Hall Recall: Barry Sanders

General Published on : 7/25/2004

By Gil Brandt
NFL.com Senior Analyst
Special to Profootballhof.com

(July 22, 2004) -- Not many people think of Barry Sanders as a one-year wonder, but that's pretty much what he was at Oklahoma State. In 1986 and 1987, Sanders gained less than 1,000 yards thanks to sharing the backfield with Thurman Thomas. But once Thomas went on to NFL fame with Buffalo, Sanders was left with all the running duties. In 1988, Sanders ran for over 2,600 yards and 39 touchdowns for the Cowboys.

Despite the single-season success, Sanders stuck out like a sore thumb anytime you watched practice at Oklahoma State before his big year. That's because his quickness and acceleration were always on display. Just watching him in drills, you knew he'd be a great player.

So when it came to picking a running back for our Playboy All-American Team, Sanders was a no-brainer. We had a really fantastic team in 1988 -- Deion Sanders, Troy Aikman and Derrick Thomas were also on board. We held our annual Playboy weekend at the Sheraton Bal Harbour in Miami the weekend of May 10. Barry arrives at the hotel, and I had never talked to him or met him before. After the initial introductions, he quietly asks if he's really supposed to be there. "Are you sure you didn't mean my brother, Byron?" he asked; his brother was a running back at Northwestern. After reassuring him that yes, we did want Barry Sanders and not Byron Sanders, he felt right at home.

Notes from an actual scouting report Gil Brandt wrote on Sanders for Dallas:
Sanders measured up at 5-foot-7 5/8, 203 pounds and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.37. ... I wish he was a little taller. ... Has Tony Dorsett-like ability as a runner, unbelieveable quickness (quickness grades above 80 percent). ... Great leg strength and vision. ... Can cut, stop and start on a dime. ... Has been very durable. ... Can return kickoffs (two for TDs in 1987). ... Oklahoma State seldom throws ball to running backs but he did catch ball well in practice. ... Great person, everyone from equipment manager to the secretaries brag on him. ... Should be a Pro Bowl player.
That is, until we went golfing. You see, while other members of the Playboy team were already avid golfers, Barry had never stepped on the links before. So myself, Aikman and Tony Mandarich introduced him to golf. Our group saddled up to the first tee, Barry takes his driver out and whiffs ... six times in a row! It was funny but we helped him out and finally he made contact. Never once did Barry get discouraged or think about quitting. He played the entire round. And now he really is a good golfer; his handicap is in the middle teens and he really loves to play.

Barry Sanders wowed scouts, dazzled fans and tortured opponents.
He's the most polite, appreciative person you'll ever be around. He's so nice and unaffected, you'd never know he was a former NFL superstar. He's quiet, unassuming. I consider Barry a friend, but Barry always calls me Mr. Brandt. One day I said, "Barry, darn it, I am Gil. Call me Gil."

His response? "Yes sir, Mr. Brandt."

He's kind of like a kid at heart, too. One weekend during the offseason in 1992, Barry came to Dallas for an autograph session. He called me before his visit and asked for a favor. "Can you get me into Six Flags Over Texas?" That's our roller coaster park here in town. I chuckled and said of course I would. But that's an example of the kind of guy Barry is. Some guys like bars and clubs, Barry likes amusement parks and golf courses. I saw him play during that 1988 season at Oklahoma State, and you didn't see him catch the ball very much. That's because Oklahoma State didn't have to; they ran a lot of toss right, toss left, quick traps and other running plays. They were not a pass-oriented offense, and why should they be with Barry Sanders in their backfield? And the guy was just unbelieveable, and he won the Heisman that year.

Barry decided to come out early but did not work out or run at the combine. Instead he showed off his wares at his Pro Day at Oklahoma State. In those days, the timing days weren't as well attended as they are now, so there must have been 20 or 25 teams represented.

Everyone's ready for the workout to start and Barry is nowhere to be found. Word was he was out of town picking up some hardware (trophies) but was on his way. So he flew into Tulsa and came right from the airport to the workout. He got out of the car, got into some sweats, limbered up a little bit and ran a 4.37 in the 40-yard dash! I remember standing next to Wayne Fontes, who was the Lions head coach at the time. The Lions picked third and we (the Cowboys) were picking first, and it was pretty obvious we were taking Troy Aikman. So Fontes whispers to me, "Hey, I don't care if he works out or not, we're taking him No. 3." I joked with him and told him not to be so sure he'd be there, but he didn't fall for it.

Of course Sanders went on to have one of the most amazing careers in NFL history, rushing for 15,269 yards in 10 seasons and making highlight reels on a weekly basis. When he gets inducted into the Hall of Fame on Aug. 8, 2004, Sanders will be the third youngest player to receive the honor. And when it comes to youth and Hall of Fame running backs, four of the five youngest players at the time of induction were rushers (Gale Sayers was 34; Jim Brown was 35; Earl Campbell was 37).

In my home, there is a photo prominently displayed of Barry Sanders with me and my wife from the Walter Camp All-American Banquet in Feb., 1989. It's a daily reminder of not just how wonderful of a guy Barry is, but how fortunate I am to know him on a personal level and watch him develop from a kid out of Wichita into one of the NFL's most treasured players of all time.