4 minute read

Barry Sanders

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."

Career Statistics

Rushing Receiving
DET: Detroit Lions.
1989 DET 15 280 1470 5.2 14 24 282 11.8 0
1990 DET 16 255 1304 5.1 13 36 480 13.3 3
1991 DET 15 342 1548 4.5 16 41 307 7.5 1
1992 DET 16 312 1352 4.3 9 29 225 7.8 1
1993 DET 11 243 1115 4.6 3 36 205 5.7 0
1994 DET 16 331 1883 5.7 7 44 283 6.4 1
1995 DET 16 314 1500 4.8 11 48 398 8.3 1
1996 DET 16 307 1553 5.1 11 24 147 6.1 0
1997 DET 16 335 2053 6.1 11 33 305 9.2 3
1998 DET 16 343 1491 4.3 4 37 289 7.8 0
TOTAL 153 3062 15269 5.0 99 352 2921 8.3 10

Related Biography: Coach Wayne Fontes

Leo Durocher claimed that nice guys finish last. Wayne Fontes, longtime coach of the Detroit Lions, proved him wrong. In the high point of his eight years at the helm of the Lions, Fontes earned the Associated Press' NFL Coach of the Year honors in 1991 after leading Detroit to the NFC championship game. Perhaps his greatest contribution to the Lions, however, was his insistence that the team draft Barry Sanders in 1989. Sanders went on to become one of the top running backs in NFL history, and he's never forgotten Fontes's guidance and support, crediting the coach for making him the player he eventually became.

The son of Portuguese-American parents, Fontes was born and raised in Canton, Ohio. He played baseball and football during his student years at Michigan State University (MSU) and later coached freshman football at MSU. After coaching assignments at Dayton, Iowa, and USC, Fontes in 1985 joined the Lions organization as defensive coordinator. He was made head coach in 1988 and remained in that post until he and his coaching staff were let go during the 1997 season.

In the mid-1990s, as the Lions hit a slump and anti-Fontes sentiment grew among Lions team members, Sanders remained a staunch supporter of the coach. Of the coach, Sanders said: "He proves that a coach can show affection and appreciation and still win."

Additional topics

Famous Sports StarsFootballBarry Sanders Biography - Born In Wichita, Kansas, Chronology, Football's Demands Hamper Studies, Career Statistics