This July marks exactly 20 years since the retirement of the greatest player in Detroit Lions history. Two decades later, his presence still looms large.
20 years later, he’s still 3rd on the NFL all-time rushing list. Out of the top 20 jaw-dropping highlight reel runs in league history, at least half (and probably more) still belong to him. 20 years later, the Detroit Lions still haven’t come anywhere close to replacing him.
When you grow up a Lions fan, there’s a certain amount of ridicule that you just have to get used to. For me, it was getting used having just as many of my elementary school classmates in Northern Michigan who liked the Cowboys, 49ers, or Packers. As an adult, it’s having people literally apologize to me when I say which football team I support. Barry was the one guy that nobody could talk crap about though.
With 1,000 yards minimum and a Pro Bowl selection in all ten seasons of his career, the six-time All-Pro and four-time NFL rushing champ was as close to universally respected as a professional athlete can get. Barry’s electrifying and unrepeatable running style went in direct opposition to a humility and tendency to avoid the spotlight (as much as it’s possible for the most exciting runner in the history of the sport to avoid the spotlight, that is).
Other than his on-field highlights, what I remember most about Barry is his reaction after reaching 2,000 yards against the Jets in 1997. He looked bewildered and embarrassed that the refs stopped the game to recognize his accomplishment, and then relieved when Herman Moore pretended to steal the game ball out of his hands while the Silverdome crowd chanted his name. Then the game started back up again, and back in his element, he took the next hand-off another 50 yards down the field to ice the game and send the Lions into the playoffs.
No matter what people want to say about the Lions, past, present, or future, they’re take on #20 is always some variation of: Yeah, but Barry Sanders was legit though.
Which is why it hurt so much when in July of 1999, still in his prime and one average season away from becoming the league’s all-time leading rusher, Sanders walked away.