Lions halfback Barry Sanders sat on a golf cart outside the
team's locker room at the Silverdome one day last week and
pondered what he once considered unthinkable. In a matter of
days he would pass one of pro football's greatest backs ever,
O.J. Simpson, and move into eighth place on the NFL's alltime
"Wow," Sanders said softly, taken aback. Then he did what he
often does when someone extols his achievements. He looked down
and searched for the appropriate I-am-not-worthy words. "I'm
surprised," he said. "Flattered. Satisfied. I looked up to O.J.
as a kid, and I don't feel I've reached the point where I should
be mentioned in a football sense with O.J. Simpson. When I was
young, I was enraptured by his running."
As is a generation of young fans by the running of Sanders, who
at 28 is arguably one of the five best backs ever. Jim Brown was
better. Walter Payton probably was, though he didn't make people
miss the way Sanders does. But Sanders is certainly in the same
league as Simpson and Eric Dickerson.
Simpson rushed for 11,236 yards during an 11-year career, but
Sanders exceeded that on 112 fewer carries--and in three fewer
seasons. Sanders reached the milestone while piling up 107 yards
in a 31-14 loss to the Bears on Sunday at Soldier Field. He has
rushed for 11,261 yards in his career on 2,295 carries, and with
1,089 yards this fall he is the first player in NFL history to
rush for 1,000 yards or more in eight consecutive seasons. (The
Bills' Thurman Thomas needs 109 yards in the last four games to
become the second player to do so.) Though Sanders is running on
feet battered by too many games on artificial turf, he is
performing as well as ever. "We hadn't faced him in three years,
and I swear he hasn't lost a thing," said Seahawks defensive end
Michael Sinclair after a 17-16 Detroit victory on Nov. 17. "He's
December 2, 1996
In public, too. "I can move in a crowd virtually unnoticed,
which is the way I like it," Sanders says. Strange as it may
sound, he believes the anonymity could prolong his career. "It's
easy to be preoccupied with other things as you move higher in
this game," he says. "That's one of the biggest reasons why
people decline. If I continue to love the game and work out the
way I do, my decline will be more gradual than some other
The desire is still there. Asked how he would feel in the hours
leading up to the game against the Bears, Sanders said, "I'll be
anxious. I'll be on the first bus to the stadium. I'll sit in
the locker room with butterflies. I'll be excited. It still
matters to me. A lot."
How long will that feeling last? He doesn't know. But he won't
hang on for a check, and he won't hang on just to chase Payton's
alltime rushing record, which is four good seasons--and 5,465
yards--away. "The record seems out of reach," Sanders says. "I
don't know if my interest level and desire will last that long.
But I'm satisfied with my career. So the end is hardly something
to mourn, whenever it comes."
THE ALLEN WATCH
On the eve of his team's critical game against the Raiders on
Sunday, Seahawks coach Dennis Erickson appeared bedraggled. "My
wife tells me I look tired," the red-eyed Erickson said as he
sat in his office. "I guess it's that time of year."
The fatigue, however, is not all from studying film and devising
game plans. In addition to trying to keep his team in the
playoff hunt (a quest not helped by a 27-21 loss to Oakland,
which dropped the Seahawks to 5-7) Erickson faces the renewed
danger that the franchise will move.
Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, who on April 20 bought an option
to purchase the team from owner Ken Behring, issued an ultimatum
last week: He gave local politicians until Dec. 15 to shorten
the time remaining on the Seahawks' lease at the Kingdome from
10 years to three. Allen believes the franchise needs a better
stadium to compete financially with other teams. He claims that
when he bought the option, King County officials told him the
lease would be shortened; if it is not, Allen now says, he will
drop his bid to buy the Seahawks.
That would be bad news for the NFL, which views Allen, who also
owns the NBA's Portland Trail Blazers, as the potential savior
of pro football in the Pacific Northwest. Without him, the
franchise could be headed to Cleveland or Anaheim. "Without
Paul," says Bob Whitsitt, Allen's liaison to the Seahawks and
the president of the Blazers, "there is no other owner in
Seattle. The attitude in this town is if Paul Allen can't get it
done with the money he has, how can anyone else get it done?"
Erickson is a Seattle-area native who was lured back to the
Pacific Northwest last year to coach the Seahawks. Now he's not
sure where the team will be playing. "If it's Cleveland, if it's
Istanbul, I can deal with it," he says. "But not knowing really
bothers you as a team. I can see the progress we've made, but do
we have the money and the commitment to keep it intact? And can
you convince the players to stay?"
Seattle has two key players who are eligible to become free
agents--linebacker Terry Wooden and strong safety Robert
Blackmon. The franchise's uncertainty could reduce the chances
that both players will re-sign. "It'll play a part in my
decision, no question," Wooden said on Sunday. "I'd like to know
if I'm playing here, or if I'm going to be a Cleveland Seahawk
or an Anaheim Seahawk."
RALLYING AROUND REEVES
Giants coach Dan Reeves will have owners lining up to hire him
if, as expected, he is fired after this season, because there's
not a better motivator in the pro game. Case in point: Last
week, with the Giants' season a disappointment, the reborn
Cowboys coming to town and the New York papers predicting his
firing, Reeves read his players Man in the Mirror, an anonymous
poem about being true to yourself. "I didn't do a very good job
reading it," Reeves said on Monday. "I got a little choked up.
But it seemed there was no light at the end of the tunnel, and I
wanted to stress if we did the absolute best we could to prepare
for this game, we could win it."
The Giants beat the Cowboys 20-6. When the team gathered to say
the Lord's Prayer after the game, linebacker Jesse Armstead
asked to say a few words. He had recovered a fumble and planned
to keep the ball, but instead he handed it to Reeves. "You stuck
behind us. You inspired us. We wouldn't have won this game
without you," Armstead said. The two embraced. Several Giants
followed with bear hugs for Reeves, who took a minute to compose
"I've gotten a lot of game balls in my life," Reeves told his
team. "But none of them mean as much as this one."
Garrison Hearst had 23 carries for 67 yards on Sunday in the
Bengals' 41-31 win over the Falcons; a healthy Ki-Jana Carter
had zero. Cincinnati will probably tag Hearst as a franchise
player or transition player so it doesn't lose him to free
agency in the off- season....The verdict is in on Buccaneers
quarterback Trent Dilfer. First-year coach Tony Dungy has seen
enough in the last seven games to realize he has a quarterback
for the long term. Dilfer has been a 62% passer during that
stretch, and the Bucs are 4-3.
THE END ZONE
Jennifer Heck, wife of Bears tackle Andy Heck, had triplets last
week. Teammate Curtis Conway and his wife, Leoria, have twins,
so someone asked Conway what advice he had for Heck. "Run,"
The Raiders, who bill themselves on the cover of their 1996
media guide as the TEAM OF THE DECADES--a reference to the
Silver and Black's lofty .651 winning percentage from 1963 to
1995--have earned a more dubious distinction. They are the most
penalized team of the '90s, having led the league three times
while also finishing second and third. With nine infractions in
its 27-21 win over the Seahawks on Sunday, 5-7 Oakland ranks
second in penalties this season, with 112, behind the Jaguars'
117. Here are the teams that have been flagged the most this
Pen. Pen. Pen. Yards
Team Penalties Per Game Yards Per Game
1. Raiders 877 8.12 6,874 63.6
2. Eagles 772 7.15 6,038 55.9
3. Oilers 760 7.04 6,024 55.8
4. Chiefs 747 6.92 5,710 52.9
5. Ravens 745 6.90 5,985 55.4