by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

First of all, Barry Sanders doesn’t mind dancing. As long as someone else is doing it. Sure, when he scores a touchdown, he hands the ball to the referee like a mailman delivering a phone bill. But he isn’t bothered by those who prefer a wiggle or a shake. “Hey, I used to love Billy (White Shoes) Johnson, and the Washington Smurfs and all,” he says, looking down at his hands. “It’s just . . . not me.”

Nor does he have a problem with fame. Oh, it’s true, he asked if he could skip his own Heisman award ceremony, and he passed up an invite to the White House because he had to study. But he doesn’t condemn players who search for the spotlight. “It’s just,” he says, “not me.”

What just is Barry Sanders? Nobody seems to know. Everybody wants to. Three months after slipping on a Lions uniform, Sanders, the son of a Kansas roofer, is the most compelling figure on the Detroit sports pages. Isiah Thomas may be throwing in baskets and Steve Yzerman may be skating circles around defensemen, but, let’s be honest, we have seen their magic. This is new. This is thrilling.

This is a man who takes a football, flips on his engine and leaves defenders frozen like tanks. Here comes Barry. There goes Barry. He is the best rookie in the NFL and one of the top running backs in the game. Already? Already. Walter Payton, after watching Sanders’ first 10 Sundays, announced that “Barry is better than I was.” Better than Payton? Who is this guy? What makes him tick?

Why is that important? Sanders wonders. Isn’t it enough that I run? Don’t they know what I know? A humble man can do anything without a lot of noise. When Barry was a child in Kansas, he used to pretend he was a super hero. He would enter the house and jump for the ceiling, his fingers straining for a touch, higher, high–

“Cut it out, damn it!” his father would yell. “Before I smack you!”

So he learned to fly quietly.

He has been doing it ever since. Religion, family . . . football “People write that I’m this nice, shy choir boy,” says Sanders, sitting by his locker at the Silverdome, a towel draped over his bare shoulders. “But that’s not really true. That’s just an image. They have to come up with some image for me, because plain people don’t sell newspapers.

“I like to talk. I have friends. But it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t want to talk football these days. And football is not the most important thing in my life. Religion, my family, being at peace with myself — and then maybe football. I wonder all the time what I might be doing if not playing this game.”

It is hard to imagine; his body almost screams athletics. Look at those thighs, so massive, so hard. Look at those arms, like steel cables. It is as if someone poured concrete into a 5-foot-8 flesh mold. His close-cropped hair frames a smooth face that, believe it or not, is often smiling. Really.

“Are you embarrassed by fame?” he is asked.


“Are you embarrassed by wealth?”


“What embarrasses you?”

He rubs his ear. “What embarrasses me? I guess walking in the middle of a crowd and slipping and falling on my behind. That would embarrass me.”

See? A joke. Barry Sanders laughs in a gushing giggle, like he did when he was a kid back in Kansas. It was there, in that three-bedroom house in the poorer section of Wichita, where he jumped for the ceiling and felt the wrath of his father. It was there where he met rich kids, who would tease him about all those people living in one house. It was there where he would walk with a hat pin in his teeth, like a toothpick. It looked cool, until one day he accidentally swallowed it, and from then on, never needed a prop for his ego.

It was there where he watched his mother and listened to her sighs and heard his own voice. To understand Barry Sanders, you must understand his childhood. At age 21, he is still, in a way, going through it. Never complain There were only two rules in the Sanders home. Rule No. 1: Never disobey Dad. Rule No. 2: Never forget rule No. 1. William Sanders is a stubborn, headstrong man, the father of 11, who used to race his sons backwards to prove he was faster. Before Barry was born, he worked in a meat scrap company, dumping the bones of dead animals. “One day I went for a drink of water and I turned around and the boss was right there staring at me. I said, ‘Hey, why don’t you get off my back?’ And he said, ‘Hit the road.’ He fired me.

“I went to the union, filed for arbitration, and won. They said I could have my job back. I said, ‘Give me my money. I’m not working here.’ “

He turned to roofing, carpentry, home repairs. When he needed assistance, he took his three sons, William Jr., Byron and Barry, the baby. All day they would labor, with the hammers, the tar, sweating in the hot summer sun. You did not complain in the Sanders family. Not unless you wanted a good whupping. Dad said “Get in the car.” You got in the car. Dad said “Get off that telephone and stop talking to girls.” You got off the telephone and stopped talking to girls. Money? Barry was amazed that kids in school actually got an allowance “just for being alive.” There were no allowances in the Sanders family. “Your pay is having a roof over your head and food to eat,” said Mr. Sanders.

Although he had eight daughters, William preferred sons. “Boys grow up to be football players,” he said, as if it were their destiny. Of course, with 10 siblings, it’s hard to tell if that was destiny pushing you or just someone’s elbow at the dinner table. In the fourth grade, Barry’s sister bought him an electric football set for Christmas. He spun the little men and watched them rumble along the metal field. “I identified,” he admits, “with the running back.”

So it begins. That same year, he signed up for football with the Beech Red Barons, a local youth team. No one figured Barry for an athlete. He was puny. On the day of Barry’s first game, William Sanders went instead to watch Byron. Byron was big. Byron was strong. Byron had a chance of growing into an NFL player, who might make some big money “and get me off the damn rooftops.” Go, Byron! During the game, a friend came running over, out of breath.

“Hey, Bill. You ought to see what Barry’s doing down on the other field!”

“What are you talking about?”

“He scored three touchdowns already. He’s running past everybody.”

“Barry?” said the father. “Barry can’t even play football.”

Well, he said Barry couldn’t fly either. Like mother, like son “I take after my mother,” Barry Sanders says. “The only way I take after my father is that he was a great athlete. But my mother is the type who doesn’t talk to hear herself talk. She would rather see other people happy than herself. I’ve never heard her curse. I’ve never seen her take a drink. She is a Christian woman. A real one.”

“Do you try to live up to her standards?” he is asked.


“Do you fall short?”

He smiles. “Most people do.”

Shirley Sanders spent nearly half her adult life pregnant or giving birth. Eleven children. She bathed them. Fed them. Took them to church. Young Barry adored her, she seemed so smart, so disciplined. But he would watch when she and her husband argued and saw how she always backed down, even when she was right. “My father is a male chauvinist,” Barry says, matter-of-factly.
“He always had to be right because he was the man.”

Absorb and endure. That is what his mother did. And when it came time to choose between role models, Barry chose her. Thus, when the high school coach failed to start him as tailback because he claimed Barry was “afraid of contact,” Sanders did not argue, the way his father might. He kept his anger to himself. Absorb and endure. When he finally got to start (not until his senior year) he rushed for 274 yards and scored four touchdowns in his first game. He slipped tackles so easily, the referees checked his uniform for Vaseline.

Absorb and endure. In college, at Oklahoma State, he was given a summer job packing groceries at a supermarket. It paid $3.35 an hour. Other players on the team were given jobs paying three times that much. He knew it. He kept it inside. Four months later, he crushed the NCAA record for yards rushing in a single season (2,628, or an average of 238.9 a game). He won the Heisman trophy. He would never need a grocery store job again.

Absorb and endure. During contract talks with the Lions, William Sanders seemed to run the show. He spoke bluntly; he called the offers insulting. As the holdout grew, he gave the impression that Barry was only interested in money. It wasn’t true. Barry knew it. “People would tease me, saying, ‘Your father’s doing all your talking for you.’ ” But like his mother, he would never tell his father to be quiet. Absorb and endure. New street, same house And be humble. Even now, with the money he earns (a five-year, $5.9 million contract) he does not drive a Mercedes or a Porsche. His clothes are simple. There are no gold chains. Although his father nearly dragged him out of college one year early — “You go out for spring football, I’ll break your legs myself,” he once said — life in Wichita hasn’t changed much. Barry has offered his parents whatever they want. Money is in the bank.
“We’re on Easy Street now,” says William Sanders. “But we still live in the same house.”

A good metaphor. Is it possible to be Big Time and Small Time at the Same Time? Apparently so. Sanders once told a TV reporter he hoped Rodney Peete would win the Heisman trophy instead of him. Huh? The day he announced his NFL eligibility, he missed a plane because the clutch blew out on his rickety old car. Is he for real? People wonder.

He is for real. Give him a roof, a bed, some food and a Bible and he will want for nothing. “My mother wouldn’t,” he says simply. This is a guy who can count on one hand the number of parties he’s been to in his life. In high school, he was nominated for Homecoming King. Much to his dismay, he won.

“There’s a picture I have of him and the Homecoming Queen that night,” says Mark McCormick, his lifelong friend, a journalism student at Kansas. “You should see it. She looks so happy, all smiles — and Barry looks like he’s constipated.”

Well, since when is it a crime not to like the spotlight? Sanders, who says that trusting people is “harder than ever,” still treats his old friends royally. Three years ago, McCormick was struggling to get by at college. Sanders took half the money he was getting on scholarship and immediately offered it to his friend. No questions asked.

When Barry signed his huge contract with the Lions, he promptly gave one-tenth of his $2.1 million signing bonus to his church back in Kansas. A tenth? “Tithing, it’s in the Bible,” he says. End of explanation.

He gave his Heisman trophy to the family’s favorite restaurant. He gladly signs autographs for children but is wary of adults. A woman once invited him to a party. “What will we do there?” he asked. “We’ll get high, have some drinks.” Sanders couldn’t believe it. No thanks, he said. He went back to his room and watched TV. He’s for real And now everybody is watching him. Usually from behind. His stop-start, dip-and-spin running makes you dizzy with excitement. The yardage meter rolls like a pinball machine. Does he really lead the NFC in rushing? Could he really win Rookie of The Year and go to the Pro Bowl?

“I looove blocking for that guy,” says Lomas Brown, the offensive tackle. Was that a Lion talking? You bet. In just three months, Sanders has helped rinse this team of a losing attitude and dipped it into the world of the possible. Hey. We can win! We got a Superstar here!

Now all they have to do is get used to that humility. In the locker room, his teammates razz him — he is, after all, still a rookie — but he often ignores their teasing and they find themselves awkwardly walking away. “Yo, man, just kidding,” they’ll say. Is this guy for real?

He is for real, a white-hot talent in burlap wrapping. So he doesn’t mind dancing — as long as you do it. And talk shows are fine — but why don’t you take the microphone, OK? “People shouldn’t think because I’m quiet I don’t make my own decisions,” he says. “I just prefer to watch people at first, to see if their walk is as big as their talk.”

His is. He stretches the towel behind his neck and every muscle in his shoulders and arms seems to pop out through the skin. Yes, it is true, he may have the world at his feet. But he will probably step over it.

The question seems to be when will Barry Sanders change? The answer seems to be, what for?


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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