30 years later, Barry Sanders reflects on his Heisman season

Published: Aug. 28, 2018 at 2:23 PM EDT
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It took Barry Sanders four games to figure out how special his 1988 season at Oklahoma State might be.

Returning the season’s opening kickoff for a touchdown against Miami (Ohio) didn’t do it for him. Neither did his dominance of Texas A&M or his 304 yards and five touchdowns rushing against Tulsa.

It started becoming real for him during a masterful performance at Colorado. The Buffaloes were on the rise with a defense that included future NFL players Kanavis McGhee, Alfred Williams and Deon Figures.

Sanders broke the Buffaloes’ backs with a 65-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. He rushed for 174 yards and four touchdowns as Oklahoma State won 41-21.

“That was the first time I started hearing Heisman chants, which I didn’t think anything of it,” Sanders recalled. “It was just strange to hear people think I actually have a chance to win the Heisman. I was just thinking these were some very ambitious fans.”

Those fans were right, of course. Sanders won the Heisman in a landslide, piling up twice as many points as runner-up Rodney Peete, and his remarkable season set the table for an NFL career that ended in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, NFL MVP honors and the No. 3 ranking in league history in yards rushing behind Emmitt Smith and Walter Payton.

His exploits 30 years ago are still clear to those who watched them — and competed with Sanders and the Cowboys.

The same day Sanders carved up Colorado, rival Oklahoma faced Texas running back Eric Metcalf. Former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer recalled being asked in the days leading up to the game if Metcalf was the best player in college football.

“I said no, the best player in the country is about 80 miles north of here,” Switzer said. “That stumped everybody. They had no idea what I was talking about. I said I’m talking about that running back they’ve got at Oklahoma State. He’s the best running back in the country.”

Switzer got an up-close look later in the season. Oklahoma won a 31-28 thriller, but Sanders ran for 215 yards and two touchdowns.

It was a typical performance for Sanders during that magical season. He set numerous NCAA records, many of which still stand — among them, his 2,628 yards rushing, 238.9 yards rushing per game and 37 rushing touchdowns. All those totals were in 11 games and didn’t include his dominant Holiday Bowl performance in a blowout win over Wyoming. Back then, bowl stats weren’t included in season totals. If that 222-yard, five-touchdown effort was added, his numbers would have ballooned to 2,850 yards and 42 rushing scores.

“For me, it was something that came out of nowhere in my own mind and in the minds of many football fans,” Sanders said. “It was something that was totally unexpected.”

Sanders was quiet and humble, yet the 5-foot-8 native of Wichita, Kansas, had talent that couldn’t be ignored, a jaw-dropping and ankle-breaking combination of power, speed and elusiveness that helped him run for at least two touchdowns in every game that season. In seven games, he ran for at least four.

“To me, it would be like somebody hitting 90 or 100 home runs at the major league level or going out in the U.S. Open and shooting a 56 on the final day,” said Pat Jones, Oklahoma State’s coach that year. “Any one of those crazy-like numbers that you get into, that’s what these numbers are to me.”

Even with all his pro accomplishments, his Heisman holds a special place among his honors.

“All these years of great players and great moments — this is what college football means, and to be able to rise to the top of that is really special and unique and amazing,” he said.

Sanders turned 50 earlier this year and remains busy. He is a special assistant in the Detroit Lions front office and has a car dealership in Stillwater. He does corporate marketing for Nissan and Rocket Mortgage, does speaking engagements and is sometimes featured at card shows.

Thirty years ago, he was just trying to adjust to a new role — filling the shoes of Thurman Thomas, a first-team AP All-American who also would become an NFL MVP and end up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame himself. Though Sanders was a second-team AP All-America kick returner in 1987, he had never been the workhorse in the backfield.

He opened the season by rushing for 178 yards and two touchdowns against Miami — a great start, but numbers that would qualify as ordinary for him by season’s end.

Jones started to see greatness in Sanders during the Texas A&M game. The Aggies were three-time defending Southwest Conference champions and had a notoriously rugged defense. Sanders busted loose for a 58-yard touchdown run on the third play from scrimmage, and the 52-15 rout was on. He churned out 157 yards rushing and capped off his performance by returning a punt 61 yards for a score on the last play of the third quarter.

Sanders ripped through Colorado before facing traditional Big Eight power Nebraska. On the game’s first play from scrimmage, he took a handoff to the left and Nebraska nose guard Lawrence Pete spun him around in the backfield. Sanders kept his balance, ran through another tackle, then accelerated up the sideline. He lowered his shoulder and took Charles Fryar for a ride out of bounds 9 yards up the field.

Sanders piled up 189 yards and four touchdowns rushing in a 63-42 loss.

“That was a big deal to me, going to Lincoln,” Sanders said. “Growing up in the Midwest, watching (former Nebraska coach) Tom Osborne and all these great Nebraska teams — sort of the football dynasty of that era. We didn’t play well, but I put up some pretty good stats against them.”

Sanders ran for 154 yards and two touchdowns against Missouri before rushing for at least 215 yards in all six of his remaining games. He rang up 320 yards and three touchdowns against Kansas State, had the big game against Oklahoma, posted 312 yards and five touchdowns against Kansas and added 293 yards and four scores against Iowa State to set up his regular-season finale.

The day Sanders won the Heisman, Oklahoma State had a game in Tokyo against Texas Tech. Sanders had to go downtown to be a part of the television feed, so Jones had the linemen and fullback get Sanders out of bed. At about 5:30 a.m., Sanders and his blockers left in a caravan of limousines. Sanders ran away from the Heisman field and a few hours later, he ran away from Texas Tech, rolling up 332 yards and four touchdowns in a 45-42 victory.

He capped off his college career in the Holiday Bowl against Wyoming. After running for 67 yards in the first half, he exploded for 155 in the third quarter as Oklahoma State rolled to a 62-14 win.

As impressive as the season was, Jones said Sanders could have run for 4,000 yards if he hadn’t come out of so many blowout wins early. Still humble after all these years, Sanders believes someone will catch his records someday.

“It’s not something I really think about,” he said. “I think it’s possible. I think a couple of players have come close. Surely, if I did it, then someone can do it.”