I'm the brokest black guy in Wichita today, and last year my son won the most prestigious award in college sports. Does that make sense?
The longest wait of William Sanders's life officially ended at 3:50 last Saturday afternoon, when his son Barry, a junior running back at Oklahoma State and the 1988 Heisman Trophy winner, rose to confront a passel of microphones at the Westin Hotel in Denver. The wait was supposed to have ended at 1 p.m., but the press conference at which Barry was to announce whether he would forfeit his final season of college eligibility and seek entry into the NFL draft had been postponed. Barry had missed his flight to Denver that morning after his 1980 Pontiac blew a clutch on I-35, the highway linking the Oklahoma State campus in Stillwater and the airport in Oklahoma City. That the nation's most celebrated college football player was driving an old Pontiac with a bad clutch partially explains why he was heading for Denver in the first place.
By then, of course, practically everyone in the country knew what Sanders was going to do. Oklahoma State officials had already spilled the beans to the press. He had hired two agents, Lamont Smith of All-Pro Sports and Entertainment in Denver, and David Ware of Atlanta, who handles a number of NFL players. With Smith and Ware, who together will oversee all aspects of Sanders's business affairs, at his side, Sanders faced the cameras and microphones and said:
"I've come to the conclusion that it would be in my best interests and my family's best interests to renounce my last year of eligibility and pursue a career in professional football. This decision was based, in part, upon the financial hardship that my family and I are faced with, and I just wanted to relieve some of those pressures."
Money wasn't the only factor, though. In January the Cowboys were placed on NCAA probation, meaning that if Sanders had returned to Oklahoma State, his achievements would not have been witnessed on television and he would not have been able to perform in a bowl game. In addition, none of the Cowboys' starting offensive linemen from last season are returning. Already a prime target for knee-busting linebackers by virtue of his extraordinary year in '88, Sanders would have had to depend on untested protection. Finally, he says he has encountered academic problems because the post-Heisman hoopla has distracted him from his studies. "I'm still trying to finish up finals from the first semester," says Sanders, a business administration major. "It's been kind of hectic the last few months."
NFL rules preclude a player from entering the draft until he has exhausted his collegiate eligibility, but exemptions have become common. In the past 20 years, the league, wary of defending its draft rules, which are of dubious legality, has never denied a player's petition. The decision on Sanders will be made by NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle. According to Ware, if Rozelle turns thumbs down, Sanders is prepared to challenge the decision in court on the grounds that the NFL would be guilty of a "group boycott" and restraint of trade under antitrust laws. Rozelle is expected to grant Sanders's application and avoid the court fight.
William Sanders is counting on that. He came out of the press conference in tears. "I feel wonderful," he said. ''I feel like a king."
A 52-year-old carpenter and roofer who has never made much money, William felt strained by his son's indecision. "Why is he taking so long to make up his mind?" William kept asking. Even more exasperating, to William's way of thinking, was Barry's intention last month to attend spring practice at Oklahoma State. Why should he risk those legs of gold for nothing? William thought. "You go out for spring ball, I'll break your legs myself," he told Barry. Shortly thereafter, Cowboy coach Pat Jones exempted Barry from spring drills, saying, "He was excused to explore his NFL options."
It seemed only logical, especially to William, that Barry would seek admission to the draft. The father of 11 children—eight girls and three boys—of whom Barry is the seventh-oldest, William has always been an outspoken, toe-the-line disciplinarian. "My dad always shot straight," says Barry. "Didn't beat around the bush."
With the April 10 deadline to apply for the draft looming, the time for beating any bushes was long past. So two weeks ago William called his three sons together for a meeting of the family men at the Kansas City, Mo., home of his oldest boy, Boyd. Barry came in from Stillwater, and Byron, a senior running back at Northwestern who's hoping to be a midround draft pick, came down from Evanston, Ill. William stacked the deck by not inviting the Sanders women. His wife, Shirley, wasn't convinced that Barry should drop out of college, and most of Barry's sisters either wanted him to stay in school or thought he should be left alone to make up his own mind.