By Craig Ellenport
It wasn't until the fourth game of the 1985 season that the coach at Wichita North High School decided to give an undersized senior a shot to play running back.
And after seeing what that kid could do at the position, coach must have been kicking himself for not giving Barry Sanders the ball sooner.
Of course, Sanders made up for lost time. After three years at Oklahoma State that included a Heisman Trophy, and then 10 electrifying seasons with the Detroit Lions, Sanders was inducted Sunday into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, joining John Elway, Bob Brown and Carl Eller in the Class of 2004.
Someone asked Sanders at the pre-enshrinement press conference why it is that no running backs today have adopted his style. Brown and Eller, sitting next to each other at the podium, looked at each other and laughed.
Who else could run like Barry Sanders? Who could average 1,527 yards over 10 seasons, leading the league in rushing four times?
"Generally speaking, most really good players have a unique style of their own," Sanders said. "I was always one of the shortest guys on the team when I was growing up as a kid. I always wanted to be taller, bigger. But because of my height, or lack of height, it allowed me to be able to run the way I did, make quick stops, accelerate the way I did."
Acceleration and quick stops sum up Sanders' career. He accelerated through the NFL record books, and came to a quick stop on July 28, 1999. At the age of 31, Sanders shocked the NFL by calling it quits.
Now he becomes the fifth-youngest player to be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame at age 36. And as he has maintained all along, Sanders says he has no regrets about walking away from the game of football.
"I do feel like I had a pretty fulfilling career," he said.
Sanders was a human highlight reel, and his talent seemed to come from some otherworldly source. Sanders didn't dispel that notion during his enshrinement speech, in which he suggested that his success may have been pre-ordained.
"It was something that I felt I had to do," Sanders said. "In many ways, I felt that football chose me. It wasn't that I wanted to play. I had to play."
And, apparently, retirement was something he had to do as well. There has always been speculation of a contentious relationship between Sanders and the Lions organization, but Sanders never fed those rumors. And he was more interested on this day with showing his appreciation for the fans of Detroit.
"I had the good fortune of being drafted to a wonderful city," he said. "And I fit in perfectly there. When you get drafted you don't know where you're going to end up, and I can't think of a better place for me than Detroit. I think about my 10 years there, and you don't find better football fans and people that want to win than in the city of Detroit. They supported us, came out and encouraged us to do the best we could do, and I appreciate you."
Sanders retired just 1,457 yards short of Walter Payton's NFL career rushing record, which has since been broken by Emmitt Smith. Few doubt that Sanders would be the owner of the record today had he not retired. But it's not missing out on the record that had other Hall of Famers in attendance Sunday talking about their new fraternity brother. It was the disappointment of not being able to see a great talent carrying the football anymore.
"I still believe he could go out and do it again if he tried," said Lynn Swann, another player known for his graceful and acrobatic moves on the field.
Gale Sayers, who was the youngest player to enshrined in Canton, mainly because injuries cut his career short, noted that Sanders made defenders "look like fools." But he also lamented Sanders' early retirement.
"God gave me a talent and then took it away," Sayers said. "God gave him a talent and didn't take it away. He quit."
Whatever the reason for Sanders' retirement, his place in football history is secure. And now that he's enshrined in the Hall of Fame, it is documented for all time. Sanders' father, William, introduced his son as "the third-best running back that ever lived" - behind Hall of Famer Jim Brown and himself (William Sanders played running back at Wichita North 30 years before Barry).
John Elway, in his enshrinement speech Sunday, was quick to correct the elder Sanders.
"I'll call him the best running back that ever played," Elway said of Barry Sanders, "even if his dad doesn't agree."