When we talk about the best player to ever play in the NFL, most lists are topped by guys like Jerry Rice, Joe Montana, Tom Brady, Reggie White and Jim Brown. And while these are all worthy names and some of the best of all time, I can’t help but think there would be another name added to these lists if he had a longer career, and that is Barry Sanders. Here I will look at his short but outstanding career in football.
After being a talented multi-sport athlete in high school, but didn’t actually make the starting football until four games into his senior year and he rushed for over 200 yards per game over his last 7 games, which garnered a bunch of college offers for Sanders, and he ultimately chose to join the Oklahoma State Cowboys.
During his first two seasons there, Sanders served as a backup for the talented Thurman Thomas, but was a talented kick returner during that time. After Thomas moved on to the NFL, Sanders became the starter for his junior year. His junior year, in 1988, is often called the best and greatest individual season in college football history. In only 12 games, he ran for an amazing 2850 yards and added 42 touchdowns en route to winning the Heisman Trophy.
This amazing play led him to be drafted by the Detroit Lions with the 3rd overall pick of the amazing 1989 NFL Draft. Some questioned this decision because of the size of Sanders, but it didn’t matter. Sanders was extremely quick and elusive which prevented a lot of defenders in college from touching him, let alone tackling him. In his rookie year, Sanders finished second in the NFL in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns and easily took home the Rookie of the Year award.
Throughout the 90’s, Barry Sanders was looking like one of the best players in the NFL and had multiple MVP-worthy seasons and even rushed for 1,500 yards four straight years, with one of them being over 2,000. But, after the 1998 NFL season, Sanders would shock the world.
Even though he was barely 30 years old and was amongst the prime of his career, Sanders elected to retire from the NFL even though he was within striking distance of the NFL rushing yards record and could have gone down as one of the best of all time. It is not farfetched to think that if Sanders would have played for another 5 years or so (which wasn’t out of the realm of possibility), he could be seen as one of the (if not the) best player of all time. He later claimed that the reason he retired was that the Lions not winning was severely hurting his competitive spirit and took away some of his will to play the game. Sanders made the Pro Bowl every single year of his career and rushed for over 15,000 yards, which meant he averaged over 1,500 a season over his career and scored nearly 10 touchdowns a year. He is already seen as one of the best running backs of all time, but imagine what could have been if he would have played a few more years.