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Barry Sanders

Sanders in 2005.
No. 20     
Running back
Personal information
Date of birth: July 16, 1968 (1968-07-16) (age 41)
Place of birth: Wichita, Kansas
Height: 5 ft 8 in (1.73 m) Weight: 200 lb (91 kg)
Career information
College: Oklahoma State
NFL Draft: 1989 / Round: 1 / Pick: 3
Debuted in 1989 for the Detroit Lions
Last played in 1998 for the Detroit Lions
Career history
 As player:
Career highlights and awards
Stats at
Pro Football Hall of Fame
College Football Hall of Fame

Barry David Sanders (born July 16, 1968(1968-07-16)) is a former American football running back who spent all of his professional career with the Detroit Lions in the NFL. Sanders is best known for being one of the most prolific running backs in NFL history, and left the game just short of the all-time rushing record. Sanders is widely regarded as one of the greatest running backs ever to play the game, and certainly the most elusive.


Early years

A Wichita, Kansas native, Sanders attended Wichita North High School. Sanders did not play running back until the fourth game of his senior year in 1985. He rushed for 1,322 yards in the final seven games of the season, which earned him all-state honors. He was, however, overlooked by most college recruiters because of his 5 ft 8 in (1.73 m) size. He chose Oklahoma State out of the few scholarship offers made to him.

College career

Sanders played for the Oklahoma State Cowboys from 1986 to 1988, and wore the number 21. During his first two years, he backed up All-American Thurman Thomas. Thomas moved on to the NFL, and Sanders became the starter for his junior year.

In 1988, in what has been called the greatest season in college football history,[1] Sanders led the nation by averaging 7.6 yards per carry and over 200 yards per game, including rushing for over 300 yards in four games. He set college football season records with 2,628 yards rushing, 3,249 total yards, 234 points, 39 touchdowns, of which 37 were rushing (also a record), 5 consecutive 200 yard games, scored at least 2 touchdowns in 11 consecutive games, and 9 times he scored at least 3 touchdowns. Sanders also ran for 222 yards and scored 5 touchdowns in his three quarters of action in the Holiday Bowl - a game that was not included with his season statistics.[2] Sanders won the Heisman Trophy as the season's most outstanding player.[3] However, he left Oklahoma State before his senior season to enter the NFL draft.

Professional career

The Detroit Lions selected Sanders with their 1st-round (3rd overall) pick in the 1989 draft, thanks to the endorsement of then-coach Wayne Fontes. The Lions' management considered drafting another Sanders, cornerback Deion, but Fontes convinced them to draft Barry instead. He was offered the number of Lion idol Billy Sims, known as the 80's Lions' runningback. Though there were concerns about his size, it turned out these concerns were mostly unfounded. Sanders was far too quick for defenders to hit solidly on a consistent basis, and too strong to bring down with arm tackles. Though short at 5'8", his playing weight was 203 lb (91 kg) and Sanders had a large portion of this weight in his exceptionally large and muscular legs, which provided him with a very low center of mass; his weight was also the same as Walter Payton and only slightly under the NFL average for a back. Further, Sanders was able to dazzle onlookers at an ESPN slam dunk contest by jamming comfortably from a flat footed position demonstrating his other defining characteristic: explosiveness. His agility and quick acceleration combined with his low center of mass made him very difficult to bring down.

In contrast to many of the star players of his era, Sanders was also noted for his on-field humility. Despite his flashy playing style, Sanders was rarely seen celebrating after the whistle was blown. Instead, he preferred to hand the ball to a referee or congratulate his teammates.

In his rookie year in 1989, Sanders missed training camp due to a contract dispute. Despite that, he ran for 18 yards on his first carry, and scored a touchdown on his fourth. He finished the season second in the NFL in rushing yards and touchdowns after declining to go back into the regular season finale just 10 yards shy of the rushing title (later won by Christian Okoye), and won the Rookie of the Year Award.[4]

In 1994, Sanders rushed for 1,883 yards, on a 5.7 yards per carry average. He also totaled 283 receiving yards, which gave him a combined 2,166 yards from scrimmage for the season. He was named the NFL's Offensive Player of the Year. In 1995, Sanders posted 1,500 yards rushing with 398 receiving yards, beating his rushing total alone of the '94 season. In 1996, Sanders rushed for 1,553 yards with a career-low 147 receiving yards. Sanders greatest season came in 1997 (see below), when he rushed for a career-high 2,053 yards.

In Sanders last season in the NFL, 1998 he rushed for 1,491 yards, ending his four-year streak of rushing for over 1,500 yards in a season.

Despite his individual success, the Lions never reached the Super Bowl while Sanders played for them. The closest they ever came was in the 1991 season. Aided by Sanders' 1,855 combined rushing/receiving yards and 17 touchdowns during the season, they recorded a 12–4 record and went on to defeat the Dallas Cowboys 38–6 in the divisional playoffs, the Lions' only playoff win since 1957. They were beaten by the Washington Redskins 41–10 in the NFC Championship Game, and Sanders was held to 59 total yards. Detroit made the playoffs 4 more times during Sanders' career, but each time they were eliminated in the first round.

In Sanders' career, he achieved Pro Bowl status in all of his 10 seasons as a pro. Sanders was named first team All-Pro eight times from 1989–1991 and 1993–1997 and was named second team All-Pro twice in 1992 and 1998. Sanders was also named All-NFC from 1989-1992 to 1994-1997. Sanders was named NFL Rookie of the Year in '89, Offensive Player of the Year in '94 and '97, NFL MVP in '97, and was named to the 1990s NFL All-Decade team.

Sports Illustrated writer Paul Zimmerman wrote:

"It doesn't matter where the play is blocked; he'll find his own soft spot...The scheme doesn't matter with Sanders. He can run from any alignment. While other people are stuck with joints, he seems to have ball bearings in his legs that give him a mechanical advantage...Sanders' finest runs often occur when he takes the handoff and, with a couple of moves, turns the line of scrimmage into a broken field...Nobody has ever created such turmoil at the point of attack as Sanders has...Knock on wood, he seems indestructible..."


1997 season

Barry Sanders' greatest season came in 1997. After a start in which he gained 53 yards on 25 carries in the first two games of the season, Sanders ran off an NFL record 14 consecutive 100 yard games, including two 200 yard performances, en route to rushing for 2,053 yards. In reaching the 2,000 yard plateau, he became only the third player to do so in a single season and the first since O. J. Simpson to rush for 2,000 yards in a span of 14 consecutive games. He was the first running back to rush for 1,500 yards in five seasons and the only one to do it four consecutive years. At the end of the season, Sanders shared the Associated Press's NFL Most Valuable Player Award with Green Bay QB Brett Favre. Sanders also became the first running back to rush for more than 1,000 yards for ten consecutive seasons.

Week Team Carries Yards Average
1 ATL 15 33 2.2
2 TAM 10 20 2.0
3 at CHI 19 161 8.5
4 at NOR 18 113 6.3
5 GNB 28 139 5.0
6 at BUF 25 107 4.3
7 at TAM 24 215 9.0
8 NYG 24 105 4.4
9 at GNB 23 105 4.6
10 at WAS 15 105 7.0
11 MIN 19 108 5.7
12 IND 24 216 9.0
13 CHI 19 167 8.8
14 at MIA 30 137 4.6
15 at MIN 19 138 7.3
16 NYJ 23 184 8.0
1997 TOTAL 335 2053 6.1


Sanders stunned many when he announced his retirement from pro football. His retirement was made public by faxing a letter to the Wichita Eagle, his hometown newspaper in July 1999.[5]

He left football healthy, having gained 15,269 rushing yards, 2,921 receiving yards, and 109 touchdowns (99 rushing and 10 receiving). He retired within a one-season striking distance of Walter Payton's career rushing mark of 16,726 yards. Only Walter Payton and Emmitt Smith have rushed for more yards than Sanders.

Sanders's retirement came somewhat unexpectedly and was a matter of controversy. Two years beforehand, Sanders had renewed his contract with the Lions for $35.4 million over six years with an $11 million signing bonus. When he retired with several years left on his contract, the Lions demanded that he return $7.3 million of the bonus.[6] Sanders refused, and the Lions sued and eventually won a judgment against him. On February 15, 2000, arbitrator Sam Kagel ruled that Sanders was in default of his bonus agreement and owed $5.5 million plus interest over the next three years.[7]

Several years after retirement, and repeated refusals to discuss the abruptness of it, Sanders finally admitted that the culture of losing in the Lions' organization was too much to deal with even though he said that he could still play. He explained that it robbed him of his competitive spirit, and he saw no reason to believe things were going to improve. He also stated that there were tears in his eyes as the Lions lost the final game of his career the season before he left, because he knew in his heart he was never going to play another NFL game - "I sobbed for 3 months."[8]

It was thought by some that Bobby Ross himself may have actually been the reason for his early retirement but Barry Sanders, however, debunked this theory in his autobiography; Barry Sanders: Now You See Him, saying that Coach Ross had nothing to do with his quitting and actually praised him as a great head coach.

Personal life

Barry currently resides in West Bloomfield, Michigan, just outside of Detroit, and is married to the former Lauren Campbell, currently a news anchor on a local news station, and the couple have three children together. Sanders also has a son, Barry James Sanders from a previous relationship, who is currently a notable high school football prospect. As a freshman in 2008, Sanders' son ran for 742 yards and twelve touchdowns while helping Heritage Hall School to the 2008 Oklahoma 2A state title.[9][10]

Career highlights


  • He set 34 NCAA records during his Heisman Campaign.
  • He holds the national college single-season rushing record with 2,628 rushing yards in 1988.
  • In 1988, Sanders won the Heisman Trophy while attending Oklahoma State University.
  • In 2008, Sanders was ranked #2 in ESPN's list of the Top 25 Greatest College Football Players Ever.


  • In the 1989 NFL draft, he was selected in the 1st round (3rd overall) by the Detroit Lions.
  • As a receiver, Sanders had 352 receptions for 2,921 yards and 10 touchdowns for the Detroit Lions.
  • Sanders led the NFL in rushing yards four times. 1990, 1994, 1996, and 1997.
  • He rushed for over 1,500 yards in a season for an NFL record five times.
  • In 1997, he set an NFL record by rushing for at least 100 yards in 14 consecutive games and became only the third player to reach 2,000 yards in a single season. He shared the NFL MVP award with Brett Favre.
  • During the final 14 games of the 1997 season Sanders rushed for exactly 2000 yards on 310 carries (6.5 yd./carry), a figure which bears comparison with O.J. Simpson's 14-game mark of 2003 yards on 332 carries (6.0 yd./carry).
  • Each of his 10 years from 1989 through 1998 he was first- or second-team All-Pro and selected to the Pro Bowl.
  • Over his professional football career, he rushed for at least 100 yards in 76 games, just short of Walter Payton's 77 games and Emmitt Smith's 78 games.
  • NFL record 25 games in which Sanders rushed for 150 yards or more. Brown is second with 22 games.
  • NFL record 46 games in which Sanders had 150 yards from scrimmage or more. Walter Payton is second with 45.
  • 15 career touchdown runs of 50 yards or more, most in NFL history. Brown is second with 12.
  • At the time of his retirement, Sanders' 15,269 career rushing yards placed him second behind Walter Payton's 16,726 yards. At Sanders' then-current yearly yardage pace, he would have eclipsed Payton within one or two years. Payton died from liver cancer at age 45 just months after Sanders' sudden retirement.
  • If Sanders had gained an additional 31 yards over the course of his 153 games, he would have been only the 2nd NFL runner to average 100 yards per game. (See Jim Brown)
  • His 18,190 career yards from scrimmage place him fourth on the all-time list.
  • In 1999, he was ranked number 12 on The Sporting News' list of the 100 Greatest Football Players, making him the highest-ranking Lions player and the third highest ranked running back, behind Jim Brown and Walter Payton.
  • On January 31, 2004, he was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
  • On August 8, 2004, he was inducted to the Hall of Fame along with Bob Brown, Carl Eller, and John Elway.
  • Along with Gale Sayers, Sanders is one of the only members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame to be inducted while still in his 30's.
  • On November 25, 2004, his jersey number #20 was retired before the Lions' annual Thanksgiving Day game. (It should be noted that the number was shared with former running back Billy Sims and Hall of Fame defensive back Lem Barney, who also attended the event.)
  • Sanders also holds the NFL record for the most carries for negative yardage. According to the SI Book of Football, these numbers totaled 336 carries for -952 Yards.

Career statistics

Regular season

¹Led league ²Second place ³Third place Tied
Year-Age Rushing Receiving Total
Att Yds Avg TD Rec Yds Avg TD Yds TD
1989 - 21 280 1,470² 5.3 142† 24 282 11.8 0 1,752³ 14
1990 - 22 255 1,304¹ 5.1 13³ 36 480 13.3 3 1,784² 16¹
1991 - 23 342² 1,548² 4.5 16¹ 41 307 7.5 1 1,855² 17¹
1992 - 24 3123† 1,352 4.3 9 29 225 7.8 1 1,577 10
1993 - 25 243 1,115 4.6 3 36 205 5.7 0 1,320 3
1994 - 26 331 1,883¹ 5.7 7 44 283 6.4 1 2,166¹ 8
1995 - 27 314 1,500² 4.8 11 48 398 8.3 1 1,898² 12
1996 - 28 307 1,553¹ 5.1 11 24 147 6.1 0 1,700³ 11
1997 - 29 335 2,053¹ 6.1 113† 33 305 9.2 3 2,358¹ 14³
1998 - 30 343 1,491 4.3 4 37 289 7.8 0 1,780 4
5.0 99
352 2,921 8.3 10 18,190

Notes and references

  • Ron Knapp Sports Great Barry Sanders Revised Edition copyright date 1999 page 16
  • Gil Brandt. "Hall recall: Barry Sanders",, July 22, 2004.
  • Craig Ellenport. "Sanders was born to run",, August 8, 2004.
  • Mark McCormick and Barry Sanderss. Barry Sanders: Now you See Him: His Story in His Own Words (Emmis Books, 2003). ISBN 1578601398
  • Sam Mellinger. "A Hard Man to Catch", The Kansas City Star, August 8, 2004, pp. C1, C8.

External links

Simple English

Barry Sanders
Running back
Jersey #(s):
Born: July 16, 1968 (1968-07-16) (age 42)
Wichita, Kansas
Career Information
Year(s): 1989–1998
NFL Draft: 1989 / Round: 1 / Pick: 3
College: Oklahoma State
Professional Teams
Career Stats
Rushing Yards     15,269
Average     5.0
Touchdowns     152
Stats at
Career Highlights and Awards
  • 10x Pro Bowl selection (1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995 1996, 1997, 1998)
  • 10x All-Pro selection (1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998)
  • 1997 Co-NFL MVP
  • 1997 NEA NFL MVP
  • 1997 Co-PFWA NFL MVP
  • 1989 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year
  • 1988 Heisman Trophy
  • 2x NFL Offensive Player of the Year (1997, 1994)
  • 2x Bert Bell Award (1997, 1991)
  • Holds 10 Detroit Lions Team Records
Pro Football Hall of Fame
College Football Hall of Fame

Barry David Sanders (born July 16, 1968(1968-07-16)) is a Hall of Fame and Heisman Trophy winning American football running back. He played college football at Oklahoma State University, then spent all of his professional career with the Detroit Lions in the NFL.


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