The Unstoppable Sanders

With his induction into the Pro Football Hall Of Fame on August 8, Barry Sanders will cement his status as one of the greatest players in NFL history. .NET's Dylan Johnson looks back at the incredible career of a running back who left us wanting more.

“He’s one great back. He’s better than I was. I was never that good.” - Walter Payton on Barry Sanders

On Sunday, August 8th, 2004, the best running back I’ve ever seen will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Barry Sanders was wothout question the most electrifying player ever to step on a football field. If I was making a list, Largent, Montana, Payton, and LT would all be on it, but for my money no one even comes close to #20. The man must have had steel cables for tendons, because I’m pretty sure most human beings would snap their ACL’s like old fishing line if they attempted to make half of the moves Barry made. I remember a TV ad that ran back in the ‘90’s that claimed Barry would practice by playing flag football. “If they can’t grab your flag, there’s no way they can tackle you,” he was quoted as saying.

Sanders' running style was … unorthodox. He could drive fans and coaches nuts with his seeming refusal to hit the hole in a cloud of dust and settle for 2 yards. Of course, if you’re 5’8” and 203 lbs. in a league with Defensive Linemen who are one and half times that size, you might be a bit skeptical about the “cloud of dust” theory of running, too. That’s not to say that Sanders was one to ever take a play off; many of Sanders’ runs for losses covered 30 yards back and forth behind the line. Barry didn’t fear contact; he was just looking for the big gain on every play. It was this pursuit of the big gain that earned Sanders not just a place in Canton, but also a more dubious honor: He’s the All-Time NFL Leader for lost yardage with 1008 yards on the wrong side of the line of scrimmage.

Here’s a sample of the man’s desire and heart: Late in the 4th Quarter of the final game of the 1997 season, Barry Sanders ran for 2 yards and reached exactly 2000 yards for the season. He became only the 3rd player in history to reach that mark. Bobby Ross, the Lions head coach at the time, wanted Barry to sit out the final few plays so he wouldn’t get hit for a loss and fall back under the 2000 yard mark. Barry Sanders would have none of it. On the very next play from scrimmage, #20 scampered 53 yards downfield. The personal achievement wasn’t important, playing his best on every play and trying to win the game was.

When that game was over, most of the press was trumpeting the 2053 yards compiled over the course of the season, but what was even more impressive was Sanders’ NFL Season Record fourteen 100-yard games. Did I mention that he also set an NFL record by running his fourteen 100-yard games in a row? The only thing that stopped Barry in 1997 was the end of the season.

One year later, Sanders was on track to obliterate every rushing record in the NFL. After a mere ten years in the League, he stood just 1457 yards shy of Walter Payton’s all-time rushing record. Only 3 times during his career did Sanders fail to rush for over 1450 yards in a season. To put it in perspective, Emmitt Smith took 13 seasons to eclipse Payton’s record, a record that it took Sweetness himself 13 years to compile. Barry also had seventy-six 100-yard rushing games, just one behind Payton’s all time record. With the 1999 season and a shot at breaking no fewer than 5 All-Time records just weeks away, Barry Sanders abruptly retired. “It was one of the toughest decisions in my life,” remarked Sanders.

Barry Sanders currently stands number 3 on the career yardage list with 15,259. His career mark of 4.99 yards per carry is second only the legendary Jim Brown. No one in the history of the NFL ran for 150 yards more time than Sanders, who accomplished the feat a whopping 25 times. He remains the only player in NFL history to be named to the Pro Bowl every year he played.

There can be little argument that had he played longer, Sanders would have easily retired as statistically the greatest running back that ever played the game. But for those of us that saw him play, there’s really no doubt that he truly was the greatest pure runner the game has ever seen.

In the words of the late Fritz Shurmur, who had the unenviable task of trying to stop Sanders twice a year: “God only put one pair of feet like that on a human being.”

Next Week: Early retirement – Barry, Ricky and Jim Brown.

Dylan Johnson writes for Seahawks.NET. He’s also well-known as “NJSeahawksFan” on our Fan Forums. Feel free to contact him at DylanJ@ThinkKaplan.com.

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