EAST RUTHERFORD — Because it had to be done, Barry Sanders did it. This alone separates him from every other player wearing a Lions uniform. It is the reason you never give up on him, not if the defense stops him 99 times in a row, not if they step on his head every time they do it. Believe in him. On play No. 100, he will take you over the mountain. There has never been a running back like Sanders. He is a football sunrise; he runs, darkness changes to light.

Here came the ball Sunday, out of the sky, a little swing pass, a desperation throw by Scott Mitchell, who, on third- down-and-the-season, had no other option. It was overtime, the other side of 4 o’clock on a warm autumn day in the New Jersey swamp. Third-and-nine? Overtime? They blow this, they punt, and the Giants may very well choke the last breath out of the Lions’ 1994 season. So Sanders is the cavalry, and Mitchell hears the bugle. He throws, Sanders catches, his feet are on the 20, seven yards from a first down. Nobody there to block for him. Three defenders closing in. In football, this is like asking a pinto to leap a canyon.

Believe. First Sanders put a move on Willie Beamon, the cornerback, and Beamon was out of the reel. See ya. Then Sanders played ghost with a 230-pound linebacker named Jessie Armstead. One moment, Armstead was hugging Sanders like a relative at the airport and the next Armstead had nothing but air and a story to tell his grandkids.

Impossible? Believe. And Sanders wasn’t done. The little orange first-down marker was still a few yards away. Now a third defender, John Booty, the safety, had the angle closed. Sanders had no choice: He went from jackrabbit to truck. He plowed into Booty and pushed him forward — 5-foot-8 Barry Sanders — pushing until the orange marker came into his rearview mirror. Then, and only then, did Sanders allow a tackle.

“What do you say to Barry after he makes a play like that?” Lomas Brown was asked after the Lions rode Sanders’ magic to a 28-25 overtime victory over the Giants and 4-4 record halfway through the season.

“Why do I say?” Lomas gushed. “I say, I say . . . ‘Thank you.’ “

Say thank-you. How did he do that?

Say it for all the games Sanders has put on his back and carried for this team, never flinching, never showing strain or emotion, a consummate craftsman doing his job. Say it for this season, his best ever, no question. Already, Sanders has more than 1,000 yards. We are not yet into November. Men used to need a whole season to approach 1,000 yards. Sanders does it in his eighth game.

Say thank-you for that, and for Sunday, a sure loss without Sanders. It wasn’t just that third-and-nine. It was three plays later, a burst around right end for 16 yards, into field goal range. And it was earlier, fourth quarter, when the Giants had come back to tie, 18-18, and the Meadowlands crowd was roaring, sensing its first victory in a month, and Barry took a handoff and cut left, then shot right like a cruise missile. Sixty-two yards later, the roars had melted into a collective gasp.

How did he do that?

“He was supposed to come my way on that play,” Brown admitted. “But I looked up and he was already downfield. That happens all the time with Barry. You look up from your block and he’s past you.”

Someone asked Brown whether Sunday proves that Sanders is the franchise. Lomas laughed.

“You’d have to be a fool to not already see that.”

Say thank-you.
‘I just did what I could’

When he came off the field, Sanders found his coach, Wayne Fontes, a talk-show punching bag this last month, and Sanders said in that low monotone, “Let’s keep it going, Coach.”

“He hugged me when he said that,” Fontes said. “Make sure you put that in big letters. HE HUGGED ME.”

And 30 minutes later, Sanders was dressed and quietly on his way to the bus before PR man Mike Murray corralled him and asked him whether he’d like to speak with the press. Sanders said OK, and he did, but it wouldn’t have mattered to him if he didn’t. He is not haughty. He is not making a point. He simply goes to work and goes home. He would have been on the bus waiting if Murray had not found him.

“Did you realize how big a play that third down was?” someone asked.

“I, uh, didn’t really have time to put it in perspective.”

“What does becoming the second back in history to reach 1,000 yards in each of your first six seasons mean to you?”

“It means we’ve done a good job.” he said. And in his brown suit and white dress shirt, looking and sounding like a young Gale Sayers, he proceeded to name all the men who have blocked for him — even though sometimes, as Brown admits, they simply watch him go by.

“I just did what I could,” Sanders kept saying. He had 146 yards Sunday, but the numbers were mere dust on his biggest contributions: He made plays when they had to be made. On every great team, there are one or two players who do this. Joe Montana. John Elway. Emmitt Smith.

Barry Sanders, on an average team, still lives in that same neighborhood. You can’t pay players like this enough. You can’t write words that match their achievements. You just sit back, smile, and occasionally do like Sanders’ teammates are doing right now. Say thank you. One day you’re going to tell everyone you got to watch him work.

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