On Friday, Mr. Reluctant, Barry Sanders, walked up to Oklahoma State publicist Steve Buzzard in the lobby of the Miyako Hotel and said, "Steve, I understand there's supposed to be some thing on Sunday."
"Yes," said Buzzard, looking with apprehension at Sanders, the Cowboys' heavily muscled, 5'8", 197-pound tailback.
"Well, it's game day," said Sanders. "I really don't want to do it."
Buzzard looked ill. "Barry," he pleaded.
December 12, 1988
The best running back in college football said softly, "It being game day and all...." Then he walked away, back to the elevator and up to his room.
Sunday was indeed game day for Oklahoma State, which would face Texas Tech in a non-conference meeting in the Tokyo Dome. The thing that Sanders didn't want to take part in was the Heisman Trophy ceremony. Sanders was supposed to participate in the proceedings via a satellite hookup from the CBS-TV studio in Tokyo to the Downtown Athletic Club in New York City, where the announcement would be made at 5:50 p.m. EST on Saturday—7:50 a.m. on Sunday in Japan. But Sanders doesn't like award ceremonies. In fact, he hates them. He just wanted to win the game, pack his bags and get back to school.
"Japan is nice," said Sanders of his brief forays outside the hotel. "The buildings are compact. The people are occupied with their jobs; they're pretty serious. But you know what the saying is, 'There's no place like home.' "
So Sanders had made up his mind. He wouldn't involve himself in the Heisman ceremony. Buzzard shook his head in bewilderment. "There's a unique individual," he mumbled after Sanders had gone.
Indeed he is. Sanders, who grew up in Wichita, Kans., is one of William and Shirley Sanders's 11 children. His remarkable football skills are matched only by his unflagging desire not to be singled out for them. A true junior—he was never redshirted—who's completing his first year as a full-time starter, Sanders had run for 2,296 yards, tops in the nation, and broken or tied 18 NCAA yardage and scoring records even before last week's game. He had gone from an unheralded replacement for Thurman Thomas, who's now with the Buffalo Bills, to someone whose collegiate highlight film rivals those of O.J. Simpson, Tony Dorsett and Herschel Walker.
On Sunday, Sanders led the Cowboys to a wild 45-42 win over the Red Raiders with 257 yards rushing on a career-high 42 carries. He ran for four touchdowns to extend his single-season record for TDs to 39—37 rushing, one on a punt return and one on a kickoff return. In his last six games Sanders has been on a tear, rushing for 1,551 yards on 212 attempts to average 258.5 yards per game and 7.3 per carry. On Dec. 30, the 9-2 Cowboys will take on Wyoming in the Holiday Bowl.
To put Sanders's season in perspective, try starting with this: His 215 yards rushing and two touchdowns against Oklahoma on Nov. 5 were 17 yards and 9.27 points below his 1988 average. He had three 300-yard rushing days, three 200-yard days and six games in which he scored four or more touchdowns. With his yardage against Texas Tech, he broke Marcus Allen's single-season rushing mark of 2,342 yards.
Sanders isn't the fastest college back in the country, and he's not the biggest. But he combines strength, speed, willpower and an uncanny ability to wriggle, shift and explode into high gear from a dead stop. "He just takes your breath away," says Oklahoma State coach Pat Jones. Like everyone else, Jones is mystified by Sanders's rare combination of talent and humility. "I don't think he'd mind getting named the best football player in college; he'd just prefer not to go through the things associated with it," says the coach.
Unfortunately for Sanders, that includes the Heisman ritual, but as late as Saturday morning in Tokyo, Sanders was insisting that he wouldn't appear on the TV broadcast. He wasn't a shoo-in to win the award, though the two other leading candidates, both quarterbacks, had stumbled. UCLA's Troy Aikman was hurt by the Bruins' losses to Washington State and Southern Cal in nationally televised games. USC's Rodney Peete had a rough outing in a showdown for No. 1 against Notre Dame two weeks ago on national TV.
"It's just not that big a deal for me," said Sanders of the Heisman. "And it's not really fair to so many other people. People take sports way too seriously. To some of them sports is a god, which is wrong."
As Sanders spoke—reluctantly, of course—in the Miyako Hotel lobby, some of his teammates walked by and began hooting at him and making faces. "He drinks! He burps!" one of them shouted. Sanders waved them away without smiling.
The interruption over, Sanders continued. "I know I have an opportunity to be a positive influence on young people," he said. "I have never used drugs. I try to study and stay out of trouble."
On Nov. 26, Sanders told TV viewers that he hoped Peete would have a great game that afternoon against Notre Dame and win the Heisman. When Byron Woodard, Oklahoma State's 304-pound offensive tackle, heard that, he kicked his TV set in outrage; he and all his comrades on the offensive line were dying for Sanders to win the award. "He may put the trophy in his house," said guard Jason Kidder before the ceremony, "but it will be in our hearts, too."
So what motivates Sanders? Not money. He's conspicuous among the Cowboys for wearing no chains, rings or bracelets. He doesn't wear a watch. "I guess if I really wanted money, I could have it," he said. "I was at a gas station in Oklahoma City this summer, and the owner recognized me and tried to give me cash. But I said no. If I get it the right way, it will be best. But I think if my family needed money, well, then I'd have to take it if it were offered. I don't care what the NCAA says. But we don't need it. We've been blessed."
It has been suggested that Sanders might make himself available for the NFL draft this spring if, as expected, Oklahoma State is hit with NCAA sanctions for recruiting violations. Were he to do so, he would likely lose his last year of college eligibility (and, at present, NFL policy forbids teams from drafting underclassmen). No matter, Sanders says he'll be playing in Stillwater next season. "Mentally, I don't feel I'm ready for a job," he said. "Physically, I may want to gain five more pounds."
As he spoke, he grew concerned that he was sounding too good to be true. "I'm not perfect," he said. "When I was younger, people thought I was a bully. I got into fights and did a lot of wrong. My older brother Byron [a senior running back at Northwestern] and I stole candy and got in a lot of fights at school. We'd throw rocks at cars. One time I started a fire on the floor of our bathroom at home. One time Byron and I got arrested for trespassing at Wichita State.
"It's a fine line between going right and wrong. Sometimes I wonder why I've been so fortunate. My oldest brother, Boyd, influenced me a lot. He was a troubled child, but now he's a minister."
At any rate, being the thoughtful guy he is, Sanders wilted under the pressure applied by CBS and Oklahoma State officials, and he finally agreed to do the Heisman show. Sanders walked into the TV studio on Sunday morning looking as though he were about to be publicly flogged. Sitting beside Jones, he stared straight ahead at the cameras. A technician tried to position a monitor next to Sanders so that he could watch the same highlights of himself that viewers back in the States were seeing, but he told the man to turn off the monitor. Sanders, who can fall asleep whenever he feels the need, often naps through team film meetings rather than have to watch himself perform.
In an adjacent room fullback Garrett Limbrick and the Cowboys' entire offensive line waited anxiously. Sanders had said that, if he were to win, these courageous blockers should get all the credit. The gang, all seniors, knew that was poppycock, but they loved their man just the same. Said Kidder, "We asked him to come out with us the other night, but he said, 'No, I want to stay in and study.' It was probably just as well. We were in the Ginza district and got really lost on the subway."
When Peter Lambos, the president of the Downtown Athletic Club, announced that Sanders had won the Heisman—he got twice as many points as Peete, who came in second—the new heir to Simpson, Dorsett and Walker stared stonily into the camera. But next door the blockers went nuts, whooping like children. Of Sanders's indifference, Kidder said, "It's for real, it's no show. It's Barry. The other day he asked for my autograph. I asked why, and he said, 'Because I'm not better than you are.' "
Against Texas Tech, several hours later, Sanders was better than anybody. On an option pitch from Cowboys quarterback Mike Gundy in the second quarter, he broke three tackles and outraced cornerback Dean Marusak to score a 56-yard touchdown. Sanders gave the ball to the referee, walked back to the bench, accepted handshakes from Jones and a few teammates, said nothing and calmly waited to reenter the game.
In the third quarter Sanders took a simple swing pass from Gundy and turned it into a 66-yard gain. Sanders finished with 353 yards of total offense and gave the 56,000 spectators a thrilling show. "I like the way Sanders handles himself," said Texas Tech free safety Donald Harris after the game.
Hart Lee Dykes, Oklahoma State's flamboyant wide receiver—he had nine catches for 112 yards and two touchdowns, and one tie-dyed game towel with OSU [LOVE] DYKES on it—likes Sanders, too, but he couldn't help pondering the unfairness of Sanders's painful reign in the Heisman glare. "I like talking," said Dykes with a frustrated shrug. "I know I'd be able to deal with the thing."
So would a lot of us, no doubt. Getting there, however, is the trick. Cheers, America, the right man is standing in the spotlight.