To put Sanders's season in perspective, try starting with this: His 215 yards rushing and two touchdowns against Oklahoma on Nov. 5 were 17 yards and 9.27 points below his 1988 average. He had three 300-yard rushing days, three 200-yard days and six games in which he scored four or more touchdowns. With his yardage against Texas Tech, he broke Marcus Allen's single-season rushing mark of 2,342 yards.
Sanders isn't the fastest college back in the country, and he's not the biggest. But he combines strength, speed, willpower and an uncanny ability to wriggle, shift and explode into high gear from a dead stop. "He just takes your breath away," says Oklahoma State coach Pat Jones. Like everyone else, Jones is mystified by Sanders's rare combination of talent and humility. "I don't think he'd mind getting named the best football player in college; he'd just prefer not to go through the things associated with it," says the coach.
Unfortunately for Sanders, that includes the Heisman ritual, but as late as Saturday morning in Tokyo, Sanders was insisting that he wouldn't appear on the TV broadcast. He wasn't a shoo-in to win the award, though the two other leading candidates, both quarterbacks, had stumbled. UCLA's Troy Aikman was hurt by the Bruins' losses to Washington State and Southern Cal in nationally televised games. USC's Rodney Peete had a rough outing in a showdown for No. 1 against Notre Dame two weeks ago on national TV.
"It's just not that big a deal for me," said Sanders of the Heisman. "And it's not really fair to so many other people. People take sports way too seriously. To some of them sports is a god, which is wrong."
As Sanders spoke—reluctantly, of course—in the Miyako Hotel lobby, some of his teammates walked by and began hooting at him and making faces. "He drinks! He burps!" one of them shouted. Sanders waved them away without smiling.
The interruption over, Sanders continued. "I know I have an opportunity to be a positive influence on young people," he said. "I have never used drugs. I try to study and stay out of trouble."
On Nov. 26, Sanders told TV viewers that he hoped Peete would have a great game that afternoon against Notre Dame and win the Heisman. When Byron Woodard, Oklahoma State's 304-pound offensive tackle, heard that, he kicked his TV set in outrage; he and all his comrades on the offensive line were dying for Sanders to win the award. "He may put the trophy in his house," said guard Jason Kidder before the ceremony, "but it will be in our hearts, too."
So what motivates Sanders? Not money. He's conspicuous among the Cowboys for wearing no chains, rings or bracelets. He doesn't wear a watch. "I guess if I really wanted money, I could have it," he said. "I was at a gas station in Oklahoma City this summer, and the owner recognized me and tried to give me cash. But I said no. If I get it the right way, it will be best. But I think if my family needed money, well, then I'd have to take it if it were offered. I don't care what the NCAA says. But we don't need it. We've been blessed."
It has been suggested that Sanders might make himself available for the NFL draft this spring if, as expected, Oklahoma State is hit with NCAA sanctions for recruiting violations. Were he to do so, he would likely lose his last year of college eligibility (and, at present, NFL policy forbids teams from drafting underclassmen). No matter, Sanders says he'll be playing in Stillwater next season. "Mentally, I don't feel I'm ready for a job," he said. "Physically, I may want to gain five more pounds."
As he spoke, he grew concerned that he was sounding too good to be true. "I'm not perfect," he said. "When I was younger, people thought I was a bully. I got into fights and did a lot of wrong. My older brother Byron [a senior running back at Northwestern] and I stole candy and got in a lot of fights at school. We'd throw rocks at cars. One time I started a fire on the floor of our bathroom at home. One time Byron and I got arrested for trespassing at Wichita State.