It’s about that time of the year again. The Detroit Lions, arguably the worst team in the NFL, know they still have the rights to Barry Sanders, the best running back in the world. But it appears at age 35, Sanders still has no interest in returning to football, which is a shame. If you have never had the privilege of watching Barry Sanders run with a football, you have missed some of the most breathtaking, poetic and artistic moments in sports history. Had Sanders not retired, or had he had any one of Emmitt Smith’s offensive linemen during the ’90s blocking for him, not only would Sanders have eclipsed Walter Payton’s career rushing mark, but he probably would have placed himself above the great Jim Brown as the best running back of all time.
Barry Sanders could change direction faster than a waterbug after a quadruple shot of espresso. He wouldn’t stop on a dime — he’d stop on a single hair-thin strand of Silverdome Astroturf.
Besides being the quickest athlete that the human species has ever produced, Barry was one of a kind when it came to class. He simply had more of it than anyone else. He never spiked the football after a score. He never kept a Sharpie in his sock. He never talked trash. He didn’t need to listen to AC/DC or DMX to get himself ready for game time — he napped instead. He isn’t paying child support to 17 different mothers. And he never wrote a book called “Just Give Me the Damn Ball.”
Now think of today’s best athletes. Terrell Owens spikes the ball on opposing teams’ emblems and often utilizes props for his touchdown celebrations — pens, pom-poms etc. Allen Iverson can’t figure out why it’s important to attend team practices! Mark McGwire took Andro to give him a boost during his late-career power surge and Sammy Sosa is obviously on something — his head looks like one of those mutant strawberries they sell at Wegmans. Even Michael Jordan has had more than his share of gambling problems and still talks more trash than Oscar the Grouch. But Barry Sanders never did any of that. He just played football better than anyone else.
And Barry had everything to complain about. His coach, Bobby Ross, was and is about as well respected in the NFL as Pauly Shore is in Showbiz. In addition, throughout Barry’s career, the Detroit Lions organization drafted players based on how much hair they had under their armpits. And still, Barry never made a peep to the media. He just played football better than anyone else.
So why can’t I just separate the actual athletic performance from in-game celebrations and press conference whining? Why can’t I just forget about Terrell Owens and his Sharpie and Keyshawn Johnson and his gargantuan mouth?
Because listening to those two makes me feel like I just drank a tall glass of liquefied pig liver. And also, because professional sports is a profession, hence the similarity in root words. People seem to forget that. The consummate professionals in every sport should be the pinnacles of maturity and class because other people, especially youngsters, look up to professional athletes and emulate them in every way imaginable. Professional athletes have a duty to be role models, as the basketball guru John Wooden often says. Don’t listen to Charles Barkley.
There just isn’t anyone like Barry Sanders anymore, with his combination of ability and class. The closest would be Tiger Woods. Unfortunately, Tiger’s dad, Earl Woods works extremely hard at defiling his son’s flawless image. Earl Woods once compared Tiger to Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi. I remember the first time I heard that quote. I shook my head like a waterlogged Weimereiner. Just like when I first heard George Bush say the word “disrepresentable.”
But the real reason why having no more Barry Sanders is so depressing is because I know what it means for the future of professional sports. Youngsters today, the future superstars, do not have a Barry Sanders to look up to. They have Terrell Owens and Allen Iverson. If history holds true, and today’s youngsters imitate those stars that they see on television growing up, then I am just going to pray that ESPN Classic comes out with three more channels so I can watch Barry Sanders reruns whenever I get sick of hearing LeBron James talk about himself in the third person.
Bronstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.