Barry Sanders never quite convinced his father that he was the greatest running back in NFL history. While presenting his son for induction at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, William proudly declared Barry as the third greatest running back ever, behind Walter Payton and the elder Sanders’ idol, Jim Brown.
For a generation of football fans, Sanders is the best running back they’ve ever witnessed. Following a highly-decorated college career at Oklahoma State, Sanders’ transition to the NFL seemed to be effortless. In 10 seasons, all with the Detroit Lions, Sanders rushed for 15,269 yards and 99 touchdowns. Both those totals were second all-time in NFL history when Sanders abruptly retired before the start of the 1999 season.
With Sanders celebrating his 54th birthday, here are five quick facts on one of the most elusive players that has ever graced the gridiron.
All-time great season
The 1997 season was a special one for Sanders, who that season shared MVP honors with then-Packers quarterback Brett Favre. Sanders ran for 53 yards during the season’s first two games, then proceeded to run for exactly 2,000 yards during the final 14 games. He eclipsed over 100 yards in each of those games while leading the Lions to the playoffs. Sanders finished the season with 2,053 yards (then the second-highest total in NFL history) while averaging a whopping 6.1 yards per carry.
Sanders is the first player in league history to rush for over 1,000 yards in each of his first 10 seasons. The only other player that has started his career with 10 consecutive 1,000-yard seasons is former Patriots/Jets running back Curtis Martin, who joined Sanders in the Hall of Fame in 2012.
Only four running backs won rushing titles during the 1990s: Sanders (1990, 1994, 1997-98), Emmitt Smith (1991-93, 1995), Terrell Davis (1998) and Edgerrin James (1999). Each of these backs are currently members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
In 1994, Sanders broke Smith’s stranglehold on the rushing title by rumbling for a then-career high 1,883 yards. Sanders also led the NFL with a 5.7 yards-per-carry average that season.
Signature playoff moment
Sanders provided the most memorable play from the Lions’ lone playoff win over the past 60-plus years. Late in the Lions’ 1991 NFC wild card game against the Cowboys, Sanders appeared to be stopped for a moderate gain before he stopped, changed directions, then darted downfield for a 47-yard touchdown. Sanders’ 109 all-purpose yards helped the Lions post a 38-6 win over Smith and the Cowboys.
Hall of Fame history
A first-ballot Hall of Famer, Sanders was just 36 years old at the time of his enshrinement. He is the second-youngest player ever inducted, behind only former Bears running back Gale Sayers. Sayers, who like Sanders was a small but explosive running back, was 34 years of age when he was enshrined in Canton, Ohio in 1977.