I'm the brokest black guy in Wichita today, and last year my son won the most prestigious award in college sports. Does that make sense?
The longest wait of William Sanders's life officially ended at 3:50 last Saturday afternoon, when his son Barry, a junior running back at Oklahoma State and the 1988 Heisman Trophy winner, rose to confront a passel of microphones at the Westin Hotel in Denver. The wait was supposed to have ended at 1 p.m., but the press conference at which Barry was to announce whether he would forfeit his final season of college eligibility and seek entry into the NFL draft had been postponed. Barry had missed his flight to Denver that morning after his 1980 Pontiac blew a clutch on I-35, the highway linking the Oklahoma State campus in Stillwater and the airport in Oklahoma City. That the nation's most celebrated college football player was driving an old Pontiac with a bad clutch partially explains why he was heading for Denver in the first place.
By then, of course, practically everyone in the country knew what Sanders was going to do. Oklahoma State officials had already spilled the beans to the press. He had hired two agents, Lamont Smith of All-Pro Sports and Entertainment in Denver, and David Ware of Atlanta, who handles a number of NFL players. With Smith and Ware, who together will oversee all aspects of Sanders's business affairs, at his side, Sanders faced the cameras and microphones and said:
"I've come to the conclusion that it would be in my best interests and my family's best interests to renounce my last year of eligibility and pursue a career in professional football. This decision was based, in part, upon the financial hardship that my family and I are faced with, and I just wanted to relieve some of those pressures."
April 9, 1989
Money wasn't the only factor, though. In January the Cowboys were placed on NCAA probation, meaning that if Sanders had returned to Oklahoma State, his achievements would not have been witnessed on television and he would not have been able to perform in a bowl game. In addition, none of the Cowboys' starting offensive linemen from last season are returning. Already a prime target for knee-busting linebackers by virtue of his extraordinary year in '88, Sanders would have had to depend on untested protection. Finally, he says he has encountered academic problems because the post-Heisman hoopla has distracted him from his studies. "I'm still trying to finish up finals from the first semester," says Sanders, a business administration major. "It's been kind of hectic the last few months."
NFL rules preclude a player from entering the draft until he has exhausted his collegiate eligibility, but exemptions have become common. In the past 20 years, the league, wary of defending its draft rules, which are of dubious legality, has never denied a player's petition. The decision on Sanders will be made by NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle. According to Ware, if Rozelle turns thumbs down, Sanders is prepared to challenge the decision in court on the grounds that the NFL would be guilty of a "group boycott" and restraint of trade under antitrust laws. Rozelle is expected to grant Sanders's application and avoid the court fight.
William Sanders is counting on that. He came out of the press conference in tears. "I feel wonderful," he said. ''I feel like a king."
A 52-year-old carpenter and roofer who has never made much money, William felt strained by his son's indecision. "Why is he taking so long to make up his mind?" William kept asking. Even more exasperating, to William's way of thinking, was Barry's intention last month to attend spring practice at Oklahoma State. Why should he risk those legs of gold for nothing? William thought. "You go out for spring ball, I'll break your legs myself," he told Barry. Shortly thereafter, Cowboy coach Pat Jones exempted Barry from spring drills, saying, "He was excused to explore his NFL options."
It seemed only logical, especially to William, that Barry would seek admission to the draft. The father of 11 children—eight girls and three boys—of whom Barry is the seventh-oldest, William has always been an outspoken, toe-the-line disciplinarian. "My dad always shot straight," says Barry. "Didn't beat around the bush."
With the April 10 deadline to apply for the draft looming, the time for beating any bushes was long past. So two weeks ago William called his three sons together for a meeting of the family men at the Kansas City, Mo., home of his oldest boy, Boyd. Barry came in from Stillwater, and Byron, a senior running back at Northwestern who's hoping to be a midround draft pick, came down from Evanston, Ill. William stacked the deck by not inviting the Sanders women. His wife, Shirley, wasn't convinced that Barry should drop out of college, and most of Barry's sisters either wanted him to stay in school or thought he should be left alone to make up his own mind.
Barry was torn between his desire to finish his education, thereby pleasing his mother, and his wish to begin earning millions in pro ball, thereby pleasing his father. When the Sanders men settled into Boyd's basement den over coffee and oatmeal cookies, William came at Barry from all directions—at times angrily. "You want to be a football player?" William remembers asking. "Get your ass away from that school and pursue a football career. You can't do another damn thing down there for that school. The people there don't care one way or another about you. All they want to do is make money off of you. You don't owe them a damn thing. You got to start thinking about Barry Sanders. What's best for Barry Sanders? You can always go back for an education.''
William importuned his son to act now, not next year: now, right after winning the Heisman Trophy and gaining more rushing yards (2,628) and scoring more touchdowns (39) in a single season than any other college player in history. Now was the time to leave, William said: "You go back to school and gain 2,000 yards and score 20-some touchdowns, and they're going to say, 'Barry didn't have the year he had last year; something must be wrong with him.' Your marketability is higher now than it's ever going to be."
William also implored Barry to hire a black agent, but on this issue Barry, who spoke infrequently that afternoon, took a softer line. "It's not a black and white issue." he said.
"Let me tell you something," said William. "All the white guys in this world who play football, how many of them you ever seen with a black agent? Somewhere in this life blacks have got to give blacks a chance. There are black agents out there, and blacks have to stick together."
And William urged Barry to grab some signing-bonus money so he and his sons could open a family real estate business in Wichita. He suggested that they could begin by using Barry's money to purchase the building that houses Georgio's Restaurant, in northeast Wichita, a predominantly black area. Georgio's is William's favorite hangout and the place where many of Barry's football trophies, including the Heisman, are displayed.
William's main argument that afternoon in Boyd's den was that Barry was suddenly capable of making more money with one stroke of a pen than the family had ever known. William pressed that theme, telling his son, "We can have money in our family for generations to come—for your kids and your kids' kids."
Again and again he hammered on that point, saying, for example, "You'd be crazy to go back and play at Oklahoma State. Why play 11 games for free when you can play 16 games for millions of dollars? Get out of school so we can all get on with our lives!"
Barry, who's as quiet as his father is voluble, hasn't let on how heavily that meeting weighed in his decision. All he said before Saturday's press conference was: "It had an effect on me. You have to consider the family members in a thing like this."
To be sure, the entire family had participated in the debate over Barry's decision. At home in Wichita one evening last month, William and Byron were alone among five Sanders women as Shirley and four of her daughters prepared to attend a revival meeting at the Paradise Baptist Church. Shirley, who earned a degree in nursing at Wichita State after raising her children, said she feared Barry would never return to college once he dropped out. "Time goes by, years go by, so many things can happen," she said. "It's hard to go back to school when you leave it."
William sat on the living room couch and defended his position against all comers, made jocular threats against his children when they challenged him and groaned when they wavered in their opinions.
"What do you think, Gina?" he asked his 16-year-old, as she sat down next to him on the couch.
"I still think he should go back to college," said Gina.
William smiled. "I ought to break your skinny neck," he said to her quietly, shaking his head.
Donna, a freshman at Langston (Okla.) University, was sitting on the fence. "I think he should consider the pros and the cons," she said.
Her father rubbed his face and pondered the ceiling. "Oh, God," he moaned. "He's only 20 years old!"
"He's capable of making a rational decision on his own," said Donna.
"No he isn't," said William. "He's only 20."
"I don't believe wisdom comes from age," said Donna, leaving the room.
"Where do you think it comes from?" he called after her. But she didn't answer.
The kids kept coming at him, in waves. "He should stay in school and finish his education," said Krista, 14. "Money's not the most important factor to Barry."
"If money's not an important factor, he shouldn't go to college," said William. "You go to college to get a good job and make a decent living. That's the purpose of going."
"Not necessarily," said Shirley.
William sank further in his seat. "I don't think my family wants to see money in the family," he said sadly. "Really. I think they're afraid of money. I think they enjoy seeing me broke. They enjoy getting up in the morning and asking me for lunch money."
"But it's Barry's money, not ours," said Lynn, 15. "You're trying to influence him too much."
"It's O.K. if Pat Jones talks to him," replied William. "If Pat Jones thought anything about Barry Sanders, he would escort him out of that school and back to Wichita, because he knows that all Barry can do is hurt his stock by going back another year."
"He shouldn't let Pat Jones influence him either," Lynn said. "Too many people want to influence him."
"I'm his father," said William. "I'm only going to give him good advice."
By then, though, no one was listening, and a few minutes later the family was pulling away in Shirley's car en route to the revival. All his life, William said, he has lived in the Wichita ghetto, scuffling to make a living, to feed the kids, to find a way out of the gray shadows of life. "It's not that I'm going to have a new car," he said. "I'm not going to buy a big house on the hill. It'll get me off those rooftops and take the hammer out of my hand. That's enough."
Last Saturday, William got what he wanted. Not only had Barry decided to turn pro, but Smith and Ware are both black as well. "This is a great day in my life," said William. "Barry took me off the roof. I'm still going to do my own roof, at home, but that's going to be the last one I do."