Football's Demands Hamper Studies
Sanders wasn't fully prepared for the demands football put on him at Oklahoma State. He later told the Sporting News: "I remember in my freshman year we didn't have any days off. I couldn't believe it, and it never got any better. They pretended (football) wasn't the main thing you were there for, but you were doing it 50 or 60 hours a week. I fell behind in my schoolwork." During his freshman and sophomore years Sanders played second string to Thurman Thomas, who later played for the Buffalo Bills from 1988 to 2000. A late bloomer at college, as he had been in high school, Sanders was made a starter in his junior year and proceeded to smash 13 NCAA records—including most rushing yards (2,628) and most touchdowns (39) in a season. On the strength of this spectacular performance, Sanders was nominated for the coveted Heisman Trophy. Never one for the limelight, he had to be pressured to attend the award ceremonies in New York. In the end, he was persuaded to make the trip, where he received the trophy. He was at first inclined to continue his studies at Oklahoma State but eventually decided to enter the NFL draft instead, largely to help his family financially. Looking back on Sanders's years at OSUC, his college coach, Pat Jones, told Sporting News: "If someone was to ask me who the most explosive back I've coached is, that would be Barry, as far as a guy who can take your breath away and is liable to score on every down…. I don't know that I've ever seen anyone likehim with my own eyes."
Drafted third overall in the NFL draft of 1989, Sanders signed a whopping $6.1 million five-year contract with the Detroit Lions, one of the most lucrative NFL contracts ever for a rookie. Sanders wasted no time at all in proving that he was worth every penny Detroit was paying him. Although he didn't start the first two games of the 1989 season and missed parts of two others, Sanders managed to rush for a total of 1,470 yards, missing the NFL's individual season rushing record by only 10 yards. The following year, he rushed a total for a total of 1,304 yards to score 13 touchdowns.
In an interview with the Philadelphia Daily News, Lions coach Wayne Fontes waxed enthusiastic about his new running back's amazing ability to elude tacklers: "He just has some incredible moves. He runs into a pile of tacklers on the line, then you see his helmet come out and then some shoulder pads and then him. O.J. Simpson was like that." Fontes expressed the hope that Sanders could rush for 2,000 yards or more per season if he stayed healthy. For his part, the five-foot, nine-inch Sanders had a simple explanation for his slippery moves. "I was smaller than everybody else; I didn't want to take a pounding."