Time's Running Out
The clock is ticking on Barry Sanders as he chases an elusive title
So this is what it's like trying to tackle Barry Sanders. "Come on," he said to me over his shoulder, and with a deft move past a minicam crew, Sanders turned the corner and headed toward an exit in the Lions' locker room, trying to escape the commotion after Detroit's 27-20 upset of the Packers at the Silverdome last Thursday night.
Sanders froze for an instant outside the locker room door to sign an autograph, so I began to ask about whether he might be the best player never to win a Super Bowl. "Do you—?" But Sanders knew what I wanted to talk about and quickly cut me off. "No!" he said. "I don't agree."
It seemed an appropriate time to raise the subject. He had just rushed for 155 yards against one of the premier teams in the league, galloping 73 yards for a touchdown and having an 80-yard run for another score called back because of a holding penalty. Yet the Lions' win only evened their regular-season record at 75-75 since they drafted Sanders third in 1989. As he bounded up a back stairwell, I wondered, was Sanders's NFL life passing, unfulfilled, before his eyes?
Even if he shatters Walter Payton's career rushing record (he needs 2,310 yards), it's debatable whether he's the best of an elite group of players never to have won a Super Bowl, which includes Dick Butkus, Dan Marino and O.J. Simpson. Regardless, Sanders is admired by teammates and even by the Lions' fiercest rivals for his transcendent breakaway runs and his humility. If he ever reaches a Super Bowl, he might have more people cheering him on than John Elway did last season. Unlike the Broncos, however, the 2-4 Lions aren't championship material. How many more years can Sanders maintain his performance level?
Of a possible Super Bowl shutout, Sanders said, "I guess it could happen." Then motoring to the lobby off the Lions' offices, he added, "But I've got too much life to live, too many games to play?'
In the lobby Sanders took a left past a man in a trench coat, sidestepped a woman in a faux leather coat and power-walked through the revolving front door to freedom. "Let me read you something from Lomas Brown," I said to Sanders's shadow. Brown was Detroit's left tackle from 1985 through '95 but now plays in Arizona. Sanders turned his head slightly to listen.
"Here's what Lomas says," I began, reading from my notes. " 'I don't think not winning a tide has been that hard on Barry. He wants to win, believe me. But he's not consumed with self-gratification. He's just consumed with being the best he can be. You won't see him lose sleep over it. Not to say he doesn't care. But football is not his whole life.' "
"Lot of truth to that," Sanders said, opening a brown paper bag that contained one overripe banana, which he peeled and ate as he talked. "But you know, this is a great team game, where so many people have control over who wins and loses. If I could transfer my skills to the NBA, I could have more control over who wins. No matter how well one guy plays in football, he needs a lot of help to win a Super Bowl."
According to some of Sanders's acquaintances, however, the losing is starting to bug him. Asked last week about the Lions' 1-4 start, Sanders replied quietly, "Same old s—-." One reporter says it was the first time he had heard Sanders swear. "A lot of times after a bad loss," said Sanders, now standing by his fire-engine-red Range Rover, "I go home, and I'm ready to quit. Can't stand it."