POISE AND PRAYERA MODEST HERO IN A BRUTAL GAME

They gathered around him as he gave a postgame interview, big beefy men with one thing in mind. Closer now. He was almost finished talking. Finally, when they heard him say “thank you,” the big men moved in, the center, the guards, the tackles. They went low, stooping down to get him.

Barry Sanders shot them a look.

“It’s time,” one of them said, going for his legs.

“Aw, maaaan,” Sanders said.

And up he went, onto their shoulders as he broke into a winning smile, Barry Sanders, the little miracle worker who had not only saved this game, but had won it and iced it. In one exhausting winter afternoon, on three huge runs, Sanders carried the Lions, the playoffs, and history in the crook of his arm. It was only fitting now that somebody else carried him.

“WHOOOOO!” yelled the pack of Lions linemen, as they paraded Sanders before a sold-out Silverdome crowd that cheered the finish of this gut-wrenching season finale, a game that left fans drenched with nervous perspiration, not only for the 13-10 victory over the Jets that put the Lions in the playoffs, not only for Sanders passing the 2,000-yard rushing mark for the season, not only for all the great things about football — but also for the other side of the game, the brutality of it all, which was on full display in the fourth quarter.

It was then, on a seemingly simple play, that Lions linebacker Reggie Brown, 23, went head first into another player and went down. He lay there, unconscious. His eyes rolled back. He didn’t seem to be breathing. His teammates began yelling, “Get help, get help!”

Johnnie Morton, the speedy receiver, ran madly to the tunnel in search of an ambulance.

“I was panicking, because they said he wasn’t breathing,” Morton would later say. “I yelled for the ambulance, and then I saw a stretcher and I grabbed that and ran out with it. I didn’t know what else to do. I was crying the whole time. I mean, we didn’t know. We saw the doctors cut open his uniform and stick something down his throat. We didn’t know.”

Nobody knew. For 20 minutes, the game, the playoffs, the records, all of it ceased to matter. This was the horrible whisper that lives in the shadows of every NFL play. The one about life and death. It was not until reports that would come an hour later, reports that Brown had begun to regain consciousness and had some movement in his feet, that anyone on the Lions would breathe normally.

The stirring comeback

Yet there was still a game to be finished and — if the Lions wanted a postseason — it had to be won. It had been a schizophrenic affair to that point; the Lions had fallen behind a Jets team that showed all the innovation and audacity of its coach, Bill Parcells.

There is no arguing Parcells is the most effective coach in the NFL. A few years ago, he stole a Super Bowl for his New York Giants by shortening the game against an offensively superior Buffalo team. On Sunday, he seemed to be pulling a page from that same playbook, running short plays, eating the clock, staying in bounds, keeping the ball out of Sanders’ hands.

It was smart. And it worked beautifully — for a while. The Jets scored 10 points in the first nine minutes. They had the Lions reeling. The visitors’ defense was surprisingly effective. And when the half ended, the Jets had a 10-3 lead and a five-minute edge in time of possession.

Of course, to that point, Sanders had only eight carries and 20 yards. This is not enough. If we have learned anything in all the years this remarkable player has worn a Lions uniform, it’s this: GIVE THE BALL TO BARRY.

Don’t question it. Don’t second-guess it. Don’t abandon it. Just give him the ball. Until the end of the third quarter, the Lions had been relying too much on a very shaky quarterback, Scott Mitchell, who showed serious rust from a no-practice week due, we are told, to bruised ribs. His passes were too high or too low. Meanwhile, if the Lions gave the ball to Barry once, they came right back with a passing play. It wasn’t working. The crowd was booing.

Finally, at the end of that third quarter, on third-and-3 from the Lions’ 36, Mitchell handed Sanders the ball for a second consecutive time. And like a lawn mower that needs two pulls to start, Sanders roared. He exploded through the line and bang! Forty-seven yards.

That put the Lions less than 20 yards from the end zone. After a Mitchell sack, which lost six yards, the fans began to call the plays. “BARRY! BARRY BARRY!”

Mitchell, quite correctly — and fans might have jumped him if he didn’t — handed off to Barry on the very next play. Sanders burst off left tackle and was in the end zone 15 yards later. Touchdown. 13-10. A lead they would not relinquish.

GIVE THE BALL TO BARRY.

It’s really simple, isn’t it?

The historic moment

After the last serious Jets threat fizzled with a Bryant Westbrook interception in the end zone — a huge play that probably will get lost in all the story lines — what remained was history. Only two NFL running backs had ever rushed for more than 2,000 yards in a season. Sanders, chasing it all year, drew to 1,998 yards on the next series, before the Lions had to punt.

“What if they don’t get the ball back?” fans wondered.

Not to worry. This day seemed full of destiny. And if it was Barry’s destiny to save the game and to win the game, it was also his destiny to immortalize it. So after the Lions’ defense forced a punt, he came out with the offense, all those behemoth linemen who love him like a kid brother. And with 2:15 left, Sanders took a first-down handoff into a pile of players. When they cleared the pile, he had his two yards and the record he wanted more than he let on.

“BARRY SANDERS HAS JUST BECOME THE THIRD PLAYER IN NFL HISTORY TO REACH 2,000 YARDS FOR A SEASON,” the PA announcer bellowed. Barry’s teammates mobbed him. Wide receiver Herman Moore playfully stole the ball. Barry grabbed it back, smiled, and tossed it to an equipment man.

Then, as if saving the best song for an encore, he took the next handoff — his last of the regular season — and busted through for 53 yards. That’s right. Fifty-three. Just in case there were any doubters out there. He finished the game with 184 yards on 23 carries and the season with 2,053 yards.

“It’s hard to put into words what this means,” Sanders said. This was in the crowded interview area after the game. Sanders stood with his entire offensive line, thanking them, saying, “I’m the lucky one who gets to carry the ball. I couldn’t do it without these guys.”

They wore T-shirts that read “Mission Accomplished, 12-21-97, NFC playoffs, 2000 yards.” It was exuberant. Celebratory. When Barry related details of a play, the lineman behind him would laugh and sing, “That’s my side! He’s talking about my side!”

But football is nothing if not a mixed bag of emotion. So across the hall, even as Barry answered questions, defensive players spoke in somber tones about Brown, their missing teammate. Defensive end Robert Porcher, who had wanted to reach the playoffs for so long with this bunch, now sat by his locker, blinking his eyes as if in pain.

“After they took Reggie away, I just wanted to get the game over with,” he said. “It’s the fear we all have. Every time I run onto a field for a game, I wonder, deep inside, if I’m going to be able to run off.

“We all wonder that. We just don’t express it. To see him there, his face turning like, blue, his eyes rolling back . . .”

He shook his head and looked down. At that moment, no one felt like saying congratulations.

It was that kind of game, and that kind of afternoon. Everything that is football, the good and the bad. As this is being written, the reports on Brown seem encouraging. We will hope that the news continues in that direction. Remember, this is a town that has recent and still-raw experience with balancing the joys of sports with the tragedies of injury.

So we think about Brown and we pray for his recovery, even as we memorize the sight of Sanders bouncing on the shoulders of his very large teammates, all of whom have another game now, at Tampa Bay, next Sunday.

When Sanders finished that initial postgame interview, the TV man said,
“Thanks for joining us.”

Barry, in typical fashion, replied, “Thank you for having me …and my team .
. .”

Our pleasure. But I think it’s the other way around.

Mitch Albom will sign copies of his new book, “Tuesdays With Morrie,” at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, at Barnes & Noble on Orchard Lake in West Bloomfield Township. To leave a message for Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.

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