Barry Sanders is maybe no bigger than you are. He is an impossibly regular guy, with nothing to suggest the havoc that lurks within his 5-foot 8-inch form. Or how he has invited the sudden, staggering possibility of a Heisman Trophy at Oklahoma State.
There are no enlightening features contained in his smooth, expressionless face that might reveal a truer or more abandoned nature. He has little of great moment or secrecy to tell about himself, a quiet-spoken junior who studies the Bible and would like very much to be left alone in this swirl of the Heisman race.
“Personally, I don’t care anything about it, right?” he said. But he may not be able to prevent it, because when he runs, voices grow shriller and the collective pulse of a stadium moves in stops and leaps, according to what he is doing.
Currently Sanders leads the nation in rushing, scoring and all-purpose yards. He has singlehandedly outscored 34 teams in the country, and by himself he ranks 35th in the nation in team rushing. What this may amount to is an NCAA record-breaking season, as he has gained 1,691 yards rushing, just 651 short of Marcus Allen’s mark of 2,342 yards for Southern California in 1981. That would be an achievement that cried out for the Heisman Trophy.
Even if Sanders doesn’t reach the record, this is already a season worthy of gasps. He has averaged 211.4 yards per game, and with 3 games remaining, against Kansas, Iowa State and Texas Tech, the rushing record will have been at least breathed on. Other records have already been set. He has had two 300-plus performances in the same season, a first in NCAA history. So is his current streak of scoring at least 2 touchdowns in 8 straight games. He has 26 touchdowns.
What is even more startling is that this extravagance comes from a 20-year-old junior with tiny hands and feet, a whirling little miracle who is almost unconscious of what he has done. “It doesn’t seem like that much when I’m doing it,” he said. Through it all, he has professed almost a bored disinterest in his own accomplishments. “This is not the time to stop and gloat,” he said.
Sanders’ confounding attitude toward the Heisman race is bred of a certain austerity he was raised in. He grew up in Wichita, Kan., 1 of 11 children of Willie Sanders, a carpenter and maintenance man, and Shirley, a registered nurse. They are struggling to support 3 other children also in college.
This turns out to be a fairly remarkable family. His brother Byron is a senior running back at Northwestern who has gained 820 yards, a typical straight-ahead Big Ten rusher. They learned to run in the empty yards and lots of Wichita, where they played kill-the-ball-carrier with the neighbors.
“That’s how we were raised, you just used what you had and didn’t look for any more,” Byron Sanders said. “We were taught not to be greedy or obsessed with what you couldn’t have. It was instilled in us as kids. It’s a trait that comes from not having very much.”
When Sanders goes home he does the chores, visits with his 8 sisters and goes to Paradise Baptist church. He and Byron, a year older, talk once or twice a week, but usually about anything but football. “We talk like two human beings, not athletes,” Byron said.
Willie Sanders said, “I’ve got to be the proudest father in the world,” but normalcy is what is aimed for at home. Barry “doesn’t know he’s a star,” he added. “He washes dishes and takes out the trash.”
It is understood that both Sanders will get their degrees; Barry, planning on going into business, probably to open a sporting goods store or some other kind of small shop. At 5-8, an NFL career is probably not the most realistic endeavor, nor does he necessarily want to pursue it.
“There are so many things besides football,” he said. “Football is temporary. It could be over in a second, I guess. It’s a ticket. I don’t know if I’d even be playing it if I wasn’t playing to go to school. I mean it’s fun and I thank God for the chance to play, but I can’t say I love the game. It’s helped me, but when my last day comes I won’t be that sorry.”
Certainly, neither of the Sanders brothers wears or assumes the trappings of a lot of major running backs, since Willie Sanders would probably kill them if they came home with gold chains or earrings. “Fads don’t last,” he said. “Good behavior lasts.”
Barry Sanders is emphatically well behaved. He is a low profile on campus who maybe goes bowling from time to time, otherwise lifting weights or playing basketball, his first love. He eschews nightclubs, favors sweat suits, and has a candid expression on a wide-eyed young face.
“I’m not a materialistic person. You don’t need gold or a nice car for people to have a certain impression of you,” he said. “I learned from personal experience that there is no better feeling than what is within. There’s nothing wrong with nice things, it’s just not my style.”
Sanders is also wary of rewards, a wariness resulting from his previous disappointments, such as scholarship offers only from Oklahoma State, Iowa State and Tulsa, not even from his home state schools in Kansas. Both brothers wanted to go to any major football school, but they were shunned without a second glance by UCLA and Nebraska, among others.
The place they really wanted to go was Oklahoma, the school Willie Sanders has been fascinated with since he grew up listening to the Sooners on the radio. It has been said that even when Oklahoma State has played Oklahoma, he rooted for the Sooners against his own son, which he admits was the case until recently. “It got so I put football above God,” he said. Barry Sanders said, “We got him changed around, finally.”
The Sooners were no more interested in either of the Sanders, already possessed with better-known prospects, to the great disappointment of the family. And the current dismay of Coach Barry Switzer. “He’s just so damn good,” he said.
“Well, we all make mistakes in life,” Willie Sanders said.
So Sanders came to Oklahoma State, a red brick school in this smokestack, haystack town of gray iron mills and fields of long silky grass. It’s a place of discount stores and fast-food strips where no one suspected a Heisman candidate could dwell. Sanders himself remained skeptical of his talents until just last year, when, playing behind Thurman Thomas, he rushed for 654 yards on 111 carries.
Even at the beginning of this season he was supposed to be something of a supporting player, Oklahoma State banking more on quarterback Mike Gundy, second in the nation in passing efficiency, and All-American receiver Hart Lee Dykes. Instead, Sanders has become the bulk of the offense, an enigmatic combination of elusiveness and plowhorse, averaging 29 carries a game. Of the Cowboys’ 276.7 yards a game rushing, Sanders accounts for all but 66 yards of it. So if the Heisman has anything to do with what a player means to his team, Sanders probably wins on that count.
How a player of his size can withstand such a burden, much less pursue a Heisman under it, is a matter of sheer athleticism. The Cowboys, who took him on a whim, were startled to discover during his freshman year that he had under 4.5 speed in the 40-yard dash, and a standing vertical leap measured at 41 inches, which is right up there with the hang time of the NBA.
“He’s put together very well,” Oklahoma State Coach Pat Jones said. “He’s chiseled out of granite, he’s not some spindly little back. And he doesn’t give you much of a target. So I knew he’d light it up pretty good. But you wouldn’t think he’d get these kind of numbers.”
More than just physical talent, however, Sanders has almost errorless ability to pick out blocks and go the right way. He is seldom conscious of his open-field moves, operating on pure visual instinct, but when he is at the line he perceives everything. He sees two things primarily, the hole and the end zone.
His lack of height makes him a weaving, low-to-the-ground runner who sometimes disappears in a gang tackle, only to dart free. He squirts and stutter-steps, rarely running straight ahead, but he is deceptively strong, with wide shoulders and power-driven legs that can carry tacklers.
“There’s no real secret to running,” he said. “You just try to avoid people. It’s no trick to it at all. But it’s weird sometimes. You keep pounding and pounding away, and then you see a hole open up. And it’s like a big boost of energy from inside you.”
The Heisman is a squat bronze monument with its straight arm extended, as if to ward off undeserving frauds, of which there unfortunately have been many. The trophy is more often than not presented to some darling of a major school, a fittingly statuesque running back or quarterback from Notre Dame, Southern California or Oklahoma. So Sanders’ presence in the Heisman race will be argued endlessly, but more and more there is groundswell toward him.
While early on his yardage may have been debatable, coming against weaker Big Eight opponents, in the last few weeks it has been established that absolutely no one can stop him. Not No. 6 Nebraska, which gave up 189 yards and 4 touchdowns in its 63-42 victory, and not No. 7 Oklahoma, which yielded 215 yards and 2 touchdowns in a 31-28 thriller last weekend.
There is one last curiosity about Sanders as a Heisman candidate. Even if he should win, he will not be at the ceremony, because Oklahoma State has a game scheduled for Dec. 4 against Texas Tech, in Tokyo. The Heisman will be awarded Dec. 3 in New York.
“I think he’s got a very legitimate chance,” Jones said. “Now, he could care less. He’d rather be in Tokyo.”