“I always wanted to play for the underdog.”

Barry Sanders, Heisman winner, upon learning Lions drafted him It was as easy as letting water out of the tub. The Lions needed speed? They took the fastest running back in the draft. They needed marquee value? They took the biggest star available. Never mind that the suspense was so thin, you could cut it with a paper clip. What do you want? Drama or improvement?

Let this go down as the day the Lions’ stopwatches clicked a little sooner. The day season-ticket holders looked at their checkbooks and said, “Aw, what the hell. Sign me up.” Call it the Feel Good Draft. Happy Heisman, everybody. Speed kills. Speed thrills. And for all those vertical leaps and medical reports, this is the real bottom line of drafting Barry Sanders: The Lions were dull; they just got more exciting.

“I told you people we were gonna restore the roar,” said an elated coach Wayne Fontes, holding a victory cigar, as he addressed the room full of reporters Sunday after selecting Sanders with the No. 3 pick. “He will electrify the crowd. We’re gonna put the ball in his hands. . . . This guy is going to win some games for us.”

Well. Not by himself. I’ve yet to see a running back plow through 11 guys without a block here or there. But Sanders — although small for the NFL — was certainly the right selection, and John Ford, the speedy wide receiver from Virginia chosen in the second round, wasn’t bad, either. Especially for an offense that has been as exciting as dishwater.

Need speed? Get speed. Fontes (and you thought he’d draft only defense) seemed to do almost everything right offensively in his first draft as head coach — running back, wide receiver and a mammoth offensive lineman, Mike Utley from Washington State, in the third round — except, perhaps, for his suggestion that Sanders wear No. 20, Billy Sims’ old number.

Hey. Wayne. Let it go. If this is really to be a new team, with new speed and new attitude, then let’s get out of this “Billy was the greatest” mentality. The only reason Sims still looms as big as he does is that the Lions have looked so pathetic since he left in 1984. Be honest. Where did Detroit go with him? Two years in the playoffs — one with a 4-5 strike- year record? That’s the era we want to relive? Let Barry Sanders be Barry Sanders, his own number, his own chapter. This team is trying to wake up to the fresh coffee of enthusiasm.

Billy Sims was a long time ago.

So, OK, what of Sanders, the sixth Heisman Trophy winner to be fitted for a Lions uniform? This much we know. He can change speeds. He can change direction. He can also — as was apparent in a phone conversation Sunday — change his mind.

Here is a junior who once said he was sure he would stay in school. (“Then I thought about it, and there were a lot of factors, so I decided to enter the draft.”) A guy who at first heard so many negative things about Detroit he considered not coming if he was drafted. (“But then my father checked it out and I’ve heard some good things, so I’m very optimistic now.”) A guy who at first was hardly sold on the Lions’ new run-and- shoot offense. (“I’m optimistic about it now. I still don’t know much about it. Actually, I’m still not sold on it.”)

What we have here, in essence, is a shy 20-year-old kid on a speedway of fame and fortune. He was hurled into the spotlight when his yardage numbers at Oklahoma State began to sing louder than the hype for Troy Aikman and Rodney Peete. Even the day he won the Heisman, Sanders didn’t want to be filmed for an acceptance speech because he had a game to play in Tokyo, and he thought it would be disruptive. Only when he was allowed to take his offensive linemen with him did he relent and do the satellite shoot.

Quiet, sensitive, with a demanding, blue-collar father who made it clear that money, son, is the name of the game. That is the profile that emerges of Sanders. And short. Just 5-feet-8, 197 pounds.

Yet when it counts, he apparently knows how to stand his ground. When asked what would satisfy him here in Detroit, he said: “To play well . . . and to see a nice chunk of dough. That means money.”

When asked about the NCAA probation against his alma mater, he said: “Hey. I went to Oklahoma State as an unknown. I would have paid for a tryout. Meanwhile, they were paying some other players to come there. I worked my butt off, and so did most of my teammates and now, as a result of what some coach did five years ago, we’re under probation. We can’t be on television, and we can’t go to a bowl game. All that takes the heart out of a player.”

Does that sound like a shy guy to you?

The sense is that Barry Sanders is a classy, cautious, family-devoted guy
(10 brothers and sisters, with whom he stayed in Kansas Sunday night), a guy for whom the lights are suddenly speeding by very fast. He has never been to Detroit. He is leaving college early. His only stumbling block may be his youth. After all, how mature were you at 20?

That’s OK. He can run. Fast. Very fast. And the plain fact is, it will be a relief to see the Lions hand off to someone other than James Jones or Garry James. Too often, that was like watching ketchup pour.

“As a defensive coach, I know we always asked about the offensive guys,
‘How quick is he?’ ” said Fontes. “If they say 4.5 or 4.6, we say, ‘Well, we can handle him.’ If they say, ‘4.4 or 4.3,’ you really start to worry.”

And Sanders has been clocked as low as 4.27.

Start worrying. And start planning for the swirl of attention that will accompany Sanders’ first games here. No, he is not a quick fix. Nobody can be in football. But he is a player that almost all NFL teams desired — and you can’t say that about a lot of previous Lions draft picks.

He is an impact player within his first two years — and you can’t say that about a lot of previous Lions picks.

And he is a star attraction — and you can’t say that about . . . well, you get the point.

Finally, a draft where they celebrated the obvious, a draft where you didn’t have to appreciate the finer points of stunt- blocking or zone defense to understand why the team took some guy you never heard of.

Need speed? Get speed. Need marquee value? Get marquee value. Simple as breathing. There were fans at the Silverdome ticket office by 3 p.m., looking to buy season tickets. Never mind that the office is closed Sunday. The news was out. Barry Sanders is a Lion. Give him a fresh number and a crisp uniform.

And while you’re at it, stitch the words “See You Later” on the back.

With any luck, that’s all the opponents will see of him.

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