Welcome to our very first Throwback Thursday blog. Each week, we’ll be spotlighting one of our favorite throwback superstars. We choose these stars using a rigorous scientific process we know in-house as “Whoever Nick Feels Like Writing About This Week Unless One Of You Jackals Has A Better Idea.” Our inaugural Throwback Thursday is the greatest Detroit Lion of all-time, and quite possibly the greatest running back that ever was: Barry Sanders.
Retiring after ten years in the league and within spitting distance of the all-time rushing record (then held by Chicago Bears legend, and likely star of a future Throwback Thursday column Walter Payton), Barry Sanders was still at—or at least near—the peak of his powers. In his final season, Sanders rang up 1,491 rushing yards… a number that would have been good for second-most in the NFL last season. His 1,780 yards from scrimmage would likewise have been good for fourth. But it was never about stats for Barry (though if it was I could point out that he’s got the most ever 1,500 yard seasons, the records for both most games with 150 rushing yards (25) and 150 yards from scrimmage (46), and a career-long All-Pro and Pro-Bowl streak), it was about the competition and the love of the game. With Detroit in no condition to contend anytime soon, Barry didn’t see the point in selfishly chasing Payton’s record—even if he almost certainly could have caught it in just one more season.
But enough about the end of Barry’s career, or the stats he racked up during it. Those are both memorable, but they’re not why people remember Barry the way they do. It’s not why his name pops to mind more easily, and more often, for football fans from anywhere but Dallas when they think about the 1990s. No, the reason Barry’s jersey still litters the stands at Ford Field during every home game is because of the way he played, not the numbers he racked up doing it.
Most running backs fall roughly into one of three main categories. First is the waterbug, a shorter, speedier player darting out ahead of and around slower, meaner defenders; think Lamar Miller. Second you’ve got your bulldozers who don’t so much avoid defenders as wear them; these are your Refrigerator Perrys or Tom Rathmans or Marshawn Lynches. Third and finally, you’ve got your athletic freaks who somehow seem to be both as fast as a waterbug and as irresistible as a bulldozer; think Adrian Peterson or Bo Jackson.
Barry, at first glance, seemed like one of the waterbugs, and if you had to fold him into one of those categories, that’s where he’d fit best. He was definitely fast; a blue-and-silver derringer bullet fired on a moment’s notice right into the heart of whichever unlucky defense it was that day. But more than fast, Barry was agile, and more than agile, Barry was creative. Yes, he could out-sprint a defender when he had to, and yes, he could dance just about anybody out of their cleats with all the traditional jukes and feints every other running back uses (although Barry certainly used them better)… but more than any of that, it was his Bugs Bunny-like ability to outwit and embarrass his foes, even and especially opponents with overwhelming physical or numerical advantages.
Most waterbug-type running backs struggle to break tackles, on account of being about half as strong as the ogres that populate NFL defenses. But Barry could often break free seemingly effortlessly, and so suddenly—and with such panache—that he may as well have been leaving his perplexed pursuers holding a cartoon stick of dynamite in a #20 jersey in his place. He’d often throw in one more juke and spin than was strictly necessary to get by a guy, just to make sure his victim ended up face-planting into the field—usually while falling the wrong direction—rather than merely eating Barry’s dust.
For defenders, Barry was a some kind of horrifying combination of a Loony Tunes protagonist, a Greek god of mischief, and a choose your own adventure novel written by Nietzsche. At the same time, to his teammates he was more a cross between a courageous wartime captain of men, an impossibly inspiring (and yes, impossibly fast) superhero, and a virtuoso live musician with a perfect sense of when to play what tune.
To football fans, Barry was some or all of those things, depending on who you were rooting for, but more than that, he was a show. Heck, for a while there, watching Barry was the best show on TV… even if it only ran for ten seasons.
Relive some of Barry's best moments here.