1989 was a heady year for sports cards, Upper Deck the first premium regular issue card set was released in April and for the first time in decades Topps wouldn't be the only company making Football cards. Upstart Pro Set run by Lud Denny out of Texas managed to snag a license and so did Score, a second year company that had some success with their 1988 Baseball card set. April 1989 also saw the drafting of Troy Aikman by the Cowboys at #1 and at #3 my subject today, Barry Sanders.
Eschewing his senior season at Oklahoma State, the Heisman winner with 2850 rushing yards and 42 TDs held out during his rookie training camp, but started the season off with a bang, 18 yards on his first NFL carry and a TD on his fourth. He'd win ROY and become a fan-favorite due to his soft-spoken demeanor and was the complete opposite of the other famous "Sanders" Deion who was also drafted in 1989.
Barry had the uncanny ability to make defensive players look incredibly silly. He could bust out huge runs, and often just took over games due to the Lions inability to land a quality QB during the 90's. Severely undersized at 5'8 and about two bills, he might have been short in stature but could take the rock and score at will. Oh and he was never a show-off. You won't find any video of Barry spiking the ball or showing off, ever.
A side note, I started my first Fantasy Football League in 1990 and my original starting backfield was Barry and Emmitt. I would trade Emmitt, but I never let go of Barry, he was my player for his entire career. At one point I owned several of the Pro Set RCs and at least one of his Score (and Topps too for good measure). I do still have an entire 1989 Pro Set collection, but that Score Rookie is no longer mine. I should get another one some day.
Barry's career was astounding, but short. Echoing the actions of Jim Brown in 1965 Barry retired in 1999 after 10 seasons and only one playoff win. Years later he'd finally say that the culture of losing in Detroit had gotten the best of him, and he couldn't continue. Since Detroit most likely wouldn't have traded him (he'd signed a huge contract extension just a couple years earlier) he up and left. He was, at the time, the 3rd ranked Running Back in NFL history. Had he played another 4 years like Emmit Smith he would have undoubtedly passed Walter Payton.
To me, Barry was always a class act, and my favorite player during his career. Since then he's continued to be a solid citizen and role-model, even if his marriages haven't lasted. His eldest son Barry Jr. is a Sophomore at Stanford and while some have labeled him a "project" he does appear to have his Father's gift for changing direction on a dime, so while I'm unabashedly a Bruin, I'll be following the Cardinal over the next few years to see if we have the second coming of one of the greatest backs to ever play.
Tomorrow I'll wrap this all up with my final selection, my favorite Hockey player, the only one of these first four who is not in their respective HOF.