Eccentric Millionaire : In These Days of 'Me First,' Sanders Finds Joy in Giving

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Reporters arriving at the Silverdome parking lot for an Aug. 12 news conference to announce Barry Sanders' contract extension were treated to a rare sight: A multimillionaire changing the flat tire on his 1989 Acura Legend.

Bad enough that he doesn't own a Rolls or a Mercedes, but dirty fingernails, too? Obviously, the guy is nouveau riche .

Sportswriters shook their heads. Lamont Smith, one of Sanders' two agents, asked him not to do it. Considering the commission Smith was about to receive from an extension and signing bonus that could pay the Lions' running back as much as $10 million over the next six years, the agent should have scrambled to help his client.

Sanders frowns at mention of the incident, failing to understand why anyone would even notice.

"I just picked up a nail and changed my tire," he says. "I've changed my tires all my life. It's not like it was something I'd never done before or will never do again."

Clearly, Sanders doesn't flaunt his wealth. He doesn't wear $150 sneakers, and Nike will give him all he wants. He even cuts his own hair. And he's not a member of professional sports' what's-in-it-for-me crowd.

If Sanders rushes for 1,000 yards this year, each of the offensive linemen will get a note and a check from Sanders. Not a watch--he already gave them each a Rolex after his rookie season--but cash, $10,000. And another 10 cents of every dollar he earns goes to the Paradise Baptist Church in his hometown of Wichita, Kan.

"That's just the type of person he is," veteran tackle Lomas Brown said. "But you know, I don't think that changed a thing about the way we're going to block for him this year. We already had our plans on that.

"This day and age, what he's doing is really different. So many people these days are into themselves. I just think he wants to win, and he wants everyone to reap some of the benefits that he's been able to get. That's my idea of a quality person: someone who thinks about others when he really doesn't have to."

Sanders shuns the Mother-Teresa-in-shoulder-pads image, claiming it has been manufactured by the media because plain folks don't sell newspapers or get people to watch sportscasts. He cherishes his privacy and would rather run with the football and then run from the spotlight. He won't be rude, though, so he has become as adept at slipping interviews as he is at shedding tacklers.

But then when he does talk, he's open and thoughtful.

Barry Sanders is very much an enigma. At first glance, his height and weight--5 feet 8 and 203 pounds--are impressive only in that a few hundred thousand couch potatoes who watch NFL football on Sundays can claim the same statistics. Then you notice that about 100 of those pounds appear to be thigh muscles.

Nearly everyone questioned his size when the Lions drafted him, and now nearly everyone is tabbing Sanders as the next NFL superstar. This is supposed to be the season he elevates his play to a level above the rest. It's hardly an out-on-the-limb prediction.

Sanders gained 1,470 yards in his rookie season, 1,304 last year, and the Lions, who scored more touchdowns than all but three NFL teams in 1990, are changing their Silver Stretch run-and-shoot offense to better showcase his considerable talents.

The man gained nearly 3,000 yards in two seasons, and the Lions didn't have an outside run in their game plan. After the 1990 season, however, Coach Wayne Fontes cut loose run-and-shoot gurus Mouse Davis and June Jones and named Dave Levy the offensive coordinator. Levy and Fontes have made some "sweeping" modifications in the offense.

"Barry is one of a kind--in my opinion, the best back in the league," quarterback Rodney Peete said. "When you have a guy like that, you have to take advantage of his ability as much as possible. I think the changes will help him. We added some sweeps we didn't have in the past, some outside runs to create some better opportunities for him to get some yards."

In his first two years, Sanders had 59 catches for 744 yards, a 12.6-yard average. He ran only two pass routes. This season, the Lions intend to expand his role in the passing game.

"I'm very excited about blocking him less and running him more and having him catch a lot more passes," Fontes said. "We just had to find ways to get the young man's hands on the ball a few more times.

"Barry's truly a superstar. Every time he touches it, I'm amazed what he does. He's the kind of back that makes you stand up on your toes when he gets the ball. He's got incredible quickness and instincts, and he's the only guy I've ever seen who makes a move in the air. I swear, he can go left and right without his feet touching the ground."

Is that better than walking on water?

Sanders refuses to be swept along by all the hype. It's as if he can't decide whether to shrug or yawn.

"I'm excited because it's a new season, but that doesn't have a lot to do with the new system," he said. "Supposedly, I'm going to playing a bigger part of what's going on, but you never really know, because we're going to be taking what they give us.

"We'll see what happens. You just can't expect that you'll go in and all of sudden everything will be ideal. So I'm taking a wait-and-see approach."

WICHITA, KAN.

When he was in fourth grade, one of Sanders' sisters--he has eight and two brothers--gave him one of those vibrating electric football games for Christmas.

"Even then I identified with the tailback," he said. "Running back was always my favorite position."

The same year, he joined his first organized football league, making his debut with a helmet and shoulder pads for the Beech Red Barons. He scored three touchdowns in his first game.

"I remember the game very well, and I remember feeling pretty good. Heck, I felt real good actually," Sanders said. "It was my first year out of the neighborhood sandlots, and I wanted to prove I was good enough to play organized ball.

"Yeah, I was happy, man. I had my chance and I did well."

It seems that every time he happens upon a door of opportunity, Sanders kicks it in. He's just had some trouble finding the door.

He didn't get his first start at tailback for North High School until only five games remained in his senior season. He rushed for 274 yards and scored four touchdowns that day and finished the year with a city-record 1,417 yards.

Sanders learned many lessons about perseverance as a child, but most were taught at home, not on a football field.

"My mother was a huge influence on me," he said. "She was a living example of what a Christian should be. Her conviction, her discipline. She would rather see other people happy than herself."

And from his father?

"Ooooh, I got a lot, especially in terms of work ethic," he said. "I learned respect, how to be independent, to make decisions and be a man about it."

He said he was amazed when he discovered that other kids in school were getting an allowance just for being alive. When he told his father, William Sanders told his youngest son his pay was having a roof over his head and food to eat.

Now, Sanders' parents live on Easy Street. But they live in the same house.

STILLWATER, OKLA.

A lot of football fans know that Barry Sanders played behind Thurman Thomas at Oklahoma State. What they don't know is that he also played behind three or four other guys whose names you would never recognize.

"The whole scenario about Oklahoma State hasn't been portrayed the way it really was," Sanders said. "When I went to Oklahoma State, I didn't really expect to play for a long time. They recruited a couple of All-American running backs the same year as me.

"I was fourth or fifth string. The only reason I got a chance to play was that some of the guys ahead of me got hurt. There was never any competition between me and Thurman. I was basically recruited to play special teams."

He became a very special special-teams recruit, establishing 13 NCAA single-season records and winning the Heisman Trophy as a junior in 1988.

After that season, the NFL decided to make an exception and accept Sanders' petition to be included in the college draft, rather than face litigation over its rule prohibiting the drafting of undergraduates.

A lot of people believe Sanders decided to become a professional because of pressure from his father, who reportedly told his son, "If you go out for spring ball, I'll break your legs myself."

Sanders insists that it had more to do with his inability to keep up both ends of the student-athlete burden. He says practices, meetings, weightlifting and film sessions left little time for academic pursuits. He even turned down an invitation to the White House after winning the Heisman because he had to study.

"I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do in school, but I definitely didn't have adequate time to reach my full potential as a student," he said. "You know, I'm fairly intelligent, but I don't think my grades reflected that."

He laughs.

PONTIAC, MICH.

He's 23 and he's the franchise.

"Barry poses a threat that other teams simply have to respect in their game plan," Brown said. "They have to begin by considering what Barry can do, and that changes a lot of people's schemes."

He's only 23 but willing to voice an opinion in the face of certain ridicule. A short locker room discourse on the evils of fornication elicited more than a few snickers.

"It's something you have to go through, being a Christian," Sanders said. "It's not my law. It comes strictly out of the Bible. I guess if it was up to me, I wouldn't do it like that. And I admit I've done otherwise in my life."

He's 23 and seems oblivious to individual honors.

"I think everyone wants to do well, and everyone looks at their statistics after the game," he said. "There's a certain amount of gratification that comes with achieving certain things, but it's more knowing that you're doing your part.

"Sure, I like to get good stats, but that's certainly not my sole motivation for playing the game. It's really insignificant when you stack it up against a win or a loss."

Is this guy for real?

Late in the final game of the 1989 season, with Detroit comfortably ahead of Atlanta, Fontes discovered that Sanders--who was sitting on the bench after having gained 158 yards and scored three touchdowns, was only 10 yards shy of finishing the season as the NFL's leading rusher.

Fontes asked Sanders if he wanted to return. Sanders declined.

"If we win a game, like that Atlanta game, there's just no reason for me to go back in to get some record," he said. "I just didn't see any need to do it."

Is he too good to be true?

Early in his rookie season, officials checked his jersey for silicone. He has been slipping out of the grasp of would-be tacklers ever since.

"I think he's the best in the league," Fontes said. "And one day, barring injuries, he could be the best that ever played this game."

Fontes' praise is the stuff of legends.

Sanders, on the other hand, will only jack up his Legend if it has a flat.

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