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Thursday, August 5
Sanders juked his way into Hall of Fame
DETROIT -- When Barry Sanders gets his first glimpse of the sea of gold blazers at the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Sunday, it might make him want to do something he hasn't done in five years.
"I will probably feel like suiting up again," he said, laughing.
If Sanders did, he would probably juke any of the legends of the game that tried to tackle him.
Sanders, one of the most elusive and exciting running backs in NFL history, will be inducted in Canton, Ohio, along with John Elway, Carl Eller and Bob Brown.
Sanders ran for 15,269 yards in 10 seasons with the Detroit Lions. Then, within one average season of surpassing Walter Payton's rushing record, he suddenly and shockingly retired soon after his 31st birthday and just before training camp in 1999.
He will go into the Hall of Fame about two weeks after Ricky Williams' stunning retirement at the age of 27.
"Yeah, it is sort of eerie," Sanders said in an interview with The Associated Press. "Ricky is obviously younger than I was, but leaving the game is a personal thing that we all struggle with."
Fans across the state of Michigan struggled for a long time with the fact Sanders retired, and the way he did it.
Sanders announced his decision through a written statement released by his hometown newspaper, The Wichita (Kan.) Eagle. He then eluded reporters as if they were trying to tackle him for four-plus years.
Last winter, Sanders had his first news conference since his retirement to answer questions and promote his new book. He acknowledged the way he retired was "a little clumsy," and shot down many rumors, including the one that the move was a ploy to be traded.
After once being booed at a Pistons game, Sanders drew cheers when he was shown on the scoreboard at one of their games this year.
"Initially, I think some fans were disappointed, or angry, because they thought my retirement was about something manipulative," Sanders said. "But that's not the type of person I am."
When Sanders scored one of his 109 touchdowns, he simply flipped the football to an official, or handed it off, and jogged away.
"We would try to get him to spike the ball -- just one time -- but he wouldn't do it," said Kevin Glover, Sanders' center in Detroit and a close friend.
When reporters gathered around Sanders after games or practices, he wondered why people wanted to talk to him. In an era of look-at-me athletes, he wanted the public to look elsewhere.
"I was just never comfortable with being in the spotlight," he said. "I don't have to worry about that now."
Sanders spends most of his time in suburban Detroit with his wife and three children, golfs about once a week, and has some business interests. When his 10-year-old, 3-year-old and 5-month old sons are older, he'd like to travel the world.
"Honestly, I want to see every place there is," Sanders said.
In his book, "Barry Sanders: Now You See Him...," Sanders said he always respected the defensive schemes Tony Dungy devised while he was Minnesota's defensive coordinator and Tampa Bay's coach. Dungy, now Indianapolis' coach, said there was only so much he could do.
"You really couldn't design a defense for him because he'd make plays that weren't there," Dungy said. "With Barry, you could play everything perfectly and he would still run for a lot of yards."
At 5-foot-8, 203 pounds, Sanders didn't look special standing still. With the ball, however, Sanders was spectacular as his powerful legs and quick feet made jaw-dropping moves rarely seen before, or since.
Sanders, the third pick overall in 1989 draft after winning the Heisman Trophy at Oklahoma State, was the first player to run for 1,000 yards in each of his 10 seasons.
In 1997, he became the first to run for 100 yards in 14 games during the same season, and did it in consecutive games. He was the third player to run for 2,000 yards, gaining 2,053, and shared the MVP award with Brett Favre.
The 10-time Pro Bowler was the first to run for 1,500 yards five times, and was the first to do it in four straight seasons.
He now trails Payton and Emmitt Smith in the record books, but Smith said he would still be chasing Sanders' mark if he didn't retire with plenty of life in his legs.
"Barry had not only the best chance of getting the record, but blowing the record way out, setting it in the 20,000-mark area," Smith has said.
Unlike many Hall of Famers, Sanders never had a chance to play for a championship. Sanders led Detroit to the playoffs five times and to one win over Dallas in 1991, its only postseason victory since winning the 1957 NFL title.
But that doesn't tarnish his legacy.
"The best football player I've ever watched was Lawrence Taylor, and the best running back I've seen in 25 years is Barry Sanders," said former NFL linebacker Matt Millen, now the Lions' general manager. "It's not even close. It's going to be a long, long time before we see another like him, if we do."