Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Curse of Barry Sanders

It's no secret that the Detroit Lions are staring down the barrel of a winless season. This isn't another article pointing out their futility or their increasing likelihood of posting a bagel in the win column for the 2008 National Football League season. I've written one of those already.

In my defense, I wrote it in mid-November when the De-clawed Cats were 0-10 so it's not as cheap a kick to the groin as writing one now that they sit 0-14.

Now that they have only two chances to avoid historical putridity.

One in Detroit against a vastly superior New Orleans Saints team whose playoff pulse is barely beating, but beating nonetheless. And then a roadie at Lambeau Field against a division rival that's already angry at the torment promised by an offseason spent watching the postseason on television. Those are two tall orders, even for a team as desperate as Detroit.

Nah, like I said, this isn't about the Lions' 2008 futility.

It's about why 2008 is just another in a long line of hideously incompetent seasons for the franchise. About why, if you told an NFL fan that a team failed to win a game in 16 tries and they had one guess to name the squad, I'd bet 90 percent would tab the Lions in any given year.

It's a better reason than I've previously given for saying, "#*&% the Detroit Lions."

That would be a brief and blinding flash of brilliance that Detroit's feculence prematurely snuffed out. That would be Barry David Sanders.

Before I go into Sanders, I've gotta thank James Williamson. In a back-and-forth over his favorite topic, the Dallas Cowboys, I mentioned something I heard on the NFL Network. His response was one of obvious envy that my satellite provider carried the channel.

Up until that moment, I only tuned in to watch the Sunday morning pregame show and the games to which the network had the rights. James' remark got me thinking that there might be more to it than that. After all, the pregame show is good, but ESPN's is better.

Additionally, the games to date have fallen well short of spectacular.

Still, James knows his football so I figured there must be something more to it.

I'm sure this isn't news to many of you, but there is. A whole lot more.

It was in the process of this discovery that I ran across a show dedicated to the top 10 most elusive running backs in NFL history. Again, no shock that Barry Sanders was at the top of the list. Of course, shows like that always include the greatest clips from a player's career and Barry's segment was no different.

Well, no different in that it was accompanied by highlights.

But his highlights certainly were different.

The man was a magician, a contortionist, a gazelle, a bull, and harder to hold than a greased pig. He stood 5'8" and could dunk a basketball easily, flat-footed. Sanders seemingly had no center of gravity, rather he seemed to have a gyroscope inside his sternum. He could use one part of his body as misdirection while totally and invisibly reversing his momentum to make cuts that no human should make. To hit holes that didn't exist a split-second before he shot through and didn't exist the split-second after.

I'm not sure some of those holes ever did really exist.

One clip shows him in the grasp of a Buffalo Bill when Cornelius Bennett shows up to lasso him to the ground. Only Sanders doesn't actually do down. He looks like he goes down and I'm sure it felt like he was down. But he wasn't. Not for 10 or 20 more yards.

Virtually every clip shows a spinning Sanders leaving a crown of bodies at his feet.

There's a saying to describe a particularly elusive athlete that goes he could make you miss in a phone booth. Obviously, this is hyperbole - no one could make you miss in such a confined space. Nobody.

Except Barry Sanders did. Routinely.

There are numerous clips where there is simply no room to operate, no place for Sanders to go. No escape. That is, until he gives a couple stutter steps, a little shoulder shimmy, and the defender is diving in a direction Sanders is not going. Lunging at a spot where Sanders is not, was not, and never planned to be.

As great as the clips were, the stories told by opposing players and analysts of the day were almost better. My favorite was a defensive coordinator talking about how his team knew that finding a human approximation for Sanders was impossible. Instead, they simulated his elusiveness by having the linemen and backers catch a bunch of chickens at practice.

Of course, there was also a vintage clip of Bo Jackson. In this one, Bo knew that Barry was better. Jackson says Barry Sanders is his idol and he wants to be just like him when he grows up.

Or one NFL defender telling how Barry was the greatest conversionary force the Church has ever seen - on Sundays, he'd leave hardened pro defenders on their knees, clasping nothing but air in the Lord's prayer.

Or another talking about how Barry is the only football player anyone has ever seen who could settle in front of you, then bolt out of arm's reach in the nanosecond it took you to break down for the tackle.

Or his coach, Wayne Fontes saying that, if the Barry Sanders isn't the best running back the Lord has ever made, he has yet to make one.

However, the most profound quote came from the man himself. See, he retired at or very close to the peak of his career. He hung 'em up before the 1999 season, a little more than one year removed from his best statistical season (1997). His last year (1998) saw him rush for almost 1,500 yards - a number he had surpassed in each of the previous four seasons. Barry walked away from the game a stone's throw from Walter Payton's all-time rushing record. Retirement came so early to Barry Sanders, that he is one of the few NFL players to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame during their 30's.

When asked why, he replied that you can only play the game at its highest level if you truly love it and he had lost that love.

That's not surprising.

Barry Sanders won a single playoff game while playing his entire 10-year career in Detroit. That single playoff game (over the Dallas Cowboys) amounts to the only Detroit Lion playoff victory since 1957. The Lions managed to make the playoffs a handful of other times, but never made it out of the first round.

That might not seem like a Herculean effort for one of the greatest running backs of all-time (he gets my vote), but consider it was the Detroit Lions. And he did it, almost literally, by himself.

By all accounts, Sanders never had even a serviceable offensive line. Sure, he was a high-risk, high-reward back. But the vulnerability of his protectorate was the real reason he had the most runs from scrimmage resulting in negative yardage.

Not only that, who is the best offensive player ever to suit up next to Sanders? Rodney Peete? Herman Moore? Scott Mitchell? Johnnie Morton (whose NFL career was only slightly more notable than his MMA one)? I'd have to go with Jason Hansen.

That's right. A flippin' field goal kicker.

This is a humble and proud man. He cared about winning, nothing else. His retirement proved that.

In 10 years, he saw one second round playoff game. And he did that by himself.

In 10 years, had Detroit given Sanders even a couple dangerous pieces to play alongside, his story might be different. It almost certainly would be longer.

That his moment of greatness flickered so briefly is one of the great tragedies of my sporting lifetime.

Had Detroit given him a little more to work with, it could have been averted.

So I'm rooting for the Curse of Barry Sanders. I'm hoping it helps the Saints and Packers finish off what 12 other teams have started. And I'm hoping it lives on for many years.

Because he is the greatest athlete of all-time to never win a championship.

Because Detroit never gave him a shot and he didn't need a big one.

Because we could have enjoyed him for many more years.

But most of all, because I miss Barry Sanders.

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