Contrary to popular belief, there is one thing Barry Sanders did not do that he was supposed to do this year. He did not appear on “Late Show with David Letterman.” Scheduling problem. A shame, really. The Letterman people see this supersonic little running back, great moves, beloved by kids, they figure
“Terrific. Dave will have a blast. Book him.”
What they don’t know is Barry’s verbal repertoire, with people he doesn’t know, usually consists of these three sentences:
2. “Is that right?”
3. “You think so?”
So you could just see it: The band plays, Sanders come out, Dave shakes his hand, starts off with his typical bubbling, “Hey, good to see ya!”
And Barry says, “Is that right?”
“Is what right?”
“Um, you said good to see ya.”
“Yes, I did.”
“You think so?”
“I . . . what? Good to see ya?”
“Is that right?”
“Is what . . . you mean. . . .”
“Good to see ya?”
Now that, sports fans, I’d pay money to watch, Sanders giving Letterman the slip. And don’t think he couldn’t do it. He has eluded everyone else this year. It’s no surprise Sanders was chosen 1994’s Michigan’s Best by the readers of this newspaper. He has been in contention before — let’s face it, he has been the best running back in this state since 1989, the day he signed his contract.
But this was the season that the world — not just Michigan — seemed to embrace Sanders as the best. You used to get arguments for Thurman Thomas. More versatile than Barry. Not anymore. You used to hear about Emmitt Smith. More powerful than Barry. Now Emmitt is a consensus No. 2.
Number One is Barry, wherever you turn, the best in the business, the hardest to stop. One night, during rehearsal for an ESPN show, we were reviewing a tape of his third-and-nine scamper that saved the game against the Jets. On came Barry, juking one guy — whhhpp! — then slipping like a ghost through the grasp of another — zzzzpp! — then barreling into a third and plowing him back — bonnngg! — for a first down.
And when the tape ended, we couldn’t help it, we were giggling. Those were our comments. Grown men. Giggling.
That’s what Barry Sanders does to you. A firm grip on reality
He went small this year, as usual — the most incredible four- and five-yard runs — but he also went big. He had individual explosions of 85, 84, 69, 64 and 63 yards. He got poked in the eye against Green Bay and ran without a shoe against Tampa Bay and carried 40 times on a Monday night against Dallas, and in all that time — all season, in fact — he never fumbled the ball. Not once. Hasn’t lost a fumble in two years, 646 carries. Go outside and try taking a handoff from someone 646 times. Bet you fumble plenty. And that’s just a handoff!
“I feel blessed,” says Wayne Fontes, his coach, “just to be able to watch him work out.”
He’s the best. I say that with no fear of inflating his ego. As Abe Lincoln said of a man’s legs — they should be long enough to reach the ground — Barry’s head is the perfect size for what he has done. He is no longer the
“aw, shucks,” embarrassed kid of 1989. He does national interviews now without breaking into a cold sweat. He talks about his son, he talks about feeling invincible on the field, he talks about the time Cindy Crawford called the locker room — but he never talks in a self-important way. That’s what is so delightful. Instead of bursting into the league announcing his greatness — remember Brian Bosworth? — he has proved it before talking, and so now everyone wants to hear what he has to say. Isn’t that the way it should be?
Barry wanted that 2,000-yard mark. He won’t admit it, but he did. And maybe if he had been used more intelligently earlier in the season, he would have it. No matter. It just leaves him two unfinished pieces of business from this, his Michigan Best Year of 1994.
Get the 2,000, and spin Letterman around.
My money’s on the little guy.