MINNEAPOLIS — When they build the monument to Barry Sanders, this is what it should look like: a trail of defensive linemen grasping at air and looking over their shoulders. Here’s the caption: “Where’d he go?”
He went that-a-way, into the end zone, four times Sunday, thank you very much. And because of that, for the first time in eight years, Detroit fans can be assured they are not rooting for a loser. You heard me. This cold November morning, coming around the bend on the 1991 football season, the Lions have twice as many victories as defeats (8-4) and even if they called in sick the rest of the year they could finish no worse than .500. I know in some NFL cities that’s pretty humdrum news. But those cities never made David Lewis a first-round draft pick.
Those cities never had Darryl Rogers as coach, they never blew a division title by losing to Tampa Bay. For years, the Lions have been the boorish cousin at the Thanksgiving table, a loser you wish would go away, but you’re stuck with him.
No more. Detroit is suddenly a winning franchise, and so much of that is due to Sanders it’s scary. He is the air in the Lions’ tires, the gas in their tanks. What he did Sunday afternoon was so unusually awesome (220 yards rushing, a team record, plus four touchdowns) you had to check your jaw after every run to make sure it wasn’t drooping.
“He’s incredible,” center Kevin Glover said after the emotional 34-14 victory over the Vikings. “This one long run today he was directing blocks so beautifully, it was like a professional dancer. When he got back to the huddle I called him ‘Dancing B.’ I said, ‘Hey, Dancing B!’ ” A cut, a spin, a touchdown
Hey, Dancing B! Not a bad theme song. But it’s a lot harder than dancing. Teams have been stacking the line all year for Sanders, six or seven giants swarming him the way groupies swarm a rock star. No room to breathe. Shadowed wherever he goes. Because of this, Sanders had been held in check in recent weeks, and skeptics wondered whether he was stoppable after all. But the great backs, they find a way to daylight, even if you throw a whole army at them. Which brings us to Sunday.
May I tell you what he did?
He cut. He spun. He bounced. He accelerated. On his first touchdown he left linebacker Jimmy Williams frozen like an animal caught in his headlights, then slipped through the grasp of Felix Wright and reached the end zone, six points. On his second touchdown, Sanders exploded like a bullet through the Minnesota line, and to prove he can go deep, sprinted 45 yards and crossed the stripe, six points more. On his third touchdown, he took the handoff and turned lineman Adam Schreiber into a block of stone, cut past him, broke another tackle, danced into the end zone, six points again. And on his fourth touchdown, he headed toward the pile, shot left as if blown by a cyclone, promised land, six more.
One player. Twenty-four points.
“After the first touchdown, I hugged him and said, ‘I think that’s your best one yet,’ ” gushed coach Wayne Fontes. “Then, when he scored the second one I told him, ‘Maybe that was better.’ After the third one I said, ‘I’m gonna change my mind.’ And after the fourth one . . .”
“Which was your favorite?” someone asked Sanders in the postgame locker room.
“The last one,” he said. “Because I got to rest after it.” The one they left behind
Now. Before I go on, I must say this: The Lions’ coaching staff did a great job mixing plays Sunday, alternating Sanders with passes and even handoffs to — gasp! — another back, D.J. Dozier. And the blocking was great, even more commendable because this was the first game without guard Mike Utley, who lies paralyzed in a hospital. His tragedy gave the Lions new focus. “It made us concentrate and not drift off,” Sanders admitted.
But if Utley was the inspiration, Sanders was the exclamation. When he is on, the offense plays better, the defense plays better. “Sometimes I’m on the ground after a block and I see Barry with one man to beat and I just start smiling,” tackle Lomas Brown said. “I know what’s gonna happen.”
So do we. Some kind of magic.
Sanders, naturally, took his day rather humbly, although he did say breaking a few big ones “was like relieving stress” and getting all those yards was “a relief . . . a game I’ve been waiting for, for a while.”
He grinned, and that’s a big display of emotion for No. 20. Outside the locker room, a group of school kids was waiting. Sanders, I am told, is the most popular NFL player today with children. Here’s my theory: They love him because he plays the game as they dream they would, dancing away from the danger. Get him a cape. He is as close to a comic-book hero as football players get.
He is also the single biggest reason — with nods to Chris Spielman and Jerry Ball — that Monday morning is no longer dreadful in Detroit. The day Sanders signed on was the day the Lions came out of their coma.
They’re still building, they are barely a playoff team, I am not looking past that.
But we should cherish every play in which Sanders waves bye- bye to the defense. But after all, for so many years, it was the Lions and their fans trying to grab something and coming up empty. Now, for once, that’s the opponent’s problem. Feels good, doesn’t it?