Comment by the judge: Informative, anecdote-filled story on Barry Sanders’ magical 1988 season at Oklahoma State. Thirty years later, with a view from the insiders at Oklahoma State and Sanders himself, we get a lot of the reasons why that may be the greatest single season by a running back in college football history. From a Heisman Trophy nobody to a Heisman Trophy winner.
By Jake Trotter
The first time Barry Sanders touched the football in 1988, he scored a touchdown. Fittingly, the final time he carried it for Oklahoma State that season, he scored as well.
Both plays were equally spectacular and bookended the greatest individual season the college football world has ever seen, and 30 years later, Sanders’ ’88 season remains — like so many of his runs — untouchable.
“You can argue about a lot of different people, who’s the best ever in whatever sport,” said Mike Gundy, who before becoming OSU’s head coach was Sanders’ college quarterback. “LeBron James and Michael Jordan in the NBA. Jim Brown and whoever else in pro football. But college football? There’s nobody that can touch the guy. Just can’t.
“There’s nobody that compares to him.”
In ’88, Sanders didn’t rewrite the records books, he incinerated them. He rushed for 2,850 yards, scored 44 touchdowns and broke 34 NCAA records.
In the years since, offense has exploded in the college game, while the pace has quickened.
And yet, most of Sanders’ FBS records remain intact.
“If he were playing in today’s offenses, he very well could’ve rushed for 4,000 yards, easy,” Gundy said. “Look at the number of plays that we have on offense today compared to back then. We huddled up, we were slow. And the majority of the games very seldom was he ever touching the field in the fourth quarter because we were blowing teams out.”
Outside Stillwater, few in college football even knew Sanders existed when he returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown against Miami (Ohio) to start the ’88 season.
Yet by the end, he had captured the Heisman Trophy in a landslide over UCLA quarterback Troy Aikman and USC quarterback Rodney Peete, L.A. darlings who were dual overwhelming favorites at the beginning.
“Honestly, it’s just amazing for a kid, who, when he came out of high school, no one would’ve ever imagined [it] could happen to,” Sanders said. “That would’ve been just unthinkable. But I’ve certainly grown to just appreciate what happened and I really cherish it.”
Through almost two dozen interviews, ESPN goes behind the scenes of Sanders’ magical ’88 season, which included his penchant for untimely naps, junk food and pick-up basketball, his historic performances against Nebraska and Oklahoma — both of whom never knew about his mysterious high school highlight tape — and a bizarre scene in Tokyo, where Sanders found out he won the Heisman Trophy.
First glimpse of greatness
Sanders, a lightly recruited prospect, was a relative unknown when he first arrived in Stillwater. But it took only one freshman scrimmage for Gundy, who by contrast had been the gem of OSU’s ’86 signing class, to immediately proclaim that Sanders would someday be a Heisman winner.
“I was walking off the practice field and my wife, who then was my girlfriend, she just happened to be at that practice … and her dad was there, who was a sports junkie,” Gundy recalled. “I said to him, ‘You see that guy right there? That guy is going to win a Heisman Trophy.’
“I’d never seen anything like him. Ever. I mean we’re out there, nobody knew who to block, and this guy’s running through everyone like water. Her dad passed away a year ago at this time, but he often told that story. And it’s the truth. It only took me one scrimmage, after he’d been there a week, to realize there was nobody like this guy.”
Eyes wide shut
When he was on the field, Sanders dazzled his teammates with stutter steps and spin moves. Off the field, he marveled them almost as much with an uncanny capacity to doze off at any moment.
“The first thing everybody needs to know about Barry Sanders,” guard Jason Kidder said, “is that he loves to sleep.”
Said tackle Byron Woodard: “You’d walk in the student union and see him sleeping.”
Said guard Chris Stanley: “You’d look over and he’d be dozing off on the bench during the game.”
Said wide receiver Jarrod Green: “I caught him in the huddle one day in practice, and he had his eyes closed. I’m like, ‘Were you taking a nap in the huddle?’ And he was.”
During Sanders’ Heisman season, the OSU coaching staff actually deliberated about what to do with Sanders sleeping through all his position meetings.
“I finally told them, ‘Just let him sleep if he wants to,'” Cowboys head coach Pat Jones said. “I mean, the guy’s running for a gazillion yards.”
According to Gundy, Sanders even nodded off on the bench during the second quarter of the Holiday Bowl, which would be the final game of his college career. Gundy said Sanders would always “take cat naps” during halftime, too.
“We had those old wire-cage lockers and he would lean back and sleep,” Gundy said. “But we didn’t make a lot of adjustments. We did the same thing all the time. And he was so much better than everybody else it didn’t make a difference.”
Sanders has an explanation for all the siestas.
“There are very few days where you can just stay in bed for a student-athlete, especially back then when there were no real limits on how much you could practice and days of the week,” he said. “I just felt like whenever you could get a few winks, do it.
“So in the meeting rooms, yeah, I was definitely dozing off. But in the games, I always felt like I had to really relax and try to close my eyes and try to focus and stay in that zone. Just let me try to calm myself down and stay within the game.”
The legendary highlight tape
One of the most puzzling mysteries in college football recruiting history was how both OU and Nebraska — the bosses of the old Big Eight — missed on Sanders.
One reason? They never saw his Wichita North High School highlight tape.
Another? Sanders opened his senior season of high school playing wingback.
“That coach that had me at wingback retired after my junior year and goes to athletic director,” Sanders recalled. “He hires a new coach and plants the seed to the new coach [Dale Burkholder], ‘Don’t play Sanders at running back, he’s probably not tough enough.’ So [Burkholder] keeps me at wingback.”
But that hardly slowed down Sanders. In North’s opener, he scored four touchdowns from wingback. Two games later, Sanders was finally moved to running back after the starter there aggravated Burkholder by reversing the field — which, ironically, would become one of Sanders’ calling cards at OSU.
“So we put Barry there,” Burkholder said. “And the first time he touched the ball, he went like 40 yards for a touchdown. The rest was history.”
OU and Nebraska remained oblivious about his existence. But OSU defensive line assistant George Walstad, who had once been a high school coach in Wichita, caught wind of Sanders from an old coaching buddy there.
Walstad went up to watch this diminutive wingback and kick returner while also checking out his North teammate, lineman Joel Fry, whom OSU was recruiting.
“Well, it rained like the dickens,” Walstad said. “Barry never got to return a punt or a kickoff, because when the ball hit the ground, it just went plop.”
Fortunately for the Pokes, Walstad would circle back to North on the way to OSU’s game at Kansas. And that’s when he first saw the highlight film that would become legendary.
“I thought [he] looked like [ex-OU great] Joe Washington,” Walstad said. “I just asked [Burkholder] if I could take the tape with me and show the coaches here at OSU. But I didn’t give it back.”
Walstad wanted to keep Sanders a secret. And former OU coach Barry Switzer has always maintained that the Sooners never had a chance to see the tape.
Burkholder, however, tells a different story.
“It’s true, George would not return it, because I know he didn’t want anybody else to see it,” he said. “But I eventually got it back. I had to threaten him. I said, ‘If I don’t get that video back I’m going to tell Barry not to go to Oklahoma State.’ Well, bam. That video came back all of a sudden.”
Not long after, top OU assistant Merv Johnson would make a routine recruiting stop by North.
“He just didn’t show much interest because they were loaded at running back,” Burkholder said. “I know Barry Switzer and Oklahoma was embarrassed they didn’t get Barry. They made excuses why they didn’t recruit him.
“But Merv Johnson, he just didn’t care to watch the video of him.”
That tape slipped by Nebraska, as well.
“I loved Nebraska and I was running their offense,” Burkholder said. “In the spring when I went up there to the coaching clinic, [Huskers assistant] Frank Solich and I were talking and I said, ‘Frank, why you didn’t want my little running back?’ He said, ‘What running back?’ I showed him the tape. He watched it for two minutes, then went roaring down to the main secretary to ask who in the world evaluated the Wichita North film. Frank was totally upset.
“Nebraska missed the boat. OU missed the boat. He would’ve been fabulous in their wishbone.”
Instead, Iowa State and Tulsa were the only other schools to seriously recruit Sanders, leaving Walstad with the inside track to the greatest recruiting victory in OSU history.
Appetite for destruction
Rob Glass, longtime OSU and Florida strength coach, maintains that pound-for-pound Sanders remains the most powerful player he has ever trained (only former Gators running back Fred Taylor comes close).
But that was in no thanks to the way Sanders ate.
“Barry looked like a specimen, didn’t have any body fat, but he would eat like a trashcan,” said Green, his roommate on road games. “Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, potato chips, candy bars, Snickers bars, hot dogs, just junk food.
“He was a junk-food fiend.”
Sanders loved fast food, too, regularly swinging through the McDonald’s across the street from his apartment.
“Yeah, I didn’t have the best nutrition,” he confessed.
Above anything else, though, Sanders craved sweets.
“My wife, she would bake him cookies a lot and he would take them to his dorm room,” Gundy said. “Then he would, in a very polite way, ask if she could bake more.”
Barry Sanders, trash-talker
During the Heisman season, Sanders remarkably spent almost as much time playing pickup basketball in the Colvin Center as he did playing football.
“The way Thurman hurt his knee initially was playing pickup basketball,” Green said of former OSU running back Thurman Thomas, who tore a ligament after his sophomore season. “He wore a knee brace the rest of his career. When the coaches heard that Barry was always playing, they were mortified.”
But that didn’t stop him.
“We’d be in the football offices watching tape on a Sunday and you’d hear a basketball dribbling down the hallway, and he’d stick his head in the door and be all sweaty, because he’d been over at the Colvin Center playing basketball after he’d just had like 32 carries the day before,” said Houston Nutt, who was OSU’s receivers coach. “Most guys would be in the ice bath and be like a train wreck for two or three days, but his durability was phenomenal.
“Pat [Jones] was not happy that that was going on. But Barry loved playing hoop, now. That was his deal.”
And while playing hoops, Sanders’ personality would become unrecognizable to his teammates, as he would transform into a relentless trash-talker — most notably after he’d propel his 5-foot-8 frame into an acrobatic dunk.
“That was the one time he would talk s—,” Green said. “He never talked like that on the field. There were guys in [football] games talking crap to Barry, ‘We’re going to shut you down, blah, blah,’ and he never said anything.
“We always kid him about it. And he thought he had the baddest basketball game on campus.”
Putting in the work
Entering his senior year, Sanders won over his new high school coach without even touching the ball.
“His work ethic got my attention,” Burkholder said. “Kids will find any excuse not to come to weightlifting in the summer. Barry, he didn’t have a car, nothing. So he rode his bike three miles each way to get there. That impressed me. He loved the weightlifting and conditioning, and he wanted to get better.”
That dedication only amplified once he got to OSU.
Glass noted that it’s a common misconception that Sanders arrived to Stillwater as a ready-made star, brimming over with jaw-dropping power and speed.
“That’s what everybody just kind of assumes, but he didn’t come in that way,” Glass said. “The guy was very dedicated. Worked extremely hard. He was wired for power. But that grew astronomically in three years.”
As a freshman, Sanders’ vertical jump was only 32 inches. His 40 time, a mere 4.58 seconds.
Two years later, his vertical rocketed to 41½ inches. And his 40 time dropped to a blistering 4.32 seconds.
Sanders also power-cleaned 365 pounds, the best mark on the team. That wasn’t by accident, either.
“When he first came in, we were teaching power cleans,” Glass recalled. “I remember he took a bar to his room because he wanted to work on his technique. I didn’t even realize it. Secretly, he was one of those really dedicated guys.”
Sanders stuck by the same dedication in practice and with his schoolwork.
“I bet you he never went to a nightclub the entire time he was in Stillwater,” Green said. “Never went to a bar. He was either playing basketball, doing homework or napping.”
Kidder can attest, most notably from sitting next to him while traveling home after a win at Kansas State, where Sanders had just rushed for 320 yards.
“Everybody else is cutting up,” Kidder said. “And he’s asking me if I can help him with his math homework.”
Sanders was serious about practice, as well. To the point he drove his teammates crazy.
“Every time he ran the ball in practice, he sprinted to the end zone,” Gundy said. “We’d have to wait for him to come back. And we’d say, ‘Barry, hey man, you’re killing us.’ He wore himself out, and that’s why he slept all the time, probably.
“But the guy was a phenomenal competitor with a work ethic that was through the roof. He out-practiced everybody on the field and in the weight room. And that’s why he got to the point he did.”
Rivalry over family
While Sanders remains the most iconic athlete in OSU history, his father, William, ironically, was a passionate OU fan.
“Barry’s dad was OU through and through,” Burkholder said. “George Walstad was at their door at like 5 in the morning on the first day of recruiting. But Willie would not shake Walstad’s hand because he was from Oklahoma State. When Barry committed to Oklahoma State, his dad went off and said, ‘You’re making a big mistake, son.’ His dad was wrong. But his dad would go to Oklahoma State games feeling like a traitor wearing any kind of orange because his heart was with OU. Even when Barry played.”
That lasted all the way through the Heisman season, which culminated with the ’88 Bedlam game the Sooners dramatically won 31-28.
“After the game, Willie grabs me and said, ‘Coach, let’s go to the locker room,'” recalled Burkholder, who assumed that meant the OSU locker room.
“Instead, we end up in front of the OU locker room and Willie is asking to meet with Barry Switzer, because he said he wanted to kiss him. That’s how much he loved OU. So we end up in the OU locker room with Barry Switzer. And Barry’s dad hugged and kissed him — and bragged about it the whole way home. Barry Switzer was next to God with him.”
History in the backfield
To this day, only once did two future Pro Football Hall of Fame running backs play together in college: Barry Sanders and Thurman Thomas. The year before Sanders arrived at OSU, Thomas had rushed for 1,650 yards and was a consensus All-American.
“We’re seeing that Sanders is something special, but we’ve got Thomas, and Thomas is running wild, and Thomas meant so much to everybody because he was probably the first real high-profile Texas [recruit] we ever got,” Jones said. “But I’m on [the staff] saying, ‘How can we get Sanders in the ball game? How can we make this work, and still treat Thomas with respect?'”
That created quite the predicament for the Cowboys, an I-formation team with a spot for only one tailback. Ultimately, they kept Thomas as the starter, while rotating Sanders in about every third series.
Yet even as Thomas would deliver another monster season in ’87, OSU’s rivals were beginning to take notice of Sanders.
In mid-October, the Cowboys welcomed Nebraska to a showdown of unbeatens with Thomas leading the nation in rushing. The night before the game, the two teams ran into each other at the Stillwater movie theater. Afterward, Thomas hopped onto the Nebraska bus and said, “Nobody here can tackle me.”
The next day, though, the Huskers shut down Thomas, holding him to seven yards in a 35-0 rout. But in garbage time, Sanders came in and summarily danced for 60 yards.
Afterward, Nebraska All-American defensive end Neil Smith was boasting to the Omaha World-Herald’s Lee Barfknecht about the whipping the Huskers put on Thomas.
“We shut his ass down,” Smith told Barfknecht. “But we couldn’t tackle that other little m—–f—er.”
Three weeks later, OU’s coaching staff was preparing for Bedlam when Switzer burst into the room after watching the Cowboys on film.
“I told them, ‘You better hope Thurman Thomas doesn’t get hurt,’ ” Switzer said to his bewildered staff.” Because, Switzer told them, Sanders is even better.
Kicking off the season in style
To begin the ’87 season, Sanders returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown. The following year, he did the same, weaving through Miami Ohio’s coverage team 101 yards virtually untouched.
“That continues to stick out to me,” said Sanders, when asked for his favorite moment from the Heisman season. “It was amazing to open consecutive seasons that way.”
But what Sanders did to Texas A&M the next week was even more amazing.
“The first series, he broke one for [a 57-yard] touchdown, ran right through the middle of our defense,” said R.C. Slocum, who was the Aggies’ defensive coordinator. “He went for 157 on us, and that was unheard of. Nobody did that to us.
“We were really down in the dumps about it, giving up that many rushing yards. But as the year went on, that turned out to be the [second-]lowest he was held to all year.”
Sanders also returned a punt 61 yards for a touchdown as OSU rolled 52-15.
“They had him all bottled up, too, and I’m talking about real athletes that could run,” Nutt said. “[Texas A&M coach] Jackie Sherrill came to our dressing room after the game and said, ‘Boy, 21.'”
In Week 3, Sanders broke the OSU record with 304 yards rushing against Tulsa. Then in Week 4 came the photo that would define his season.
“We called the play ’52 jump.’ We were supposed to submarine everybody for him to jump over us,” Kidder said. “Thurman did that play really well. But Barry was unbelievable with the vertical jump.
“Lying down, face up, I could see Barry just sail over me.”
Sports Illustrated captured the moment in its next issue. The country was beginning to take notice.
Dashing Hollywood dreams
Before the ’88 season, all signs pointed to a November L.A. showdown deciding the Heisman Trophy. UCLA quarterback Troy Aikman came into the season as the favorite with USC QB Rodney Peete his top challenger.
“Troy and I did a bunch of publicity and promotion before that season,” Peete said. “No one knew much about Barry. It was setting up to be a great year in L.A. Not only were Troy and I frontrunners for the Heisman, but both USC and UCLA were pretty good and in the hunt for a national championship.
“Troy and I were on a collision course.”
But back in Stillwater, OSU sports information director Steve Buzzard was making it his mission to get the word out on Sanders.
“After the A&M game it was like, ‘OK, something’s going on here that’s really special,'” he said. “He wasn’t getting a whole lot of attention. I loved [legendary broadcaster] Keith Jackson, but I can remember watching him say the Heisman was going to come down to either Aikman or Peete and I’m thinking, ‘Man, what are you thinking? Do you even know about Barry?'”
Buzzard, however, was battling a two-front war. OSU’s lack of national TV appearances. And Sanders’ unwillingness to partake in a Heisman campaign.
Buzzard started out by mailing packets to Heisman voters, which included a quote from Switzer. Then, he would spend his Sundays phoning them.
Eventually, though, Buzzard knew he was going to have to convince Sanders to do interviews with the likes of Sports Illustrated, the New York Times and the Washington Post, which all would eventually visit Stillwater.
“I love Barry Sanders, OK? He’s the epitome of grace and humility,” he said. “But we would ask him to do things and it was like, ‘Ah, man, I’ve got to study.’ So there were a lot of times that we would have to chase him down and get him to come over to do the interview.”
Longtime Tulsa World columnist Bill Connors found that out first-hand.
“We set up an interview for Bill to talk to Barry on a Tuesday morning,” Buzzard said. “Bill came into my office and Barry wasn’t there yet. So, we sit for 30 minutes, we sit for an hour, and there was still no Barry. Of course, you didn’t have cell phones then. I called his dorm and [fullback] Cecil Wilson, his roommate, said, ‘Man, I don’t know where he is. He just left. You might check the library.'”
To find Sanders, Buzzard finally sent out a half-dozen staffers around campus, including to the library, where they finally found him.
“Barry walks in the door like no problem, smiling, shook Bill’s hand and said, ‘Hey, I had to study,'” Buzzard recalled. “Barry wasn’t trying to be rude. He wasn’t trying to be uncooperative. He just knew he needed to study, and that was his priority.”
Hanging with the Huskers
The year before, Nebraska had exposed Thomas and OSU. In the ’88 game, it looked as if the Blackshirts were about to douse Sanders’ Heisman hopes, as well. In a clash of top-10 teams, Nebraska led 42-0 just three minutes into the second quarter.
“I’m doing addition in my head, not lying, I’m thinking these cats are likely to score a hundred on us,” Jones said.
Instead, OSU’s massive deficit set the stage for one of the wildest games Lincoln had ever witnessed.
“Oklahoma State didn’t quit,” former Nebraska coach Tom Osborne said, “and Barry didn’t quit.”
The Huskers eventually survived Sanders and the Cowboys in the highest-scoring game ever in Memorial Stadium. But not before surrendering 42 points, the most ever scored against an Osborne team.
“A lot of people still had major doubts, as far as could I play against that sort of competition?” said Sanders, who finished with 189 rushing yards and four touchdowns. “They beat us pretty good, but I still had a really good game against a lot of guys who were future pros.”
A Heisman moment against the Sooners
In early November against the Sooners, Sanders had a prime opportunity to finally overtake Aikman and Peete in the Heisman race. The Cowboys were on national TV for the first time. And ESPN had the game with Lee Corso as color commentator.
“The only way Barry doesn’t win the Heisman,” Green said, “is if he gets shut down in the OU game.”
Once again, the Pokes fell behind early. But Sanders would propel another comeback behind what would become his Heisman moment — an ankle-breaking juke of OU safety Kevin Thompson on the way to a 67-yard touchdown dash down the sidelines.
“Barry gave him a little stutter-step and boom, skipped on by him,” Sooners quarterback Charles Thompson said. “You knew right then you were watching somebody that was great.”
Sanders and the Cowboys were driving for the winning touchdown in the closing seconds, prompting a stressed-out Switzer to actually light up a cigarette from the sidelines. Gundy’s fourth-down heave into the end zone, however, was dropped, allowing the Sooners to escape the new Heisman front-runner.
“The OU game clinched him the Heisman,” said Larry Coker, who was OSU’s offensive coordinator. “Because he was so unbelievable.”
A long, strange trip
The circumstances surrounding the weekend Sanders won the Heisman seem almost implausible today. OSU had agreed to play in the Coca-Cola Classic against Texas Tech in Tokyo, Japan, for its regular-season finale.
To get there, the Pokes drove to Dallas, met up with the Red Raiders and boarded a 747, along with the Grambling band and Miami Dolphins cheerleaders, who were both part of the event.
“It was insane,” Buzzard said. “I was sitting next to [Texas Tech quarterback] Billy Joe Tolliver, who played electronic golf games the entire time, which just drove me crazy. The Grambling band and the Miami Dolphin cheerleaders were in the section that was above. There were players from both teams that kept sneaking up those stairs to get a peek.”
The CBS-televised Heisman announcement was set to take place the same day of the Coca-Cola Classic — except Tokyo was 13 hours ahead of New York time.
CBS had arranged to shuttle Sanders in a limo to a TV station in downtown Tokyo. But that meant he was going to have to wake up at 4 a.m. the day of the game.
“We had this all lined up. All of our people knew, Barry knew, that OK, the Heisman show is on at this time and it’s going to be this time in Tokyo and we’re going to have to go to the CBS news bureau in Tokyo to make this happen,” Buzzard said. “Well, three days before, after practice, Barry walks up to me and says, ‘Um, I know we’re supposed to do that Heisman thing, but I don’t want to do it.’ I said, ‘But Barry, we think you’re going to win it and we’ve gone through a lot of trouble.’ And he said, ‘I know and I appreciate that. But it’s game day, I have a routine on game day. I’m just thinking this through and we’re over here to win a football game. … So I’m not going to do it.’ And he walked away.”
Buzzard was dismayed, and CBS was aghast. But Sanders had other priorities.
“It was truly out of my comfort zone,” Sanders said. “And certainly at the beginning of the week, that’s not something I wanted to invest time and effort into doing. And it’s something that I wasn’t very good at, wasn’t very comfortable doing.”
Jones knew he had to change Sanders’ mind. So he put fullback Garrett Limbrick and the offensive line in charge of convincing him to reconsider.
“He was pretty adamant about not going,” Kidder said. “But the offensive line, we told him, ‘Don’t do it for you, do it for us.'”
Sanders finally agreed, on one condition. That Limbrick and his offensive line come, too.
“He was not excited,” Woodard said. “We were ecstatic, though.”
So one limo was turned into four. And that morning, the OSU contingent caravanned to the station.
Miked up in the studio along with Jones, Sanders admitted he finally began to contemplate the magnitude of the moment.
“It was interesting, but it was also kind of strange to be there and I can’t remember exactly, OK, did I really want to win?” Sanders said. “I didn’t know if I actually would really win. … So when they called my name, I truly was shocked.”
When that happened, Sanders glanced left at Jones before surrendering the slightest of smiles.
It turned out, Sanders captured the Heisman in a rout, earning 559 first-place votes. Peete finished second with only 70; Aikman came in third with 31.
“He won the Heisman with zero preseason hype,” Gundy said. “Who wins the Heisman, where going into the year nobody knows about you? He was at Oklahoma State. Nobody in the country paid attention to Oklahoma State. So, it was a phenomenal deal.”
After the announcement, Buzzard and Jones had planned for CBS to do a one-minute interview with Sanders. Then, they’d go to Bob Costas for a brief taped interview with NBC.
“Instead, CBS gave access to every CBS affiliate in the country, and all of the sudden people from all over the country were just firing questions at Barry,” Buzzard said.
Knowing the political capital it took just to get Sanders to the studio, Jones cut CBS off and literally pulled all the plugs from in the wall.
“The lights went out,” Jones said. “I got up and said, ‘C’mon Barry, let’s go.’ I’m sure I pissed off Costas because he never got to do the interview.”
Later that day in a 45-42 win, Sanders rushed for 332 yards to break Marcus Allen’s NCAA single-season rushing record and complete the greatest season in college football history.
“Coming home from Tokyo, I sat next to Barry,” Stanley said. “And on the way, the Texas Tech players were coming up to get his autograph.”
The beginnings of a humble superstar
Sanders couldn’t escape the limelight after becoming a national sensation. He was destined for NFL success in the eyes of coaches who came to scout him
“Kids now have their special shoes for the 40 at pro day. Barry just had the high-top cleats that he’d run for however many yards in,” Glass said. “Head coaches, general managers are in attendance. Dallas was going to take Aikman and the Packers had already decided they were going to take Tony Mandarich. Detroit had their whole operation here because they had the third pick. Barry goes out and runs a 4.32 and [Detroit coach] Wayne Fontes said, ‘That’s it, fellas.’ He kind of shut the pro day down. They didn’t need to see anything else.”
With the Lions, Sanders rushed for 15,269 yards, third-most in NFL history, made 10 Pro Bowls and led the NFL in rushing four times before abruptly retiring at the age of 30.
Along the way, he never changed, even making a fan of one of the guys whose Heisman hopes he ruined.
“It was unbelievable playing with Barry,” Peete said. “His rookie year, on the last week of the season, he had a chance to win the rushing title, but we were beating Atlanta pretty good and he came out of the game. We found out he only needed 15 [yards] or so and Wayne Fontes and all of us tried to get him back in the game. He refused to go back in. I’m sure he had benefits and bonuses tied to winning the rushing title. But that’s the kind of guy he is.”
In the NFL, Sanders is regarded as a once-in-a-generation player whose transcendent highlights made him an icon.
And still 30 years later, his ’88 Heisman season at OSU continues to be untouchable.
College: Washington and Lee University
Background: As a kid, I collected newspapers of memorable events, always enamored with stories. Among those newspapers was of the first college football game I can remember attending – 1988 Bedlam. Though only 7 then, I vividly recall Barry Switzer surreptitiously smoking a cigarette on the sideline and Mike Gundy’s pass popping off the chest of Brent Parker in the end zone. But what I remember most was Barry Sanders, and the way people stood with anticipation whenever he touched the ball This last year has been a blessing, with my wife, Rachel, delivering our third child, Mickey, joining Dorothy and Theo. ESPN has also given me a new opportunity in the NFL, with one notable downside – I won’t be writing about college football as often. Which in the case of unearthing the backstories of Sanders’ magical 1988 season was such nostalgic fun.