THE RELUCTANT STAR : The Heisman Trophy Is Missing, and the 1988 Winner--Oklahoma State’s Barry Sanders--Really Doesn’t Care

Times Staff Writer

Where is the Heisman?

William Sanders, 51, puffs on a cigar, checks his Sun Bowl watch and shakes his head. As if on cue, the three men sitting with him at a wobbly table in the back of Georgio’s Cafe shake their heads.

“That thing should have been here by now,” Sanders says. “They told me they were sending the trophy home from New York same time they sent me home from New York. Except I’m here, and it ain’t.”

Sanders recently visited New York City and slept in the Downtown Athletic Club, a place so wondrous, he says, “it has a swimming pool on each of the first eight floors.”


That was a couple of weeks ago. He was there for the presentation of the Heisman Trophy to his son Barry, an Oklahoma State running back. One copy of the trophy went to the college, the other to Barry, who promptly gave it to his father, mostly because the sight of it made him feel funny.

His father then promised to display it in Georgio’s soul food place, mostly because Georgio makes him good coffee every morning.

Georgio has already cleared a table. Amid the smoke and big cheeseburgers and chitlin specials, it’s the only table not draped with a plastic Christmas tree-covered tablecloth. It’s empty, it’s ready. Bring on that bronze boy. Georgio’s, home of the Heisman.

So, where is the Heisman?

“Maybe it got lost in the mail,” says Mr. Armstrong, a friend of Sanders who, like all his friends, is introduced only as Mister.

“They wouldn’t actually mail it, would they?” asks Mr. Sanders.

“This is just barber shop talk,” later says Mr. Kinnard, the barber, “but folks are saying that the powerful people in this town called the people in New York and told them not to send you nothing.”

“Who says?” Mr. Sanders says.

A younger gentleman pops his head in the door. He is not introduced.

“I know where the Heisman is,” he announces. “Somebody said it was in the trunk of a car parked out on Kellogg Street.”

“They said it was where?” Mr. Sanders asks.

Two hours south, in Stillwater, Okla., Barry Sanders puts his head in his hands. He is not laughing. He doesn’t know where the Heisman is. He doesn’t care where the Heisman is. He only wishes people to understand one thing.

He never asked for this.

“Every day I pray--man, do I pray,” he says. “I can’t handle what has happened to me, so I pray that God will handle it for me.”

Driving through the Oklahoma plains up Interstate 35 from Oklahoma City, you see just one sign telling you that you are within 1,000 miles of Stillwater. And that sign is just 2 miles before the exit.

Out Oklahoma way, they figure you know where you are going.

Out Oklahoma way, where the wind can make you cry and there are fewer trees than there are radio stations that broadcast Paul Harvey, strength is measured in terms of conviction.

“We’re mostly down-to-earth people,” Pat Jones, the Oklahoma State football coach, said. “We accept a man for who he is, not for a lot of glitz.”

Into this area, on Dec. 3, barged King Glitz, the Heisman Trophy, the 25-pound symbol of the best college football player in the nation. It then kicked in the door of the one top college football player who wasn’t listening for the knock.

Barry Sanders, a 20-year-old college junior, has all but denounced it. Before he won it, he half-jokingly rooted for another player to win it. He then nearly had to be dragged in front of a camera to accept the award via satellite television. And afterward, he gave his copy to his father, who still hasn’t seen it.

With apologies to one of Georgio’s best dishes, the Heisman is being treated with all the reverence of a ham hock.

“You wonder, biggest award possible, why doesn’t this guy go bananas?” said Oklahoma State offensive guard Chris Stanley of Sanders. “You wonder, why doesn’t he come out and say everything he’s wanted to say all his life?

“When he didn’t want to be on television to accept the Heisman, I volunteered to go in his place. Shoot, I’ll take that thing.”

Sanders, himself, shrugged as if in pain. He is not aloof or forbidding. He won’t sit still for an interview very long--he was once 4 1/2 hours late for one--but he talks pleasantly and without pause. It’s just that he just doesn’t say the things people are listening for.

“Life doesn’t stop with football,” he said. “Happiness does not come from football awards. It’s terrible to correlate happiness with football. Happiness comes from a good job, being able to feed your wife and kids. I don’t dream football, I dream the American dream--two cars in a garage, be a happy father . . . “

He sighed. “It’s not that I don’t want the award. It’s just that the award doesn’t mean everything.”

Is Sanders serious?

Oklahoma State quarterback Mike Gundy has heard this question so often that he’s worried he might call it in the huddle one day.

“If it’s an act, how come I was reluctant to even congratulate him about the award?” Gundy asked. “I don’t care how good an actor you are, you can’t act how you feel about the Heisman Trophy. He may be different, but that’s the way he is.”

Those who take college football real seriously find this almost sacrilegious, particularly after what Sanders did to win the award.

When the season began, Sanders had a 2-year rushing total of 947 yards, mostly as a backup. In the Oklahoma State football media guide, Sanders’ picture appears only once, on Page 22, with a normal biography that describes him as nothing more than an heir apparent to the starting backfield job. In the entire 102-page book, the word Heisman appears not at all.

That was then.

When Sanders leads Oklahoma State against Wyoming in the Holiday Bowl in San Diego on Dec. 30, he will complete 4 stunning months during which he ran around opponents with such incredible freedom, it was as if they never realized he had the ball. He has broken or tied 24 National Collegiate Athletic Assn. rushing records.

The big record is the yards rushing--2,628, a nice average of 238.9 yards a game. Then there were his touchdowns--39, or about 3 a game.

Using a 5-foot 8-inch frame supported by thighs the approximate size of grain elevators, Sanders bounced off enough bodies to win the Heisman before a 332-yard performance against Texas Tech at Tokyo to end the regular season.

But his landslide win--with more than double the points of runner-up Rodney Peete of USC--is where the problems started.

A football player was suddenly asked to be a football star. And Barry Sanders was not brought up to be a football star. From his lack of an end zone dance to his lack of an audacious boast, one can see the teachings of a background based in realism.

These were the teachings of a father who, as an independent construction worker with a high school education working sometimes for less than $10 an hour, insisted that his son be different.

“I got no physical injuries from my job, but plenty of mental ones, and those are worse,” William Sanders said.

The father insisted that the son never show anyone up the way he had sometimes felt shown up. The father, who all his life had listened to others brag, insisted that his son never brag.

“I told Barry one thing every Friday night before he went to the game,” William Sanders said. “I told him he wasn’t better than anybody else. He was just luckier.”

There were the teachings that football is something to be played, not something with which to feed your family. A college degree and the Bible, that’s how you feed your family. The Bible part was governed by Sanders’ mother, Shirley, from whom he takes his quiet consistency.

The problem with being raised on such realism is that, coming from a Heisman Trophy winner, it does not seem very realistic to some.

“I just saw him walking across the street to the weight room,” said Hart Lee Dykes, standout Oklahoma State receiver. “He’s just walking, head down, real quietly, like nothing in the world is happening. I stop and look at him and shake my head.

“I think, this man just won the greatest award you can win, and he does not have a clue.”

Or does he?

Start with the name. It’s just Barry Sanders. No middle name, because his father worried that he would have enough trouble spelling two names.

It was the first of many choices his father would make for Barry and his 10 brothers and sisters as they grew up on the raggedy end of Wichita in a 3-bedroom, green frame house just around the corner from Georgio’s. The family still lives there.

“Barry comes home, he shares a room with his sister, sleeps in a bunk bed,” William Sanders said. “What, you think because he won the Heisman we can build him a special room? You think I should let him sleep in my bed? In my house, there is still only one way. My way.”

That way has proven effective, at least with the boys in the family. Of Barry’s two older brothers, William is a minister in Kansas City and Byron is a successful running back at Northwestern.

“His father was intimidating,” said Mark McCormick, Sanders’ best friend and a student at the University of Kansas. “We walked around him on tiptoes.”

Said Sanders: “I did something wrong, he let me know.”

About the only thing anyone can recall Sanders doing wrong, however, was play with matches as a first grader.

“Wouldn’t have been so bad except he played with them in the bathroom,” Williams Sanders said. “I see smoke, I run in and grab him.”

And then the obvious spanking ensued . . .

“Spanking, hell. I tried to kill him,” interrupted Sanders. “I take no prisoners. But they listen. And Barry was no trouble after that.”

He was too busy following orders. He missed the first practice of his senior year in high school because he was helping his father shingle a roof. Even today, he cannot come home without helping his father on a job.

“Ninety-nine percent of the things he made us do, we hated,” Barry said. “But we did them, because that’s the way it is.”

As Sanders grew up through both great and mediocre football seasons--he wasn’t even a starting running back until the third game of his senior year because coaches thought he was afraid to run up the middle--his father’s themes remained strong.

“I didn’t ever want to rock the boat,” Barry said. “I still don’t. God gave us a gift, and I just wanted to use that gift . . . and not get in anybody’s way.

“I’m not better than anyone else. I’m not supposed to be on a pedestal. I’ve always stayed away from that.”

Thus it happened that he was recruited by only three schools. His father allowed him to pick which one he wanted to attend.

“All I told him when he left home was, ‘Don’t dare come back to our ghetto in 4 years, high-fiving and hollering about what you done on some football field,” William said. “I told him, come back with a job and an education. If you are going to come back and be like me, don’t even go.”

Iowa State and Tulsa recruited him hard, but Sanders liked the low-key approach of Oklahoma State, whose coach, Jones, never even visited his house.

Reason for the selection?

“He wanted to go somewhere where he wouldn’t be the star, where he wouldn’t have to be a savior,” his father said.

Said his best friend, McCormick: “He told me he wanted to go somewhere where he could meet a real country girl who had never heard of Barry Sanders, who didn’t care about the jukes and the touchdowns, who would care just about Barry.”

After 2 years of blessed obscurity, both hopes have vanished. Today it is hard to find anyone in these parts, or any college football fan anywhere, who has not heard of Barry Sanders. And oh, about those jukes and those touchdowns.

“About 3 weeks before the Heisman ceremony, when it finally hit him what was happening, you could see him kind of squirm,” said Ron Brown, Oklahoma State’s director of athletic counseling. “All he wanted to do was go to school and play football, and suddenly everyone is telling him he’s the greatest thing since sliced cheese. People from everywhere were on him, people were just killing him.

“But tell you what, he has not changed. Not one iota.”

Said Sanders: “People always try to get you to change--like in junior high it was popping pills and booze and marijuana, and everybody calling you square if you didn’t do it. Well, I consider what’s happening now another type of peer pressure. And I don’t care what anybody says about me in all this. They don’t know me.”

Because to know him is to know that, even after appearing on TV with Bob Hope, he is still not a football star.

He still does not look like a star. He showed up at a recent interview wearing jeans and a University of Houston sweat shirt.

“Got it in a good trade with a guy there,” he said.

He does not have a style like a star. He still doesn’t wear any jewelry, except for a watch. And the one time he tried to get fancy, he nearly caused himself a serious injury.

“He would go around wearing this pin in his mouth, like a toothpick,” recalled McCormick. “Then one day, while drinking a Coke, he swallowed the pin. Coaches held him out of the next game because they were afraid the pin would cut his insides.”

He doesn’t strut like a star. He still doesn’t have a trademark end zone spike, or dance, or shuffle, or even wave. He scores, he finds the nearest referee--once he ran 15 yards to find him--and then politely returns the ball.

“Of all the things he’s done, we would really stand in awe if, just once, after a touchdown he would dance the Cabbage Patch,” lineman Stanley said, sighing. “It’ll never happen.”

He doesn’t party like a star. Friends swear he has been to one dance in his life--to pick up the homecoming king’s crown in high school--and even then they say he didn’t have a date.

Said Stan Clark, owner of Stillwater’s popular Eskimo Joe’s bar: “I’ve seen all the football stars come in here. But I’ve never seen Barry Sanders in person. Ever.”

So what happens next year when, in trying to become only the second person in the Heisman’s 54-year history to win the award twice, he must face an entire season of glitz? Considering that he could avoid the publicity and pick up some NFL dollars, will Sanders even stick around for next year?

He says he’s staying put. Even though Oklahoma State is in imminent danger of probation when the NCAA completes an investigation and hands down a ruling on a reported 63 rules violations, that is not at the top of his concerns.

“I am staying here,” Sanders said. “I came to finish my education, and that’s what I’ll do.”

Noted McCormick: “We were talking about the NFL the other day and he told me he didn’t think he was good enough. That’s what he said.”

His modesty will actually suit him better in college next season, for he may have more reason to be modest. Whereas Miami quarterback Steve Walsh is already positioning himself as a Heisman front-runner, Sanders is losing each of his key blockers to graduation--all five offensive linemen and the blocking back.

But heck, that’s next year. As Sanders walked to his dormitory one recent afternoon, he wasn’t thinking about next year. His nose was stuck so far into a book that he was nearly hit by a skidding car in a crosswalk.

And when he was asked about his Mercedes--these days it seems as if all Heisman trophy candidates drive nice cars--he laughed.

“I’ve got my Mercedes for you, man,” he said. “It’s a 1980 Phoenix, a Pontiac. Drives just fine.”

He turned the corner and stuck his nose back in his book.