You could call him the best running back, and there would be no real argument. But you could go even further: Barry Sanders of the Detroit Lions might be, quite simply, the best player in the game. Were he to be judged only for the magic he creates with a handoff, his supremacy would end at his position. But Sanders has accomplished something remarkable, if not unprecedented, since the days of Jim Brown. The current of terror that begins to flow in the days and hours before a game usually emanates from vicious defenders and flows white-hot into the rattled psyches of the players who earn their pay with the ball in their hands. But alone among his offensive fellows, Sanders has reversed that current. Sanders has a whole breed of men best known for barking like dogs instead praying out loud.
In a week of preparing for Sanders, says Chicago Bear linebacker Vinson Smith, "you have to not sleep for a couple of nights." Really? "Yes. Yes." And even during fitful dozing, says Minnesota Viking defensive tackle Henry Thomas, who usually dreams of sacks and motorcycles, "you sit up in the middle of the night hollering, 'Barry! Sanders!' "
"The whole week of practice is like, Oh God," says the Bears' most horrific hitter, safety Maurice Douglass. "Looking at those films, looking at those things he's done to other teams, you're thinking, Oh God, I hope he doesn't do that to me. You're all tensed up and sweating." During a week of preparing for Sanders, says Douglass, "I probably lose an extra five or six pounds of water."
By game day comes the realization that "you could worry yourself to death," says Smith. "So you tell yourself, Just play." Then the game begins. "It's like a bad dream," Smith continues. "It's like going a hundred miles an hour the entire game. You can never rest. You can never stop. One inch—I mean one inch!—one seam, with this guy, can change the game. You can never let your mind rest. You break huddle and look across the line, and you see him looking around, and you think, Oh God, what is he going to do?"
Thus terrified stand the terrorists, predators unaccustomed to being preyed upon, across the line from one small running back—only 5'8" and 203 pounds—with a mediocre team that after a Thanksgiving Day win over the Buffalo Bills is only 6-6. The Lion offense comes to the line of scrimmage, and there in the I stands Sanders, hands on his thighs. What is he looking at, through eyes so ominously calm? The defensive alignment?
"Sometimes," he answers softly. Then he smiles and shrugs. "But sometimes I'm just looking around—just to be looking."
What is he thinking?
"I might be thinking," he says, "about what my mother is doing at home."
Now the ball is snapped, and he is taking a handoff, deep in the Lions' backfield, the play beginning as no more than what mortals have run for decades as a sprint-draw. Except that what emerges now is a sprinting stump, a little bull in a whirlwind, "everything about him in constant motion, his legs moving, his shoulders moving, his hips moving," says Bear defensive end Trace Armstrong. And neither Lion linemen nor coaches nor even Sanders himself has a clue as to what is next. Maybe he will pound against a pile and, ping, like a pinball he'll be back out of it, the legs, the enormous taut springs, releasing him in a single step. The back side defenders will most likely have stayed at home (Sanders's extraordinary ability to cut back negates a rudiment of defensive football, swarming pursuit), and now they will come up to take their best shots and—ping ping ping—he'll stop, bounce, start again, and there he'll go, into the distance....
"There have been many times when I knew I had him," says veteran Dallas Cowboy safety Bill Bates, "when I knew it was about to be one of those tackles where the guy is just going to get his clock cleaned by me. And I tackled air."