Starting tailback for the Detroit Lions, Barry Sanders recently scored three touchdowns in the third game of the NFL season leading his team to victory. “The Barry Sanders’ Show” – one news network called it, but this kind of performance should come as no surprise to those who are already familiar with his career.
Barry was the Heisman Award winner of 1988, while playing for Oklahoma State, yet was surprisingly overlooked at Wichita North High School by most college recruiters, possibly because of his height – 5’8”. But it was his speed and notorious vertical leap that helped him set 13 NCAA season records in his junior year. His numbers are especially impressive since he often sat out the 4th quarter of many of OSU’s most dominant games. Barry’s college coach – Pat Jones – described his running ability as “explosive.” Barry’s kickoff touchdown returns of 100 yards plus in OSU’s first possession in each of the opening games of the 1987 and 1988 seasons is a remarkable feat. Says Coach Jones, “He takes your breath away.”
Barry was drafted by the NFL in his Junior year at OSU, and was picked up by the Detroit Lions in the first round for the following season. After earning Rookie of the Year honors in 1989 and coming within 10 yards of the rushing title, he won the rushing title outright in his second season. Last year, Barry rushed for 1,304 yards and scored a league leading 16 touchdowns.
FR: Can you tell a little bit about your family background?
Barry Sanders: I was one of eleven kids, eight sisters and two brothers. We were a close knit family. My mother is a Christian and we went to church every Sunday. She was hard working and a great inspiration for me to work hard. After all the kids were grown, she went back to school to get her degree because she always wanted to be an RN. So she went to nursing school.
FR: What about your Christian testimony? You grew up in church, but was there ever a time when you made a deeper commitment to God?
Barry Sanders: Yes, after college. Like I said, I grew up in church; I was baptized in the eighth grade, but I didn’t really understand what it meant. Then it was in college that I really had my faith tested. It was there I found out how lacking my faith was. I reached a kind of breaking point. Then I met some people who challenged me to a greater commitment – people who really loved God and were walking with God with no compromise. They weren’t afraid to get in my face and challenge me. That’s the point when I was saved.
I was really influenced through my upbringing, but then I came to a point where I had to repent for a lot of things. This happened after my last year of college, before I began playing in the NFL.
FR: Do you feel that this experience has affected your success in playing football?
Barry Sanders: Yes, of course! Christianity affects your whole life. I feel I’m more competitive, a better player, but off the field is where there is always a battle. That’s where the power came. I was always successful on the field, but now I’m successful off the field too.
FR: There has been a growing interest in Christian athletes by the media recently. I just saw a Nightline show recently featuring Reggie White (of the Philadelphia Eagles). What’s behind the new interest?
Barry Sanders: I think they’re curious. They want to know what it is. Some have bad intentions; they want to criticize us. Some have good intentions; they’re looking for something positive. All in all they’re looking for something to sell papers and magazines, and not to preach the gospel. Most are sincere; they admire us and want to portray a man who has something good.
FR: You’ve set a lot of records in the past few years. Do you have any goals for the 1991 season?
Barry Sanders: Yes, a team goal – to go to the playoffs. The Lions haven’t been to the playoffs in the last two years. This year though we have a winning mentality.
FR: Who are the teams to beat this year?
Barry Sanders: We have a tough schedule. There are a lot of good teams to beat, Minnesota, the Bears, the Bills, Dallas, and of course, the ‘49ers, but I think we can win.
FR: You said that your mother was a great influence in your life. Are there any other people who have influenced you, like your coaches? What does the name Wayne Fontes mean to you?
Barry Sanders: Coach Fontes? He’s a comfortable guy to play for. He doesn’t apply a lot of pressure. He’s a guy that’s easy to talk to. He doesn’t have an ego problem. He’s open.
FR: Who else has influenced you?
Barry Sanders: Well there’s Greg Ball (of Champions for Christ) whose been discipling me. He’s a person I can confide in and he’s helped me in keeping on track. There are a lot of people who have spoken words of correction and have prayed for me. Lakita Garth is a good friend; she has ministered to me a lot. And there’s Tom Sirotnak – he always has a good word. He is always encouraging me. I really like him – he’s on fire, man! He’s got a big heart and is a real man of God.
Editor’s note: One of the most striking aspects you will notice in talking with Barry Sanders is his humility. In the professional sports arena – a world full of big egos – Barry seems to exemplify the type of character anyone would admire. Lion’s coach Wayne Fontes is one person who has been impressed by his humble personality. On the final game of the 1989 season, Barry was within ten yards of the NFL rushing title. Coach Fontes asked Barry if he wanted to come off the bench and try to surpass the 1,480-yard record held by Christian Okoye of the Kansas City Chiefs.
Barry Sanders declined. “Let’s just win it and go home,” he said.