Barry Sanders took the handoff with a little over two minutes left that late Sunday afternoon in December. He bounced forward, jumped a little bit and plunged into the pile. He got up, shook himself off and went back to the huddle.
It was like nothing happened. The ball was reset into play. Only then did someone stop what was going on. Sanders had reached a rarefied NFL plateau: 2,000 yards.
The Silverdome crowd delayed a cheer. Sanders seemed momentarily confused. Tight end Pete Metzelaars went up to him and shook his hand, and the rest of the Detroit Lions offense gathered around. The referee handed Sanders the ball. Sanders gave it to his father, William, watching on the sideline.
“When he hit it,” offensive tackle Ray Roberts said, “it was the most non-Barry run ever.”
The next play — a vintage-Sanders, 53-yard run to cement his place in history — gave him 2,053 yards and gave the Lions a win and playoff berth. Center Kevin Glover and guard Larry Tharpe lifted Sanders onto their shoulders.
It led to a picture with Sanders (No. 20) atop Glover (No. 53). The two close friends wore the exact numbers Sanders ended up with for yards during his historic season. As the reluctant superstar went on the shoulders of the men who blocked for him that year, he told them not to drop him.
Some of this was planned — Roberts said he, not Tharpe, was supposed to pick Sanders up with Glover. The rest of it was spontaneous celebration of an achievement that meant as much to the franchise, the city and the offensive line as it did to Sanders himself.
“It was thrilling, exciting, kind of humbling,” Sanders said. “It’s kind of — everyone had known what you did, so all eyes were already on you, and so once they hoist you on their shoulders, that’s even more so the case.
“And so I felt a little bit uncomfortable but just proud of what we had accomplished going against a tough Jets team, a team coached by Bill Parcells, knowing that nothing was going to come easy.”
Sanders’ wizardry of shoulders, hips and feet took him to 2,000 yards 20 years ago. Had it not been for a meeting and a string of unbelievable games, it wouldn’t have happened at all.
Wayne Fontes had been fired following the 1996 season. Bobby Ross replaced him and changed offensive philosophies, using a fullback for the first time in Sanders’ career. In theory, this could make holes easier for Sanders.
Sanders was a generational player considered the best running back of all time. It sounds silly now that coaches had to figure out how to make an offense with Sanders work, but that’s exactly what happened. Sanders ran for 53 yards his first two games in 1997, including 20 against Tampa Bay — his lowest rushing total in three years.
Something was off. Sanders admitted some of it was relearning how to run behind a fullback. But it was also the coaching.
“I don’t think they understood how to run Barry,” fullback Cory Schlesinger said. “You can’t give him the ball three times, because he’s going to lose yards. But the next play, he’s going to make five guys miss and he’s going to do some outstanding running. I think they learned they have to just keep feeding him the ball, feeding him the ball.
“And he’s going to do what he does.”
Before Sanders, Ross and then-Lions offensive coordinator Sylvester Croom had a different type of back — burly Natrone Means, in San Diego. With the Chargers, if Means didn’t gain yards, they went away from the run game. With Sanders, you didn’t do that because he often lost yardage for a couple of plays before breaking out for a massive one. So the San Diego-based strategy was failing.
Multiple meetings between players and coaches and among the staff occurred after the Bucs game. Something needed to change. The answer became obvious: Let Barry be Barry.
“We said we’re going to build this thing, our offense is going to be built around Barry Sanders running the football and everything is going to feed off of it,” Croom said. “What it allowed us to do, it helped our passing game because one of the other things that was part of it is that people had to put that safety in the box to try and stop Barry.”
Croom attempted to rush Sanders 28 times per game — seven a quarter. Running backs coach Frank Falks was tasked with keeping Croom on pace each quarter, tallying every Sanders run and updating Croom after every series.
It’s the only time in Croom’s career he has done that. Sanders didn’t hit 28 every week, but he ended up with 335 carries.
“It was to make sure he had the football in his hands,” Croom said. “And we did not count catches. Any catches he caught were [extra].”
This worked two-fold. It guaranteed Sanders adequate work and opened up the passing game — with Croom giving quarterback Scott Mitchell permission to throw a deep ball to Herman Moore whenever he had one-on-one press coverage.
This changed the Lions’ season. Sanders had 14 straight 100-yard games after — an NFL record. It also means Sanders rushed for exactly 2,000 yards in 14 games — the same number of games as O.J. Simpson, the league’s first 2,000-yard rusher.
In addition to adjusting to a fullback, Sanders shifted his own prep, even though he hadn’t missed a game since 1993 and was coming off two straight rushing titles and three straight 1,500-yard seasons. At age 29, he started to hear questions about whether he’d soon break down.
He still was the best back in the game, the guy who came from behind to take a rushing title away from Terrell Davis in 1996. And he was motivated. Already in the process of tweaking his preparation the year before, Sanders made more changes in 1997.
Before and after practice almost daily, Sanders would be off on the side, running about 10 100-yard sprints to stay sharp, something Croom called “remarkable.” In addition to the sprints, Sanders took better care of his body. He ate fruit — yellow apples or grapes — at halftime for extra energy.
“I would do some stuff before,” Sanders said. “I had always done it to some degree, but certainly I remember doing it that year because I was getting older. I had dropped a pound or two, maybe five pounds, and just wanted to be able to run to improve my speed distance.”
After those meetings, the 100-yard games piled up. It started with 161 yards against Chicago in Week 3. In Week 7 against Tampa Bay, he had one of his iconic games, gaining 215 yards, including touchdown runs of 80 and 82 yards on which he faked Hall of Fame safety John Lynch to his knees.
Sanders had 1,211 yards with five games left. The offensive line and coaches started to wonder if 2,000 was going to be possible. The offensive line discussed it weekly. One lineman kept a weekly tracker of how many yards Sanders needed to average to get to 2K.
Publicly, they’d downplay it. Privately, they wanted it.
“It kind of happened organically,” Roberts said. “Then it was like, ‘Whoa, we’re really close to it.’ But we didn’t want to talk it up too much, because then you jinx it.”
The way they were doing it was unlike anything Croom had called before. After the failed first two weeks, Detroit mostly ran inside zone, draws and stretch outside zones. Croom said he called a run dubbed “60 Outside” 116 times that season, averaging 6.6 yards a carry.
Those 116 carries and 6.6 yards per carry are stats Croom will “never forget.”
Sanders said he didn’t realize 2,000 was a possibility until four games remained in the season. He knew people started to peek at Walter Payton’s career rushing record, but not the 2,000-yard mark. As he got closer, everyone knew.
“When he got on that hot run, Week 9 — 8 or 9 — he was way over 1,000 yards, and if you had 2,000 yards, you become concerned if you don’t want your record broken,” said Eric Dickerson, who set the single-season rushing record at 2,105 yards in 1984. “And I definitely didn’t want my record broken. So, of course, I watched.
“I didn’t watch every week, but Barry was such an exciting player that every week, you never knew what you were going to get, and for me, he’s the only guy that I can say made me go, ‘Wow, did you see that?’ as a player.”
There was more than a record to worry about entering the season finale against the Jets. The Lions had to win to reach the playoffs and beat Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick to do it. Sanders entered the game with 1,869 yards — needing 131 yards. He had hit at least 131 yards in the four games prior, so it was do-able. The game became an event in Detroit.
A television station invited Dickerson to attend. He flew in with a friend from Los Angeles, still the only time he has gone to a game because a back was about to cross the 2,000-yard mark. Yet it almost didn’t happen.
Sanders had 20 yards in the first half. He had no run longer than 5 yards until the last play of the third quarter — a 47-yard gain on a third down. Every time Tharpe came back to the sideline after a series, he’d ask statisticians how far they were from Sanders reaching 2,000. The players who had been keeping secret tabs on per-game averages had a mental countdown, as well, even if they never actually discussed it.
“We were struggling on third down. I’ll never forget that,” Croom said. “We got down to a critical part of the game, and we called about everything we had for third down and wasn’t anything getting us third down conversions.
“So I’m talking with the rest of the staff and I said, ‘Hey, anybody have any ideas? What are we going to run on third down?’ I’ll never forget that. I heard a couple suggestions from a couple guys on the staff and said, ‘What the heck. I’m just giving it to Barry.'”
On his second carry of the fourth quarter, Sanders scored a 15-yard touchdown to give the Lions a 13-10 lead. Sanders, who almost always improved as games progressed, found rhythm. A playoff berth was possible. Sanders closed in on the milestone.
Three plays later, the Silverdome fell silent. As the Lions tackled Adrian Murrell, Reggie Brown suffered a spinal cord contusion on the field. Brown was motionless on the field, telling teammates he couldn’t breathe.
According to reports of the game, Glover and Johnnie Morton ran to the tunnel, grabbing a gurney. Other players called for an ambulance. Brown lay on the field for 15 minutes before an ambulance took Brown to Henry Ford Hospital. Memories of Mike Utley and Dennis Byrd’s paralysis less than a decade earlier remained vivid.
The next day, Brown had surgery to fuse two vertebrae on his spinal cord, according to the New York Times.
“We’d give up 2,000 yards and give up the victory to have Reggie healthy,” Lions guard Jeff Hartings told the Chicago Tribune after the game. Ross, according to the Tribune, told his players if it were up to him, the game would have been stopped.
Sanders gained 161 yards on his final 11 carries to reach 2,000 yards. He was lifted on the shoulders of teammates. Dickerson told him, “Welcome to the club” on the field after the game. T-Shirts made by the Lions commemorating both the playoff appearance and Sanders’ achievement were handed out to players in the locker room. The Lions made the playoffs. Brown’s injury subdued all of it.
Inside the locker room after the game, the Lions alternated between celebrating and checking for updates on Brown. It was a juxtaposition of feelings the players and coaches were trying to reconcile at the same time: concern for their teammate, excitement about the playoffs, jubilation about helping their humble superstar accomplish something only done twice prior to 1997.
“We’re football players, and we wanted to go to the playoffs, and we wanted to get Barry 2,000 yards,” Metzelaars said. “But to see that happen to a great young player like that, we’re humans, too. You care about what happened to that guy, and oh my gosh.”
“I appreciated just the relationship we had and how much they put into wanting to see me be successful that season.”
Barry Sanders, on his 1997 teammates
A week later, the Lions lost to Tampa Bay, ending the second-to-last season of Sanders’ career. He was named the league’s Most Valuable Player and invited to the Pro Bowl.
He called all of his offensive linemen and tight ends extending an offer: He would be bringing them and their spouses to Hawaii, too. Sanders also did something else. The offensive linemen and tight ends received a letter saying they needed to pick up a piece of certified mail.
Inside was a 24-carat-gold bracelet with the Lions logo on it and the numbers “2,053” inscribed in diamonds. Roberts and Tharpe still have their bracelets — Roberts says his kids can look at it but not touch it.
“They had everything to do with that year, and they were just a solid group of guys and we all got along great, and I appreciated the sacrifice that they made and the attitude toward wanting to see me succeed and that sort of thing,” Sanders said. “At that level, not everyone is always pulling for each other on the same team, you know.
“So yeah, I appreciated just the relationship we had and how much they put into wanting to see me be successful that season.”
Sanders was exactly the type of player they wanted to block for — at least once they learned how to do it. With Sanders, they would have to hold blocks longer because you never really knew where he was going.
But that was an easy tradeoff because so often for so many years, Sanders made them look so good.
“We were a part of something special. When you’re in the midst of it, you really don’t think about it,” Tharpe said. “But when you look back, we had a 10-year reunion and a 20-year reunion, which they didn’t honor that, but you look back on how special it was and how special it was with the guys you did it with. I mean, that was genuinely a good group.
“We all cared about each other, and that made it more important, too, for Barry.”
Terrell Davis watched from afar that year. Every week, he caught Sanders’ highlights on television. He saw a contemporary — a player he considered the best back he has ever seen — accomplish something next to impossible.
Davis had finished second to Sanders in rushing in 1996 and 1997. Heading into training camp in 1998, with Sanders still in the league, Marcus Allen approached Davis and asked him a question: What about 2,000 yards for himself? Davis laughed it off, saying he didn’t want the pressure.
By the end of the 1998 season, Davis joined Sanders as the seventh member of the 2,000-yard club, which consisted of Simpson, Dickerson, Sanders, Jamal Lewis, Chris Johnson and Adrian Peterson. Not that Davis ever thought it was possible for him to reach that mark.
“I didn’t, man, because Barry’s Barry. That’s a whole different level of running back,” said Davis, now an analyst with NFL Network. “That was a whole different level, man. And knowing Barry, Barry’s skill set is so much different than any back I had ever seen. So no, I definitely didn’t think that because Barry had it, I could do it. Even though the year before I had 1,700 yards, I still thought I had to come strong.
“I didn’t think 2,000 was possible. I thought 1,800 would be, would probably put me where I needed to be. But it’s hard. If any back tells you that 2,000 yards is real, some backs say, ‘I’m gonna get 2 grand, man.’ That’s a lofty goal, man. It is tough, man.”