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Barry Sanders: Career retrospective

If you were asked to name the best running back of all time, there are a few names you might go with. Walter Payton. Emmitt Smith. Jim Brown. However, if you ask who the most-exciting back ever is, there is only one player that pops to mind. That would be Barry Sanders. The Hall of Famer has a truly enviable highlight reel, and his career includes a ton of memorable moments and records. What was the span of Sanders’ career truly like, though? Here is a retrospective of Barry, from the first juke to the final spin move.

 
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High school ball in Wichita…and backing up his brother

High school ball in Wichita…and backing up his brother
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Sanders was born and raised in Wichita, Kansas, where he played his high school football. While he was a starting running back in his sophomore season, as a junior he was moved behind his brother Byron on the depth chart. Barry wouldn’t become the starter again until his senior season, where he averaged 10.2 yards per carry over a seven-game run as the lead back.

 
2 of 20

Limited scholarship offers from colleges

Limited scholarship offers from colleges
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You would think that Sanders would have had a ton of colleges knocking down his door. That didn’t happen, though. Maybe there were concerns about his size, and Sanders was 5’8’’ and 200 pounds. Only three FBS schools offered him a scholarship, Iowa State, Oklahoma State, and Tulsa.

 
3 of 20

Barry chooses Oklahoma State (and becomes a backup again)

Barry chooses Oklahoma State (and becomes a backup again)
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Ultimately, Sanders chose the Cowboys, but he didn’t immediately hit the ground running. In 1986 and 1987 Sanders was actually the second-string running back for Oklahoma state. However, you can kind of understand why. Barry’s predecessor at OSU? That would be Hall of Famer Thurman Thomas.

 
4 of 20

Electrifying kick returns for the Cowboy

Electrifying kick returns for the Cowboy
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While he wasn’t the lead back his first two years in college, Sanders still used his elusiveness and speed to make a splash for Oklahoma State. In 1987 he led the nation in kickoff return average, picking up a whopping 31.6 yards per return. Thomas moved to the pros, and the starting job was Barry’s.

 
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Sanders becomes the starter and has an all-time great season

Sanders becomes the starter and has an all-time great season
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You could say that Sanders took to being a starting running back quite well. Barry averaged 7.6 yards per carry, ran for over 300 yards three times, and set the record for the most rushing yards in a season with 2,628 and the most rushing touchdowns with 37. This was when bowl game numbers weren’t counted, mind you. If you add in his bowl performance Sanders rushed for 2,850 yards in 1988. Oh, and he still returned kicks and punts.

 
6 of 20

Barry wins the Heisman, skips his senior season

Barry wins the Heisman, skips his senior season
Heisman.com

It won’t surprise you to find out Sanders won the Heisman after his junior campaign. Weirdly, he only got 68.27 percent of the votes. Nevertheless, the trophy was his, and Sanders decided to skip his senior campaign to enter the NFL Draft. Who can blame him?

 
7 of 20

The Lions draft Sanders third overall

The Lions draft Sanders third overall
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Detroit was choosing between a couple of Sanderses with the with the third-overall pick in the 1989 Draft. Both would have been fine choices, as the other option was Deion Sanders. However, Detroit’s head coach Wayne Fontes wanted Barry, and no fan is going to complain that he got his way.

 
8 of 20

Sanders wins Rookie of the Year

Sanders wins Rookie of the Year
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While Sanders missed training camp with a contract issue, when the season began Barry showed that his speed and agility were going to serve him just fine in the pros. From the beginning, he wowed with his ability to avoid being hit and to break tackles as well. He rushed for 1,470 yards and 14 touchdowns in his rookie campaign. Sanders actually could have won the rushing title, but declined to go back into the regular-season finale to try and pick up the 10 yards he needed. Nevertheless, Barry was named the Offensive Rookie of the Year.

 
9 of 20

Barry leads the Lions to success (no, really)

Barry leads the Lions to success (no, really)
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When you think of the Detroit Lions, you don’t think of a lot of success. However, in the early ‘90s the Lions were actually a good team, and Sanders was the main reason why. Detroit won the NFC Central in 1991 and 1993, and that 1991 team made it to the NFC Championship Game. The Lions lost, and Sanders never made it to a Super Bowl, but he carried the franchise further than anybody in the Super Bowl Era.

 
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Sanders becomes Offensive Player of the Year

Sanders becomes Offensive Player of the Year
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The 1994 season was big for Sanders. In addition to rushing for 1,883 yards (5.7 yards per carry) he added 283 yards receiving to finish with over 2,000 yards from scrimmage. Sanders also managed to rush for 237 yards in one game without scoring a touchdown somehow, a bizarre NFL record, but a record nonetheless. For his efforts, Sanders was named Offensive Player of the Year for the first time.

 
11 of 20

Barry joined the 2,000-yard club

Barry joined the 2,000-yard club
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In 1997, only two NFL backs had ever rushed for over 2,000 yards in a season: O.J. Simpson and Eric Dickerson. When Sanders got off to a slow start to the 1997 campaign, he then proceeded to rush for over 100 yards in 14 consecutive games, an NFL record. Barry finished with 2,053 yards, then the second most in NFL history.

 
12 of 20

Sanders shares the MVP

Sanders shares the MVP
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Sanders obviously got a lot of love for his 2,000-yard campaign in 1997. He was named Offensive Player of the Year again, and an MVP win seemed obvious. Indeed, he did win MVP, but he had to share it. Namely, he shared it with division rival Brett Favre. Hey, NFL voters love a quarterback.

 
13 of 20

Barry fails to rush for over 1,500 yards, which is notable for him

Barry fails to rush for over 1,500 yards, which is notable for him
Focus on Sport/Getty Images

For most players, rushing for 1,491 yards would be an incredible success. Indeed, even for Barry that’s a good year. However, it actually was the end of an era for Sanders. When Sanders rushed for 1,491 yards in 1998, it ended a four-year run of rushing for over 1,500 yards, and NFL record.

 
14 of 20

Sanders shockingly retires

Sanders shockingly retires
JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images

Sanders turned 30 right before the 1998 NFL season. For a running back that’s nearing the end of your career, but Sanders had just rushed for 1,491 yards as we mentioned. Surely he had plenty left in his tank. We’ll never know. In July of 1999, Sanders faxed a letter to the Wichita Eagle, his hometown newspaper. It declared that he was retiring.

 
15 of 20

All-Pro, and All-Decade

All-Pro, and All-Decade
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Sanders only played in 10 seasons in his NFL career. He was named first-team All-Pro in six of those seasons and second-team in the other four. Unsurprisingly, when the NFL named its All-Decade team for the ‘90s, Sanders made the squad at running back.

 
16 of 20

Sanders falls short of career rushing record

Sanders falls short of career rushing record
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One of the reasons people were so surprised that Sanders retired at the age of 31? He was so close to being the NFL’s all-time leading rusher. Sanders retired with 15,269 career rushing yards. Walter Payton, then the leading all-time rusher, had 16,726. Emmitt Smith has since passed Payton on the list, but had Sanders played a couple more season the record would likely be his to this day.

 
17 of 20

Problems with the Lions franchise

Problems with the Lions franchise
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While Sanders played his entire career with the Lions, and he is the greatest player in franchise history, there was a rough patch for the player and the franchise after his abrupt retirement. The Lions weren’t happy with this. In fact, they demanded Sanders return $5.5 million of his signing bonus, and when he refused the Lions sued. Needless to say, this caused bad blood.

 
18 of 20

Detroit and Barry patch things up

Detroit and Barry patch things up
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Fortunately, everything is alright between Sanders and the Lions now. In 2010, he was part of introducing a Lions and Bears game on Monday Night Football. He started to pop up at team events again. In fact, in 2017 he joined the team as an official ambassador of the Lions. Barry is back where he should be, as a face of the Detroit Lions franchise.

 
19 of 20

Hall of Fame induction

Hall of Fame induction
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Nobody was surprised when Barry Sanders was elected into the Hall of Fame as soon as he was eligible. He’s an all-time great running back, of course. His highlight reel is maybe the most beloved in NFL history. Sanders was elected into the Hall in 2004, a proper spotlight for a player who often shunned it.

 
20 of 20

Sanders’ son follows in his footsteps

Sanders’ son follows in his footsteps
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It can be hard to live up to having a living legend for a parent. Just ask Michael Jordan’s kids. Barry has four sons, the oldest of which is Barry L. Sanders. The younger Sanders played college football as a running back. He started his college career at Stanford, and spent his final season at his dad’s alma mater Oklahoma State. That being said, Barry’s son wasn’t exactly a great, or even good, running back. Fortunately, there is more to life than football. Barry L. Sanders took a marketing job at the video game company EA after college.

Chris Morgan is a sports and pop culture writer and the author of the books The Comic Galaxy of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and The Ash Heap of History. You can follow him on Twitter @ChrisXMorgan.

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