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Sunday, August 8
Happy Sanders shows crowd different side
By Wayne Drehs
ESPN.com

CANTON, Ohio -- He was never a man that said many words. Never a man that gave a good quote. He was never a man that showed much emotion. Never a man that spiked the ball after a touchdown.

But on Sunday, Barry Sanders kept smiling. Kept laughing. He stood at the podium in front of some 23,000 football die-hards, in one of the biggest speeches of his life, and constantly chuckled like a little kid who had heard a naughty word.

Sanders did a lot more smiling on Sunday than he did in his playing days.
Perhaps it was his way to deal with the pressure. Or perhaps five years of retirement has busted Sanders out of his shell. More likely, though, was that it all finally sank in. The 15,000 yards. The 109 touchdowns. The five NFL records. The 12 Detroit Lions records.

The Hall of Fame can do that to people. How else could one explain Sanders, one of the quietest, most humble superstars of the me-first generation, bragging about how excited he was to give his acceptance speech Sunday morning.

"I was always someone who led by actions, not words," Sanders said just before Sunday's ceremony. "I didn't give a lot of quotes to the media. I didn't do a lot of talking. So today will be a little different. But I'm excited about it. I can't wait to get out there today and talk about my life, thank my family. It's going to be fun."

When he finally got his chance, some two-and-a-half hours into the ceremony, he didn't disappoint. He thanked the city of Detroit. He thanked his coaches. He thanked his mom. He thanked his dad. He even thanked the kids that grew up down the street from him in Wichita, Kan., that played pickup football with him.

And all along what's supposed to be an emotional day -- a day when many enshrinees succumb to tears -- Sanders smiled. He laughed when things were funny. He laughed when things were not. The man who retired after 10 seasons by faxing a note to a local paper in Wichita and then completely disappeared from the public eye until releasing a book last year, couldn't have looked happier.

He laughed when talking about his first coach, Wayne Fontes. "He reminded me that if I kept on the right track and continued to be successful, I may someday be as successful as he was … heh, heh, heh," Sanders joked.

He laughed when he pointed out his family in the front row. "As many of you can notice, I have some supporters here … heh, heh, heh." When he singled out his brother. "My brother Byron was a few years older than me. We were inseparable … heh, heh, heh."

He laughed when he talked about his first few years in the league. "I always ate dinner at a teammate's home. I'd drop by around dinner time … heh, heh, heh." And when talking about his mom. "The only problem is that she doesn't know anything about football … heh, heh, heh. So if you see her, don't even ask."

He even poked fun at his straight-laced dad. "His only downfall was that he was an Oklahoma Sooners fan. Even after I went to their archrival, he still rooted for the Sooners … heh, heh, heh."

It got to the point where the 23,000 in attendance -- the majority of which were on hand to cheer the induction of John Elway -- laughed along, each time Sanders released what quickly became a Beavis and Butthead-like trademark chuckle.

"I've never seen him like this," said 36-year-old Lions fan Mike Fostay, who drove down from Michigan for the ceremony. "It's totally refreshing. And because it's Barry, it couldn't be any funnier."

For those who think Sanders left the game too early, for those who think -- Sanders included -- that it's a shame he never crossed the goal line in a Super Bowl, no one could argue that one of the greatest running backs who ever lived is happy. Content. And couldn't be more thrilled about the final chapter of his football life.

"It's really overwhelming," Sanders said. "To be with individuals that shaped and molded the game to what it is and helped formulate the football consciousness of our country is just awesome.

"Guys like Starr and Nitschke and Payton -- you hear those names and you can't help but ask yourself -- do I really belong here?"

I was always someone who led by actions, not words. I didn't give a lot of quotes to the media. I didn't do a lot of talking. So today will be a little different.
Barry Sanders

Sanders said he was touched by the surprise attendance of his former coach. Fontes, who has been battling nerve problems in his neck, back and legs in recent months, originally told Sanders he wasn't going to be able to attend, but changed his mind over the weekend, hopped on a 5:45 a.m. flight Sunday morning in Tampa and just before noon -- with the assistance of a cane -- walked into the nearby McKinley High field house, where Sanders was holding a pre-induction press conference.

"Coach Fontes!!" Sanders called out over the 50 or so media members that had gathered. "Coach Fontes!! How are you?"

"Hey Barry!!" Fontes yelled back.

Afterward, the two shared a hug and a few words before Sanders was ushered off to his next commitment. Fontes, who is awaiting MRI results to determine the extent of back surgery he'll need next week, took the media opportunity to lean on his cane and brag about the man he says "is the greatest player to ever touch a football."

When asked if Sanders would start at tailback on a mythical Hall of Fame football team, Fontes chuckled.

"Start?" he said. "He'd start. He'd be the star. He'd be the captain. And everybody would love playing with him. You can take this to the bank -- he was as great of a running back as there was, but he was an even better person.

"And just look how happy he is today. I couldn't be more thrilled for him."

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com and can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com