The eyes, they say, are the windows to the soul. They are also rather important if you want to know where you’re going. So when Barry Sanders took a finger in the eye in the third quarter, and he stopped running in the middle of the play and pushed his hand through the small opening in his helmet, reaching for his cornea as instinctively as a child, helpless for a moment, then down on his knees, well, the nearly sold- out Silverdome seemed to explode in angered activity, like a parent who had just seen the bully smack their kid.
The fans showered the Packers with thunderous boos. Lions players screamed at the referees for a penalty. Wayne Fontes sprinted across the field
— a sideline-to-sideline dash — in frantic concern that his star might be wounded.
“I run out for all my guys,” Fontes would later admit, “but I was going a little faster than usual on that one.”
And why not? You can write the Lions’ story any way you choose, from side to side, from top to bottom, backwards, forwards, inside-out, it doesn’t matter, it will all come down to this: No. 20. Barry Sanders. It begins and ends with him.
And so, when Sanders was temporarily blinded, it became a focal moment of a game that already had plenty of in-your-face highlights and lowlights. It is always like this when the Lions play the Packers in December with something on the line. It goes back to the outdoor games, in the mud and snow, the days that earned this part of the football map the nickname “black and blue division.”
It was black and blue Sunday. So much so that, late in the game, you saw a normally reserved defensive lineman, Robert Porcher, charge Packers quarterback Brett Favre and begin screaming, “Don’t you run my side! Don’t you think of running my side! You will not get anything on my side!”
His outburst would bring a penalty flag, and, because this was late in the fourth quarter, and the Pack was driving for a winning score, well, it was not what you call a smart play.
But it was an emotional one, from the heart, borne in the drama of the fan noise that was 100 airplane engines all afternoon.
The noise that began with Barry.
He has no one to top but himself
He broke a record Sunday. Best rushing season ever for a Lion. Sanders had 188 yards Sunday. He has 1,594 for the season. He has done this with three games still to go.
The record he broke was his own.
That is where Sanders is now: surpassing his own excellence. Before the eye poke, he had already led the Lions back into the game, with three runs in the second quarter that left you with your mouth hanging open — not to mention what it did to the Packers who tried to tackle him.
A first down, up the middle for 21 yards. A second down, off left tackle for 34 yards. Another second down, around the end, past everybody, for a touchdown.
And after the eye poke? He got even better. The Lions were trailing the Pack by four points. The whole season was in danger. Playoffs on the ropes. Dave Krieg gave Barry the ball the way he gives it to him so many times, with no promises, no assurances, just a handoff and a look. Sanders did the rest.
He went straight ahead, juked, cut left and began a string of missed tackles and bewildered faces that was straight out of a Keystone Kops movie.
Sean Jones, Green Bay’s defensive end, missed him. George Teague, the safety, let him slip. LeRoy Butler, the other safety, couldn’t stop him. Barry was off to the races, down the sidelines, and by the time he was knocked out of bounds, 63 yards later, the Lions’ season was back to positive.
Sanders? He took a breath, came back one play later, pushed through for eight more yards.
Came back one play later, picked up four more.
Finally, with the ball on the Green Bay 1, his work complete, he jogged off.
Didn’t even rub his eye.
Barry was elusive till the end
“I don’t want to get religious here,” said Fontes, after the Lions converted Sanders’ efforts to the winning touchdown, 34-31, a game that kept them alive for the playoffs. “But when the Creator said, ‘You’re gonna be Barry Sanders,’ He was saying from now on, all running backs will look at this guy and see what they want to be.”
And here’s the most amazing part. When the game was done, the Lions locker room was awash in happiness. The offensive linemen were celebrating Scott Conover’s deception touchdown pass — “Retire his jersey!” Lomas Brown yelled
— and the defense was feeling good about its efforts in the final seconds. Fontes was hugging people. Dave Krieg was smiling. All over the room, people were looking forward to the next game, seeing a light in this long tunnel of a season, they felt like you want to feel after a long, hard-fought afternoon of football. They felt like winners.
And the man most responsible for that slipped on his clothes in the back room and quietly made his way out the door. No news conferences necessary. No glory needed. Another day, another handful of miracles.
He left without anyone noticing, leaving behind a roomful of teammates who can, thanks mostly to him, see where they’re going.