Barry Sanders won the 1988 Heisman Trophy after rushing for 2,850 yards and 37 TDs. (Al Bello/Getty Images)
Barry Sanders was the first player in NFL history to rush for 1,000 yards during each of his first 10 seasons in the league. But before he ever set foot on the field for the Detroit Lions, he turned in one of the best individual campaigns in college football history. The Oklahoma State star ran for 2,850 yards with 37 touchdowns to win the 1988 Heisman Trophy. He entered the draft after his junior year, and went on to have a Hall of Fame career.
SI.com caught up with Sanders as part of the Nissan Heisman House Tour, which made a stop in Stillwater, Okla., before the Cowboys' 42-6 win over Kansas on Saturday. Sanders talked about the evolution of the Heisman Trophy, his experience hanging out with former winners, the advice he's given his son (Barry Sanders Jr. is a sophomore running back at Stanford) and the changing landscape of college football.
SI.com: Can you tell me a little bit about the Heisman House, and how you became associated with it?
Barry Sanders: A few years ago, Nissan and their people came up with the concept of the Heisman House and the TV spots with former Heisman Trophy winners all hanging out in the house, watching college football and doing goofy things. It goes back a few years, and we periodically shot these commercials. Obviously, it always has a very humorous spin on it. It’s always good to get together with the guys, former Heisman winners recent and not so recent. We really enjoy each other’s company.
SI: Has there been anything you’ve picked up from some of the former winners that you've been surprised to find out? Are there any fun stories that surface when you share past experiences?
BS: For me, it’s always interesting to go and talk to some of the guys like Tony Dorsett or Earl Campbell or Marcus Allen because I was a kid watching these guys play, so I remember Marcus Allen going over 2,000 yards. That was a big deal for me as a kid. I had no connection whatsoever. I was just a serious football fan. Or Tony Dorsett his senior year at Pittsburgh. In some cases, those guys were battling it out against each other, and that’s always fun. There’s that part of it, and the younger guys who got a chance to watch you -- guys like Carson Palmer or Matt Leinart or Desmond Howard or Ron Dayne -- it’s always a fun mix and a fun time.
SI: Are there any running backs in the game today who remind you of yourself, Allen or Dorsett?
BS: I wouldn’t know. I watch the games, and now guys are in and out of college so fast it seems like it’s not really a running game as much as it used to be. So you don’t always get to see that. If a guy is that kind of player, you don’t often find out until he gets to the pros. I obviously follow my son, he plays college football, so I watch Stanford a lot. I still live in Michigan so I watch Michigan and Michigan State. But for different reasons, I don’t get to watch the running game that closely.
SI: What have you seen out of your son so far at Stanford? Have you been able to give him any advice? What do you think the future holds for him?
BS: It’s exciting having him there. They’re having a great season and had a big win [over Oregon] the other night. My advice to him is just keep working hard every day. This is an important time as he’s a young player, just to sit back, learn and work every day in practice because you get that much closer to when it’s your time. You’ve got to be ready, prepare and stay ready. It’s great just watching them. They have a great team and have enjoyed a lot of success. It’s great to be a part of that and learn how to deal with that. We’re excited about all the things they’ve done and the things they have on the horizon for that team.
SI: The Heisman has changed through the years, and it seems like it’s currently more of a quarterback award than anything else. In fact, six of the last seven winners have been quarterbacks. Do you have any thoughts on that trend?
BS: The game is evolving that way, and it’s just sort of a part of it. They still have a lot of great awards for running backs. There are still a lot of ways to get exposure. I take some comfort in that. There’s so much more exposure in general if you’re a great player. It’s certainly a quarterback-driven game, and those are the guys who are most likely to be the leading candidates. But even my year the leading candidates were quarterbacks, and I just happened to have one of those type of years. The same thing can happen. Mark Ingram won the Heisman Trophy not too long ago as a running back, so it can happen, but it’s more likely to be a quarterback.
SI: The game is changing so much at the college level. Player safety has become more important than it used to be. The pay-for-play debate isn’t going away any time soon. Being able to look back on college as a former player, what do you think of the latest changes? And where do you see the game going over the next few years?
BS: The game is becoming more and more popular, and we know what comes: dollars. We know that’s just a part of it, that’s how it is. I don’t think anyone could’ve predicted, or very few people could’ve predicted how popular the game would be college-wise. There’s just something about the college game that seems very special. With that does come a certain amount of dollars, a certain amount of financial benefit that these schools have been able to realize. I just hope they continue to find a way for the kids to benefit one way or another and maybe even share in that financial side of it. I don’t know how that can be done. I hope there are some lawyers and attorneys right now thinking of ways that the NCAA can do that. As the game grows, they can somehow find a way to extend some of that financial benefit to the kids. Keeping in mind, even as it stands now it is a huge benefit to receive a scholarship to college. We certainly don’t want to lose sight of that. It should be taken full advantage of in every way possible. The NCAA has a lot of things to balance and consider and it’s a tough job.
SI: This is the final season before the College Football Playoff. Did you ever imagine the playoff would become reality? Who do you think is the best team this year?
It’s been talked about for so long, and those individuals who watched the game in my era, we remember the days when you had champions crowned and there was always a dispute or an argument. “Have they played such-and-such team?” You have two teams finishing at the top, both of them were undefeated, and they never played each other. It was always in doubt. For me, the game was still great. You could still say those were great seasons, and it wasn’t as exact as it will be with the playoff. I guess the playoff was a natural evolution but they needed to make sure they protected the integrity of the game. Who I see coming out this year, I can’t say. There are a lot of teams there who still have a chance. A lot of things happen this month in November. We’ve seen that in the past. You can’t rule out Alabama in the SEC. In November, anything can happen. I wouldn’t claim to be able to put my finger on that one.