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A Lamb Among Lions

A gentle soul off the field, Barry Sanders runs up a storm for Detroit

By Austin Murphy
Issue date: September 10, 1990

Sports Illustrated Flashback Here was something you don't see very often: NFL quarterbacks having to lower their voices in the huddle to avoid being overheard by their opponents. It was Dec. 24, the final Sunday of the 1989 regular season, and the silence in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium was deafening. The Falcons were hosting the Detroit Lions, a team, like the Falcons, without so much as a tinsel strand of hope of making the playoffs. Forced to choose between watching the game in person or finishing up with last-minute Christmas shopping, Falcon fans headed for area malls in droves. Paid attendance was 7,792. The game of the week this was not.

However, it did contain one kernel of drama. When the Lions, leading 31-24, took possession with barely one minute remaining, Barry Sanders, their blockish, Scripture-spouting rookie running back, had 158 yards. Ten more and he would clinch the NFL rushing title.

On the Detroit sideline, this was brought to the attention of coach Wayne Fontes, who called Sanders over. "I said, 'You're 10 yards from leading the league in rushing,' " recalls Fontes. " 'Do you want to go in?' "

Sanders responded by parroting one of Fontes's favorite maxims: "Coach," he said, "let's just win it and go home."

"I even asked him if there was anything in his contract that said if he led the league in rushing, he got more money," says Fontes. "He said, 'Coach, give the ball to Tony ((fullback Tony Paige)). Let's win it and go home.' "

Sanders could not have cared less about winning the rushing title. "When everyone is out for statistics -- you know, individual fulfillment -- that's when trouble starts," he says. "I don't want to ever fall victim to that." So he stayed on the sideline, and the Lions won the game and went home. Christian Okoye of the Kansas City Chiefs won the rushing title.

Asked if he had any regrets over the summer about not winning the rushing title, Sanders shook his head. "I satisfied my ego last season," he said.

One would hope so. In a season when small backs made such a big imprint on pro football, the 5 ft. 8 in., 203-pound Sanders left a lasting impression when he gained 1,470 yards -- 10 fewer than Okoye, on 90 fewer carries -- and started in the Pro Bowl. The feat was all the more impressive considering that Sanders 1) missed all of training camp in a holdout for a big contract, 2) did most of his running behind a patchwork offensive line and 3) ran out of the Silver Stretch, the Lions' shiny new version of a run-and-shoot offense -- a one-back, four-wide-receiver set -- which conventional NFL wisdom says you can't run out of.

That same wisdom dictates that a run-and-shoot is best defused with six defensive backs. So error-prone was the wretched Stretch, however, that opponents usually felt comfortable going with only five defensive backs, inserting an extra linebacker -- in the Chicago Bears' case, two linebackers -- the better to contain Sanders. He ran amok, regardless.

"From the system they're running out of, it makes him very elusive," says Bears middle linebacker Mike Singletary. "You not only have to figure out what's going on, but you have to find him. You have to tackle him with good technique. If you try to blast him, chances are he'll spin out of it and you'll end up looking a little silly."

Where Okoye runs over the first defender he sees, Sanders makes the first tackler miss -- and then begins bowling people over. "I remember bracing myself to hit him. I knew I had him," says Bears defensive end Trace Armstrong. "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."

His dogged, leg-churning refusal to go down reminds onlookers of former Bear Walter Payton, the NFL's alltime leading rusher, who happens to be an unabashed Sanders fan. In the Lions' two games against the Bears last season, Sanders rushed for 126 and 120 yards. Declared Payton after seeing Sanders play, "I don't know if I was ever that good."

Sanders's longest run last season was only 34 yards. The primary reason: Whenever he burst into the secondary, there were extra defensive backs around to tackle him. Lion watchers say Sanders's most spectacular runs were for five yards, three yards, no yards. "For me," says offensive coordinator Mouse Davis, "his most memorable run was when he took the handoff and the Bears were all over him. He spun, went down into a kind of one-legged squat, jumped out of the squat, spun again, made a guy miss and ran for just a two-yard loss. Absolutely spectacular."

Seven times Sanders rushed for 100 yards or more, with a high of 184 yards on 30 carries against Green Bay. On a day in which he rushed for 99 yards against Minnesota, Viking defenders had such difficulty tackling him that they accused him of spraying himself with silicon before the game. During a timeout, the game officials examined Sanders's limbs and uniform for a slippery foreign substance. Sanders was found to be clean.

"He runs so low to the ground and is so strong and elusive; it makes it very difficult to get a piece of him," says Packer linebacker Brian Noble. "You never get the shot at him. Usually, when you get to him, he's not there anymore."

If the Lion staff is to be believed, Sanders's rookie season was a mere appetizer. An I-back from fourth grade through college, he has never become adept at recognizing pass coverages. He did catch 24 passes for 282 yards last season, but the time has come, the coaching staff has decided, to bring Sanders into the mainstream of the Lions' passing game. "He'll catch 50 this year," says quarterbacks and receivers coach June Jones. "If we could have gotten our passing game going last season, he'd have had 800 or 900 more yards rushing -- it would have opened the running game up that much. He probably would have broken the alltime rushing record ((for a season))."

The thought of surpassing that milestone -- Eric Dickerson's 2,105 yards rushing for the Los Angeles Rams in 1984 -- does not appear to accelerate Sanders's heartbeat. "Oh, I don't know," he says. "Nothing ever turns out the way people expect it to."

Lion defensive coordinator Woody Widenhofer will second that motion. He was head coach at Missouri in '85, when Sanders was a senior at North High in Wichita, Kans. "We didn't even look at him," says Widenhofer, who resigned in '88 after going 18-43-1 at Missouri. "I don't think too many schools did."

Sanders received exactly two scholarship offers, from Oklahoma State and Wichita State. Two years after being snubbed by virtually all of Division I-A, Sanders led the nation in kickoff returns and was second in punt returns as a sophomore at Oklahoma State. The next year, 1988, he set 13 NCAA season records and won the Heisman Trophy.

"It's amazing to me how much attention coaches and scouts pay to size," says Sanders, who weighed 180 pounds when he arrived at Oklahoma State. "I think that's where a lot of them fail. The fact that most of the big schools ignored me gave me incentive to show them that it's not all about size." There is no bitterness in Sanders's voice, but he is not above occasionally needling Widenhofer, saying, "Hey, Coach, maybe if you guys had taken me, you'd still be at Missouri."

And if Oklahoma State hadn't been placed on NCAA probation after the '88 season, Sanders likely would have stuck around for his senior year. With the backing of the Oklahoma State athletic department, Sanders applied for and received permission from the NFL to enter the draft a year early because Oklahoma State was prohibited from making postseason and TV appearances in '89.

The Lions, holding the third pick in the draft, had no problems with Sanders's size. Indeed, when you get beyond his height, there is nothing small about Sanders. "Look at the legs in the huddle," says Davis. "His legs are as big as the guards' legs." Sanders also comes equipped with a Mutant Ninja Turtle-type upper body; he can bench-press 225 pounds 16 times. "He's a freight train going through the line, then a bug-in-a-rug when he gets in the secondary," says Widenhofer. "Either way, he's harder than hell to stop."

Sanders's speed did worry Fontes and the Lion scouts -- needlessly, it turned out. Because he was a junior, Sanders hadn't been put under the microscope by NFL scouts. "We didn't know his 40 time," says Fontes. "Of course, in all the film we saw, we never saw anyone catch him. That should have told us something." When the Lion contingent paid a visit to Oklahoma State, Sanders ran a 4.39 for them (he had been clocked at 4.273 by his coaches). But what really sold Fontes was Sanders's vertical jump. "He just went up and up and up," marvels Fontes. "When he finally touched down, ever so gently, I looked up and saw how high he'd jumped ((4112 inches)). I was amazed, and I said, 'Gentlemen, it's over. We can all go home. He's coming to Detroit.' "

Sanders's arrival in Detroit was delayed as he held out until three days before the start of the regular season, when he finally signed a five-year, $6.1 million contract. Critics among the fans and the media who had accused him of being greedy were silenced when it became public that shortly after receiving his $2.1 million signing bonus, Sanders sent a check for $210,000 to the Baptist church in Wichita that he had attended while growing up. Ever since, Sanders has practiced tithing.

This practice cocked a few eyebrows around the locker room. "Another God Squadder," some of the Lions whispered. Some reporters who regularly cover the team still snicker about Sanders's condemnation of "fornication" during a rambling interview last season. Yet Sanders was quickly accepted by his teammates. He is not sanctimonious. "He doesn't wear his beliefs on his sleeve," says Fontes. "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."

And Sanders has a sense of humor about himself. In a practice shortly after he ended his holdout, Sanders took himself out of a drill and stood next to Fontes. "I don't know if I can go back in there," he told the coach.

"What's wrong?" asked Fontes, his voice shrill with alarm. "Are you hurt?"

"No. But the guys are using some awfully foul language out there," said Sanders. "I don't know if I can stand it." An awkward moment passed, until Sanders cracked up and jogged back to the huddle.

During the season, Sanders acquired the habit of dropping by Fontes's office to pay him a social call. Fontes keeps a Bible -- albeit one with a conspicuously uncreased spine -- on his desk, and Sanders would recommend a ) verse. One October afternoon Sanders pointed at the Bible and said, "Coach, you haven't been reading this." Fontes demanded to know how Sanders could be so sure. Pointing at the bookmark, Sanders said, "Because this hasn't moved since August."

"Now I have to move the thing around, so he doesn't bust me again," says Fontes.

As splendid a runner as he is, Sanders does need some work. He must become more of a threat as a receiver. He must learn to block, something seldom required of him at Oklahoma State. Sometimes last season he displayed a rookie's impatience, turning upfield too early and hitting the first daylight, thus negating the efforts of pulling guards and downfield blockers. And he may have to learn to drink coffee: Sanders cannot stay awake during film sessions. "The lights go out and so does Barry," says Dave Levy, last season's running backs coach. "I am convinced that if the man behind Barry would agree to prop him up, Barry would nap in the huddle."

Fontes's biggest challenge will be to use Sanders with discretion to avoid burning him out. "I keep promising myself I won't overwork him, won't give him the ball 40 times a game," says Fontes. That might be easier said than done. Last November, Detroit took a 24-3 halftime lead on Green Bay, only to see the Packers run off 17 unanswered points. Finally, late in the fourth quarter, Detroit linebacker Chris Spielman recovered a fumble on the Lion 47. With the game on the line, Fontes wasn't in a mood to screw around. As assistant coaches fed him advice, the head coach was overheard shouting, "I don't care what you do, just give it to Barry!" The Lions did, six straight times. On the sixth play, Sanders scored on a one-yard run that crushed Green Bay's comeback. That victory was the turning point of Detroit's season, as the Lions won six of their last seven games to finish 7-9 in their first full season under Fontes.

If Detroit's strong '89 finish wasn't good enough to get the Lions into the playoffs, it at least served as a portentous throat-clearing for the season to come. Quarterback Rodney Peete, who won the starting job as a rookie last year only to miss eight games with injuries, reported to camp stronger of arm and sturdier of frame. Just as important, Peete says he is "10 times more confident" in his ability to run the Stretch.

That's good, because the Lions finished 26th in the league in passing last season. The dispiriting truth about the Stretch was that it worked best when its flavor-of-the-week quarterback put the ball in Sanders's midsection and got out of the way.

Just wait till the Stretch starts clicking, says Davis. "Teams will have to use six defensive backs against it," he says. "That means, up front, you'll have five blocking five instead of five blocking six. Barry'll flat tear that up."

Jones agrees. "If we'd been first, or second, or, for that matter, 10th in passing, instead of 26th," he says, "Barry would have broken the rushing record."

"We don't know," says Davis, not to be out-hyperbolized by his colleague. "Barry may end up being the best of all time." Sanders rolls his eyes and says, "You never know what's going to happen."

You do in the following scenario: Say Sanders goes into the last game of the upcoming season needing 200 yards to break Dickerson's record. Say he has 195 yards by the fourth quarter, by which time the Lions hold a commanding lead. Fontes will call Sanders over and offer him the chance to break the record. They will converse briefly. Fontes will smile and shrug, and Sanders will resume his sideline vigil. Tony Paige will get some work.

The Lions will win it and go home.

Issue date: September 10, 1990


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