The gift wrap came off midway through the third quarter. The ribbons were cut and left on the sidelines. The crowd rose to its feet and began to scream and from that frozen moment there was one story in the Lions’ opener, and only one story.
“I was in the huddle and suddenly I heard this roar,” said Bob Gagliano, the Lions quarterback. “I didn’t know what they were cheering about. And then I saw him coming.”
And then he saw him going. On his first carry, Barry Sanders, the dashing rookie running back, gained 18 yards. The city fell in love. On his fourth carry, Sanders darted left into the end zone for Detroit’s first touchdown. The city elected him mayor. On his fifth carry, Sanders raced around right end for 26 yards, the longest rush of the day. The city commissioned a statue.
He breezed. He flew. He knew one play. One play? Yes. The off-tackle run. He ran it nine times for 71 yards, twisted it like a pretzel, curled it like spaghetti. He bent sometimes to the left and sometimes to the right and sometimes he just said the heck with it and ran wherever the biggest hole was.
The effect was undeniable. It was Christmas morning. New Year’s Eve. Whenever he touched the ball it was as if 100,000 volts spit through the Silverdome seats.
“What did you say to him after that touchdown?” someone asked coach Wayne Fontes, who inherited Sanders, the No. 1 pick, just three days ago, after he agreed to a contract.
“I told him he did a super job,” Fontes said. “I told him ‘Welcome to the NFL.’ I told him I loved him.”
“You loved him?”
“Yeah,” Fontes said, sheepishly. “I was excited. I told him I loved him.”
Doesn’t that sum the whole thing up? The coach said he loved him. Everybody loved him. And the Lions lost, 16-13, on a last-minute field goal by Phoenix’s Al Del Greco. Here was an Oscar-winning performance in a B-movie. While Sanders was shining like new, the Lions were flubbing like old: Their new offense produced just one touchdown, the team was penalized 10 times, Jeff Chadwick dropped four passes, Lomas Brown was benched for ineffective play. Cinderella’s Opening Day carriage was turning quickly to a pumpkin — and such is the state of football around here that it almost didn’t matter. People left the Silverdome mumbling more about the debut than the defeat. Oh, the promise.
Barry. Barry. Barry.
“Have you ever felt a surge of excitement like that in this stadium?” someone asked placekicker Ed Murray, who has been here for a decade.
“Once,” he said, rolling his eyes, “when Billy Sims ran out on the field. That was my rookie year.”
Here was a desert thirst being splashed by water. A grumbling hunger sat down at a buffet table. It was everything Detroit football fans have been waiting for — some excitement on offense. And while they should be reminded that not too long ago, Chuck Long debuted with a touchdown pass that made these same fans dizzy with promise, and now he’s a bust, well, nobody wanted to hear that Sunday.
What they wanted to hear was what they created themselves, a welcoming party of two-syllable celebration:
Barry. Barry. Barry. Barry.
All of which had little effect on the man himself. Sanders, only 20, began the day in a room with his parents, cutting his hair. Cutting his hair? Yes. He does that. He told his father he was a little nervous. He had only been in town three days. Was he really ready to play his first NFL game?
“I told him, ‘Son, you play today you’re gonna get hit, you wait until next week, you’ll get hit next week,’ ” said William Sanders, a roofer who largely negotiated his son’s five-year, $5.9-million contract. “Might as well get it over with, right?”
Right. So the young man dressed and stood on the sidelines and did not play the first half. Then, with 5:34 left in the third quarter, on second-and-10 from the Lions’ 44-yard line, Fontes took him around, said, “Relax. Be the kind of back we know you can be,” and nudged him toward the field. The Silverdome erupted into a sea of “Restore The Roar” rags, and the first honest-to-God cheering that has been heard in years. Such was the hysteria that Gagliano was unable to get a play called and had to waste a time-out. The players stood there, aimlessly, shaking his hand and waiting for the clock.
No matter. He served as a decoy on his first play, and the Lions picked up 27 yards on a pass-interference penalty. The next four plays were his, “36, off-tackle” the only one he really knew. And from the moment he touched the ball, he was here to stay. Four plays later he was in the end zone.
I felt pretty comfortable out there,” he said. “It felt good to get hit. I know that sounds weird . . .”
“What about the team?”
“It has a lot of potential.”
“Were you nervous?”
He answered questions slowly, casually. He said the hits really didn’t bother him, they weren’t that much worse than college. When someone asked whether he would rate his performance a good one, he said, “We lost. So I guess it wasn’t good enough.”
That, of course depends on your perspective. Fontes called him “great” and said he was the starting back as of “tomorrow.” The fans swallowed him like cheesecake, he was mobbed as he tried to leave the building.
All this, and the Lions are 0-1 for 1989. So be it. The reality is that nobody stays the flavor of the month forever. And, remember, Phoenix is no great defensive team. Sanders will improve; he may well be a star. But opponents will study film and be ready for him. Injuries will be inevitable. The excitement will be there — we hope it stays forever — but no one player makes an NFL team. Detroit will get used to its newest superstar . . .
“Did anything surprise you today?”
“Well,” he said, shrugging, “I thought we were gonna win.”
. . . and he will get used to Detroit.
BARRY SANDERS MAKES HIS NFL DEBUT, BUT LIONS LOSE TO PHOENIX, 16-13
Lions rookie running back Barry Sanders rushes for 26 yards and a first down in the fourth quarter Sunday at the Silverdome.
Offensive lineman Joe Milinichik hangs his head after he was ejected for unsportsmanlike conduct.