a failure!) and then shrug and run to catch up.

Kevin : "Rob - what's the hurry, man?"

Rob : "Barry Sanders."

Barry Sanders. The name hangs in the air. Barry fuckin' Sanders, fresh off of another 1500 yard, 11 touchdown season (a nearly pedestrian effort from the man), on the plane back from fucking Detroit, in this fucking airport, right here, right now. Barry Sanders walked by us while we organized ourselves and we never noticed.

Everyone attempts to compose themselves, to calm down and act with dignity, with respect, to present themselves before the Great Running Back, shake his hand, and salute his effort running behind the worst offensive line in the league, and maybe get 'Emmitt sucks!' in edgewise. And Barry Sanders would smile and we would be absolved of our sins, washed away by the mud and sweat and pain of the football field.

We see Barry. Everyone freezes, trying to decide what to say. I, the one who acted the least starstruck (still trapped by my foolish high school anti-entertainment ideas, I couldn't feign any interest whatsoever, even though I am interested, greatly), made the first move. I will be the trailblazer, I will show these people, who shoot longing, loving glances towards Barry, I will show them how it's done. I walk up to Barry Sanders.

Me : "Mr. Sanders, I'd just like to shake your hand."

I shake hands with Barry fuckin' Sanders.

Barry Sanders, in a friendly tone : "So, what are you doing here?"

A question? He asks me a question? The brakes on my train of thought lock up and I'm skidding out of control! I'm lost. I'm lost. I say, with nary a half-second of consideration, the first thing that enters my mind.

Me : "Oh, I'm just following famous people around the airport."

Barry Sanders, the great man himself, immediately marks me as a psycho. Many people at the airport look at me, shocked, amazed at the depths of my disrespect. I see Kevin, a fanatical football fan, spin around, writhe, and begin to cry.

Barry Sanders, in a much darker tone : "Oh. I see."

Barry Sanders moves away, towards the baggage claim.

Kevin, Chris, and the rest are petrified. Frozen. They have no idea what to do. All they know is that they want nothing to do with me. I have now ruined their chance of talking to Barry Sanders, the only chance they'll ever get to touch a future Hall-of-Famer. My embarassment taints them all, and should Barry Sanders look them in the eye, they must drop their gaze, shuffle their feet, and stutter out an apology for my heinous wrongdoing. Kevin spends the rest of the night walking slightly hunched over, defeated, like Christ bearing a cross. His girlfriend jabs me in the ribs. Hard.

Rob grabs his luggage 10 minutes later and we head back to campus, no Barry Sanders, no autographs or handshakes or brushes with greatness. In the car, I am shunned, as if my shame was more contagious than leprosy. I am reminded of this incident, this cruel denial, daily for the following month.

Jim : "Geez, guys... I'm bored. Hey, Ken, wanna go to the airport and follow famous people around?"

Me : "Quiet, you."

Kevin mutters 'fucker' and throws a pillow at my head.

It's been five years since that day, and that incident has been forgotten, but not forgiven. Oh no. I've got an invisible 'A' on my chest to this day, the mark of my callous, heartless Audacity on that wintry night. I'll never live that down.

Barry Sanders was one of the few players in the history of the game to hold spectators breathless every time he touched the ball. The diminutive (by NFL standards) 5'8" back had an unparalleled ability to cut, juke, and make defenders miss their mark. Sanders could run into a pile of ten men and emerge on the other side in full sprint. A seemingly broken play with defenders breaking through the offensive line and trapping Barry in the backfield would often result in positive yardage for the Lions. Perhaps one play against the Tampa Bay Bucs says everything you need to know about Barry Sanders. With the ball around the 35 yard line, Sanders took the ball on an inside handoff and was met by a defensive back shooting straight up the middle. Already running at near full speed, Sanders planted, shucked five or six feet to the left, sending the defender flying past him, and began running forward once again. With ten defenders left, and Sanders not yet passed the line of scrimmage, quarterback Rodney Peete could be seen raising his arms signalling touchdown. About eight seconds later, Barry was in the end zone.

Sanders' rise to stardom started in Wichita, as the 7th of 11 children. Attending North High School in Wichita, Sanders excelled in both football and basketball before receiving a scholarship to play for the Cowboys of Oklahoma State. Although Barry was only the feature back at OSU for one year, it was more than enough. As a junior Barry set the NCAA Division I single-season record for both yards (2,628) and touchdowns (37), averaging a ridiculous 7.6 yards per carry. Sanders still holds or shares 34 NCAA records. The Cowboys went 10-2 that year, including wins in the Tokyo Coca-Cola Bowl and the Holiday Bowl. Sanders capped the season off by winning the Heisman Trophy, securing 559 of the 917 first-place votes, and beating out quarterbacks Troy Aikman of UCLA and Rodney Peete of USC for the title of Best College Football Player. Sanders was drafted by the Detroit Lions with the third overall in the NFL Draft, behind Aikman and offensive tackle Tony Mandarich of Michigan State. The Lions also snatched up Peete to play quarterback.

Sanders continued his rushing assault at the pro level, racking up 1,470 yards and 14 touchdowns en route to winning the 1989 Offensive Rookie Of The Year Award. The Lions meanwhile went 7-9, within striking distance of their first winning season since 1983. The following season the Lions went to the well again, drafting another Heisman Trophy winner in Andre Ware to play quarterback, apparently not satisfied with the progress of Peete. Ware never became the player the Lions hoped, and it's perhaps the most tragic aspect of Sanders' career that the Lions never found a suitable quarterback to take pressure off him. To see the plight of Sanders, one need look no further than the Dallas Cowboys.

The Dallas Cowboys were every bit as bad as the Detroit Lions in 1988. While the Lions got the best running back in the draft, the Cowboys selected the best quarterback in the draft in Troy Aikman. Two years later, while the Lions were working on fitting Andre Ware into the offense, the Cowboys drafted Emmitt Smith and plugged him into the offense immediately. Ten years later, Aikman and Smith were still playing together, sporting three shiny Super Bowl rings. At the same time Sanders had seen quarterbacks come and go as though there were a revolving door installed at the Pontiac Silverdome. Ware, Bob Gagliano, Rodney Peete, Erik Kramer, Dave Krieg, Scott Mitchell, Charlie Batch - all saw significant time at quarterback for the Lions.

To compensate for the lack of talent, the Lions focused their draft strategy on defensive talent, and implemented the run-and-shoot offense to keep pressure off Barry. The Lions continued to perform poorly on defense, and even with the spread formation, defenses put seven or eight men in the box to stop Sanders. Despite all of this, Barry piled up yardage year after year: 1304, 1548, 1352, 1115, 1883, 1500. Sanders was named the NFC's most valuable player in 1991 and 1994, and shared the NFL's MVP award with Brett Favre in 1997. That year Barry became just the third player in history to rush for 2,000 yards in a single season, and his 6.1 yards per carry was the highest average in over 30 years.

Barry Sanders became the second player ever to amass 15,000 yards, and was poised to break Walter Payton's all-time rushing record in 1999. At the same time, however, Sanders had grew tired of playing for the underachieving Detroit Lions, confiding in Andre Ware that he could no longer just pick up checks. Sanders wanted a ring, and felt that there was nothing he could do in Detroit to make it happen. Indeed, when you rush for 2,053 yards in a season, and your team doesn't make the playoffs, there isn't much more you can do. Amidst speculation about his contract and conflicts with management, Sanders retired from football rather than continue losing.

Sanders leaves behind an amazing legacy. An eight-time Pro Bowler, Sanders retired holding or sharing 20 NFL records, including most consecutive 1,000 and 1,500 yard seasons (ten and four respectively), most touchdown runs of 50 or more yards (fifteen, including five of eighty or more), and most rushing yards in one half of a game (200). He also finished with the second highest per-game rushing average, behind only the legendary Jim Brown.

Barry Sanders - Detroit Lions

Year  Games  Carries  Yards  Avg.  TDs
1989     15      280   1470   5.3   14 
1990     16      255   1304   5.1   13
1991     15      342   1538   4.5   16
1992     16      312   1352   4.3    9
1993     11      243   1115   4.6    3
1994     16      331   1883   5.7    7
1995     16      314   1500   4.8   11
1996     16      307   1553   5.1   11
1997     16      335   2053   6.1   11
1998     16      343   1491   4.3    4
10 Seasons      3062  15269   5.0   99

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