This is how you stop Barry Sanders. You cut off his lanes. Give him nowhere to go. Make him plow right into you and then try to hold on.
I am talking about interviewing him.
This explains why I was standing by myself outside the trainer’s area in the far back corner of the Lions’ locker room Thursday. I know Barry. I have run this drill before. I knew he was in that room. I knew he had to come out. I strategically placed myself between the corridor and the meeting rooms — where he had to go next — and waited for the inevitable collision.
Of course, I looked a little aimless, all by myself, as if waiting for a bus.
“Hey, Mitch, whatcha doin’ just standing there?” Herman Moore said.
“Oh, you know,” I said, shuffling my feet.
“Yeah, I saw you standing there, too, didn’t even recognize you,” Johnnie Morton said.
“Oh, you know . . .” I said.
They shrugged. But I did not move. I would not surrender this spot. I know Barry. This is how it gets done. You go where he goes. You shadow. You wait. Forget his locker. You wait by his locker, you end up interviewing his socks.
Besides, it was this elusiveness that I wanted to ask Barry about in the first place. He was pretty much incommunicado during his whole contract thing. And since he rejoined the team, I hadn’t seen a whole lot of quotes.
For example, I read Sports Illustrated’s preview on the Lions, and not a word from Sanders, the most important player on the team. Same with several other periodicals. TV people I know claim they wait hours in vain for a Barry sound bite. And he has this habit of scooting out the back door after games.
It all seemed kind of strange, given that Barry, in his ninth season as a Lion, gets more and more familiar. You would think he’d become more talkative, not less.
Barry’s typical day
So when Sanders emerged from the room, I dug in my heels, cut off his angles and applied the journalistic tackle.
“Barry,” I said, pulling out the notepad.
He raised his eyes. He hadn’t seen me in a good while, but he looked as if he’d just left me a minute ago.
“Is it my imagination, or do you seem even more reclusive this preseason?”
Barry grinned and said, “Hmmph.”
(This, by the way, is a paragraph for Barry. “Hmmph.” Many times, he simply says “Hmm,” which I consider a Barry sentence. It’s the extra “ph” that makes it a paragraph.)
“Nah, man, I’m here,” he continued. “I’m here every day, 8:30 to 4:30.”
“You’re not making yourself scarce?”
Again a grin. “Nah.”
“Then why so few quotes? Why so few interviews?”
“I dunno. Maybe some of your colleagues haven’t had much to ask me.”
He smiled and rolled his eyes, and we were back to the same quixotic Barry Sanders that this remarkable athlete has always been. Barry is humble about his talent, but I have never believed his silence was shyness or intimidation or even sweetness.
I believe Barry is quiet because he’s smart.
And because he is smart, I think inside he’s champing at the bit to get this new season started. Why?
Well, to paraphrase a presidential campaign slogan, “It’s the fullback, stupid.”
It’s not Wayne’s World
For the first time since arriving in Detroit, Barry Sanders, the greatest improviser since Miles Davis, will actually have a backfield mate whose job is to create holes for him.
“From a common sense point of view,” Sanders admitted, “it is an idea that might have been tried a little earlier.”
Write that down, folks. Because it’s as close as Sanders will ever come to saying Wayne Fontes misused him during his tenure. There were times in the last eight years that Sanders took the handoff and could’ve brushed the teeth of eight defensive players, all looking to clobber him. It was up to Barry to wiggle out of trouble.
At least now, there will be one backfield guy whose job is to spring a little more daylight for the fleet-footed Sanders. Besides, under Bobby Ross’ altered offensive scheme — more use of tight ends — there should be blocks where there weren’t blocks before, and plays that work because of holes, not because Sanders sprinkled pixie dust. This is why some experts are predicting record yardage for Sanders in 1997.
“With Wayne, it was different, this was his first head coach job,” Sanders said. “Coach (Ross) has a lot of experience. He’s been to a Super Bowl. And he likes to get up and talk.”
“Talk?” I said.
“Yeah, man. He talks about everything.”
What a concept, Barry! Talking! But don’t be fooled. Sanders is listening. Ross’s Super Bowl experience means a lot. So does the new scheme. I asked Barry whether, at age 29, he felt like “finally, I have the coach and system to make me shine and win.”
Barry smiled. “I don’t know, things have worked out pretty well for me so far.”
Classic Barry. And end of today’s conversation. He pulled a juke move to the left, and slid toward the meeting room door.
Never mind. Two more days until the season opener, and this is what I believe. I believe Barry thinks this is the year he’s been waiting for.
Whether he says so or not.
To leave a message for sports columnist Mitch Albom, call 1-313-222-4581.
Mitch will sign copies of his new book, “Tuesdays With Morrie,” tonight, 7-8, Media Play in Clinton Township; Saturday, 11 a.m.-noon, Webster’s in Okemos; and Sept. 5, 7-8 p.m., Little Professor in Ann Arbor.