Sanders played for the Oklahoma State Cowboys from 1986 to 1988, and wore the #21. During his first two years, he backed up All-American Thurman Thomas. In 1987, he led the nation in kickoff return yards. Thomas moved on to the NFL, and Sanders became the starter for his junior year.
In 1988, in what has been called the greatest individual season in college football history, Sanders led the nation by averaging 7.6 yards per carry and over 200 yards per game, including rushing for over 300 yards in four games. Despite his massive workload of 344 carries, Sanders was still used as the team's punt and kickoff returner, adding another 516 yards on special teams. He set college football season records with 2,628 yards rushing, 3,248 total yards, 234 points, 39 touchdowns, of which 37 were rushing (also a record), 5 consecutive 200 yard games, scored at least 2 touchdowns in 11 consecutive games, and 9 times he scored at least 3 touchdowns. Sanders also ran for 222 yards and scored 5 touchdowns in his three quarters of action in the Holiday Bowl - a game that was not included with his season statistics. Sanders won the Heisman Trophy as the season's most outstanding player. He then chose to leave Oklahoma State before his senior season to enter the NFL draft.
- Note the college statistics include Sanders' 1987 and 1988 bowl games, which prior to 2002 were not included in official NCAA career statistics.
The Detroit Lions selected Sanders with the 3rd overall pick in the 1989 Draft, thanks to the endorsement of then-coach Wayne Fontes. The Lions' management considered drafting another Sanders, cornerback Deion Sanders, but Fontes convinced them to draft Barry Sanders instead. He was offered the #20, which had been worn by former Lions' greats Lem Barney and Billy Sims; Sims was one of the league's best running backs in the early 1980s.
Though there were concerns about his size, it turned out these concerns were unfounded. Sanders was far too quick for defenders to hit solidly on a consistent basis, and too strong to bring down with arm tackles. Though short at 5'8", his playing weight was 203 lb (91 kg) and Sanders had a large portion of this weight in his exceptionally large and muscular legs, which provided him with a very low center of mass; his weight was also the same as Walter Payton and only slightly under the NFL average for a back. Further, Sanders was able to dazzle onlookers at an ESPN slam dunk contest by jamming comfortably from a flat footed position demonstrating his other defining characteristic: explosiveness. His agility and quick acceleration combined with his low center of mass made him very difficult to bring down.
In contrast to many of the star players of his era, Sanders was also noted for his on-field humility. Despite his flashy playing style, Sanders was rarely seen celebrating after the whistle was blown. Instead, he preferred to hand the ball to a referee or congratulate his teammates. But perhaps no other player in NFL history has ever electrified a crowd every time he touched the ball like Sanders, who played all 10 of his NFL seasons in Detroit. Lions fans remember fondly the thunderous "Barry! Barry!" chants that roared in the Pontiac Silverdome in the 1990s.
In his rookie year in 1989, Sanders missed training camp due to a contract dispute. Despite that, he ran for 18 yards on his first carry, and scored a touchdown on his fourth. He finished the season second in the NFL in rushing yards and touchdowns after declining to go back into the regular season finale just 10 yards shy of the rushing title (later won by Christian Okoye), and won the Rookie of the Year Award.
Barry was the featured running back on the Lion teams that made the playoffs five times during the 1990s (1991, 1993, 1994, 1995, and 1997). He was a member of the 1991 and 1993 squads that won the NFC Central division title; the 1991 team won 12 regular season games (a franchise record).
In 1994, Sanders rushed for 1,883 yards, on a 5.7 yards per carry average. He also totaled 283 receiving yards, which gave him a combined 2,166 yards from scrimmage for the season. He was named the NFL's Offensive Player of the Year. In 1995, Sanders posted 1,500 yards rushing with 398 receiving yards, beating his rushing total alone of the '94 season. In 1996, Sanders rushed for 1,553 yards with a career-low 147 receiving yards. Sanders' greatest season came in 1997 (see below), when he rushed for a career-high 2,053 yards.
In Sanders' last season in the NFL, 1998, he rushed for 1,491 yards, ending his four-year streak of rushing for over 1,500 yards in a season.
Despite his individual success, the Lions never reached the Super Bowl while Sanders was with the team. The closest they came was in the 1991 season. Aided by Sanders' 1,855 combined rushing/receiving yards and 17 touchdowns during the season, they recorded a 12–4 record and went on to defeat the Dallas Cowboys 38–6 in the divisional playoffs, which still stands as Detroit's only playoff victory since defeating the Cleveland Browns to win the 1957 NFL Championship. The Lions lost to the Washington Redskins 41–10 in the NFC Championship Game, and Sanders was held to 59 total yards in the game.
In Sanders' career, he achieved Pro Bowl status in all of his 10 seasons as a pro. Sanders was named first team All-Pro eight times from 1989–1991 and 1993–1997 and was named second team All-Pro twice in 1992 and 1998. Sanders was also named All-NFC from 1989-1992 to 1994-1997. Sanders was named NFL Rookie of the Year in '89, Offensive Player of the Year in '94 and '97, NFL MVP in '97, and was named to the 1990s NFL All-Decade team.
Sports Illustrated writer Paul Zimmerman wrote:
"It doesn't matter where the play is blocked; he'll find his own soft spot...The scheme doesn't matter with Sanders. He can run from any alignment. While other people are stuck with joints, he seems to have ball bearings in his legs that give him a mechanical advantage...Sanders' finest runs often occur when he takes the handoff and, with a couple of moves, turns the line of scrimmage into a broken field...Nobody has ever created such turmoil at the point of attack as Sanders has...Knock on wood, he seems indestructible..."
Sanders' greatest season came in 1997 when he became a member of the 2000 rushing yards club. After a start in which he gained 53 yards on 25 carries in the first two games of the season, Sanders ran off an NFL record 14 consecutive 100 yard games, including two 200 yard performances, en route to rushing for 2,053 yards. In reaching the 2,000 yard plateau, he became only the third player to do so in a single season and the first since O. J. Simpson to rush for 2,000 yards in a span of 14 consecutive games. He was the first running back to rush for 1,500 yards in five seasons and the only one to do it four consecutive years. At the end of the season, Sanders shared the Associated Press's NFL Most Valuable Player Award with Green Bay QB Brett Favre.
Sanders stunned many when he announced he was quitting pro football. His retirement was made public by faxing a letter to the Wichita Eagle, his hometown newspaper in July 1999.
He left football healthy, having gained 15,269 rushing yards, 2,921 receiving yards, and 109 touchdowns (99 rushing and 10 receiving). He retired within striking distance of Walter Payton's career rushing mark of 16,726 yards. Only Payton and Emmitt Smith have rushed for more yards than Sanders.
Sanders' retirement came somewhat unexpectedly and was a matter of controversy. Two years beforehand, Sanders had renewed his contract with the Lions for $35.4 million over six years with an $11 million signing bonus. When he retired with several years left on his contract, the Lions demanded that he return $7.3 million of the bonus. Sanders refused, and the Lions sued and eventually won a judgment against him. On February 15, 2000, arbitrator Sam Kagel ruled that Sanders was in default of his bonus agreement and owed $5.5 million plus interest over the next three years.
Several years after retirement, and repeated refusals to discuss the abruptness of it, Sanders finally admitted that the culture of losing in the Lions' organization was too much to deal with even though he said that he could still play. He explained that it robbed him of his competitive spirit, and he saw no reason to believe things were going to improve. Although Detroit had made the playoffs in five of his ten seasons, including the season prior to his retirement (losing to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 20-10 on the road in a 1998 NFC Wild Card game), Detroit drafted quarterback Charlie Batch in the second round of the 1998 NFL Draft. It became apparent that Batch would become Detroit's full time starter the next season, and Sanders seemed unwilling to embrace yet another change in the Lions' seemingly endless carousel of quarterbacks and offensive philosophies. He had also gone on record to criticize Detroit's front office (most notably Chuck Schmidt) for releasing Pro Bowl center Kevin Glover for salary cap reasons. Glover was an underrated player and close friend of Sanders. He stated there were tears in his eyes as the Lions lost in the playoffs to Tampa Bay in 1998, because he knew in his heart he was never going to play another playoff game for Detroit. "I sobbed for 3 months," Sanders said.
There was widespread speculation that Sanders' retirement was a calculated move on his behalf to orchestrate a trade to a more legitimate contender. The Green Bay Packers and Miami Dolphins were both considered among the front runners in the negotiations. Sanders and Dolphin quarterback Dan Marino reportedly both expressed a private interest in finishing their careers together (Marino never had the benefit of a premier running back behind him) and try to win a Super Bowl. However, Detroit was either unable to find an attractive enough offer, or unwilling to negotiate altogether with other teams. It had been a long standing practice for the Detroit Lions to not accommodate players' requests for trades.
It was thought by some that Bobby Ross himself may have actually been the reason for his early retirement. Sanders, however, debunked this theory in his autobiography; Barry Sanders: Now You See Him, saying that Coach Ross had nothing to do with his quitting and actually praised him as a great head coach.
Barry currently resides in West Bloomfield, Michigan, just outside of Detroit. He is married to Lauren Campbell, currently a news anchor on a local news station, and the couple have three children together. From a previous relationship with Aletha House, Sanders also has a son, Barry James Sanders, who committed to Stanford for the 2012-2013 college season. As a freshman in 2008, Sanders' son ran for 742 yards and twelve touchdowns while helping Heritage Hall School to the 2008 Oklahoma 2A state title, and he was the only sophomore on the 2009 Tulsa World all-state team. Sanders' son has committed to Stanford University, beginning 2012-2013.
Following the firing of Hank Williams, Jr. in October 2011, Sanders replaced Williams in introducing ESPN's Monday Night Football game between the Chicago Bears and the Detroit Lions.
- He set 34 NCAA records
- He holds the national college single-season rushing record with 2,628 rushing yards in 1988.
- In 1988, Sanders won the Heisman Trophy while attending Oklahoma State University.
- In 2008, Sanders was ranked #2 in ESPN's list of the Top 25 Greatest College Football Players Ever.
- In the 1989 NFL draft, he was selected in the 1st round (3rd overall) by the Detroit Lions.
- As a receiver, Sanders had 352 receptions for 2,921 yards and 10 touchdowns for the Detroit Lions.
- Sanders led the NFL in rushing yards four times. 1990, 1994, 1996, and 1997.
- Most Seasons, 1,100 or More Yards Rushing (10) tied with Walter Payton
- Most Consecutive Seasons, 1,100 or More Yards Rushing (10)
- Most Seasons, 1,300 or More Yards Rushing (9) tied with Walter Payton
- Most Seasons, 1,400 or More Yards Rushing (7)
- Most Consecutive Seasons, 1,400 or More Yards Rushing (5) tied with Emmitt Smith, 1991–1995
- Most Seasons, 1,500 or More Yards Rushing (5)
- Most Consecutive Seasons, 1,500 or More Yards Rushing (4)
- In 1997, he set an NFL record by rushing for at least 100 yards in 14 consecutive games and became only the third player to reach 2,000 yards in a single season. He shared the NFL MVP award with Brett Favre.
- During the final 14 games of the 1997 season Sanders rushed for exactly 2000 yards on 310 carries (6.5 yd./carry), a figure which bears comparison with O.J. Simpson's 14-game mark of 2003 yards on 332 carries (6.0 yd./carry).
- Each of his 10 years from 1989 through 1998 he was first- or second-team All-Pro and selected to the Pro Bowl.
- Over his professional football career, he rushed for at least 100 yards in 76 games, just short of Walter Payton's 77 games and Emmitt Smith's 78 games.
- NFL record 25 games in which Sanders rushed for 150 yards or more. Jim Brown is second with 22 games.
- NFL record 46 games in which Sanders had 150 yards from scrimmage or more. Walter Payton is second with 45.
- 15 career touchdown runs of 50 yards or more, most in NFL history. Jim Brown is second with 12.
- At the time of his retirement, Sanders' 15,269 career rushing yards placed him second behind Walter Payton's 16,726 yards. At Sanders' then-current yearly yardage pace, he would have eclipsed Payton within one or two years. Payton died from liver cancer at age 45 just months after Sanders' sudden retirement.
- His 18,190 career yards from scrimmage place him sixth on the all-time list.
- His career average of 5.0 yards per rushing attempt (min. 1500 att) is second all-time for running backs. Jim Brown is first with a 5.2 career average.
- His career rushing yards per game average of 99.8 yards is second in NFL history behind only Jim Brown's 104.3 yards per game.
- In 1999, he was ranked number 12 on The Sporting News' list of the 100 Greatest Football Players, making him the highest-ranking Lions player and the third highest ranked running back, behind Jim Brown and Walter Payton.
- On January 31, 2004, he was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
- On August 8, 2004, he was inducted to the Hall of Fame along with Bob Brown, Carl Eller, and John Elway.
- Sanders also holds the NFL record for the most carries for negative yardage. According to the SI Book of Football, these numbers totaled 336 carries for -952 Yards.