Barry Sanders: The Ringless Champion

The talk surrounding Super Bowl XLIV is beginning to simmer down.  The storybook ending for the New Orleans Saints culminated in the most watched Super Bowl of all-time.  Somewhere between the Saints saving New Orleans and the Mardi Gras style Super Bowl victory parade, I began to reflect on great players who lost the Super Bowl thus never reaching the sport’s pinnacle.  Worse than that are the men who never even had an opportunity to compete for a NFL championship.  No one’s trophy denied career makes my heart sink more than Barry Sanders.

Sanders was the most phenomenal physical specimen ever, I mean ever, to grace the gridiron.  Sanders is without a doubt the best running back ever to play the game.  It doesn’t matter who comes up in the conversation.  Whether it’s Jim Brown, Walter Payton or Eric Dickerson because they are beneath the mighty Barry Sanders.  Sanders was a perfect storm of  Brown’s power running, Payton’s elusiveness and Dickerson’s speed.  Also further separating him from the rest of the pack were his Michael Jackson moves that humiliated would-be tacklers.  No play was ever dead with Sanders.  His stops, spins and slides were video game-esque and a thing of beauty.  With such awe-inspiring talent it’s no wonder he was appreciated by all, including his opponents.  Many players have said that the one player they would pay to watch would be Barry Sanders.  He was the Michael Jordan of NFL running backs.

Every running back in history can attribute some percentage of his stats to his teams.  Whether it the benefit of a great offensive line or playing with a pass potent offense that opposing defenses had to account for, every back had someone to help them along the way.  There was no bigger crime in the NFL’s history than Barry Sanders tenure in Detroit. There he earned every inch he gained all by himself in his storied 10 year career. When the sorry Lions came up on a team’s schedule the game plan was simple:  throw all 11 members of the defense at Sanders.  The Lions couldn’t and wouldn’t throw the ball.  There was no offensive line to create holes and it left Sanders to make his own openings.  The coaching staff was poignant and the GM was Matt Millen.  ‘Nuff said with the latter.  Had Sanders landed in Dallas, with that O-Line, then Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin would have been expendable.

He never showboated and never talked trash.  He respected the game, the officials and his opponents.  There were no taunts or end zone celebrations.  Sanders simply played the game the way it was meant to be played.  Sanders was a fierce competitor but you never witnessed him as a sour sport.

More grand than his physical gifts was his character.  Sanders’ humility made him special.  Unlike many of today’s athletes, Sanders never lost sight of himself.  By millionaire standards, Sanders lived like a poor man.  In his prime, he lived in a median $180K home and did all of his own yard work.  Remaining true to his common man roots, despite earning several million dollars a year, was more electrifying as his on field performances.

There is nothing to feel but anguish when swine like T.O had the opportunity to showcase his skills on Super Sunday and Sanders didn’t.  It’s something I cannot abide.  It doesn’t sit well with me.  Good things don’t always happen to good people.  If that were true this post would cease to exist.  Barry deserved better, no wait; he deserved the best.  Nothing can ever change the past, but remembering his brilliance and never forgetting his cruel misfortune is the greatest respect I can pay the champion without a ring…Barry Sanders.

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