What would it take for a present-day football player to equal or surpass the sheer coolness of Barry Sanders, who turns 51 years old today? I’m not sure it’s even possible. Individual humans simply are not permitted to impose themselves on the sport’s structure in 2019 the way they were in 1992. And anyway, I’m pretty sure Barry Sanders is superhuman.
Look at this damn shit.
The little inside-out juke he throws at Minnesota’s hapless number-22, right at the 0:12 mark of the video, made me gasp just now. This was a common occurrence in Sanders’s career (and in no other period in the history of football): him briefly disappearing into a jumble of larger bodies and emerging a split-second later somehow traveling along a violently different vector; defenders suddenly staggering around like stunt performers in an earthquake scene. How did that happen, down in there? Did he shoot someone? Even the slow-motion replay can’t quite make sense of it. How completely he collapses his entire body down onto his left leg and then explodes back off of it, in that one fraction of a second! That’s not possible!
The thing to know about Barry Sanders is, every game was like this. Sometimes, for whole games, every carry was like this. Even the ones that made no impression on the stat sheet. A two-yard gain—or a two-yard loss—could still take your breath away.
He wasn’t just better than everybody else. He was some whole other categorical thing; it wasn’t a fair comparison. He was a fluent native speaker of colloquial football amid a bunch of doofus tourists scanning their phrasebooks. In middle school (I’m old) kids had to invent reasons to exclude him from the debates about the best NFL players, because the alternative was not to have those debates at all. So, like, “all-around running back” was a dumb category people made up so that they could pretend that, say, Emmitt Smith’s supposed greater commitment to, uh, picking up blitzes could be held to give him some kind of football superiority over the obvious greatest rusher in history. Another stupid one was to ding Sanders for being the sport’s all-time leader in lost yardage—as though, in the context of the 15,269 rushing yards he nevertheless accumulated in 10 seasons on otherwise uniformly shitty Detroit Lions teams, this was anything but a testament to his unparalleled brilliance.
Anyway, the truth always came out during touch football games at recess, where everybody wanted to run like Barry Sanders. He was the coolest.