Barry Sanders' Historic 1988 Season Still The Best Ever

By Matt Johnson
Barry Sanders
Getty Images

In the most casual of ways, ESPN let its feelings be known. Now, it’s up to the rest of the football world to agree.

Always looking for ways to further endure itself to America’s obsessed football culture, the Worldwide Leader announced on Monday that it was forming a 16-entry, single-elimination bracket to determine college football‘s greatest individual single-season performance in history.

It subsequently came as no surprise that Barry Sanders’ 1988 campaign was bestowed the honor of top-seed for the forthcoming vote-off. What would be surprising is if Sanders’ incredible Heisman Trophy-winning campaign gets challenged.

Even ESPN, always known for their controversial takes, seems resigned to the fact. After all, Sanders’ performance that season was nothing short of mind-boggling.

The numbers alone reflect Sanders’ dominance: 2,628 yards rushing, a 7.6 yards per carry average, and 39 touchdowns in 11 games. Add in his 222 yards and five touchdowns against Wyoming in Oklahoma State‘s Bowl-game win and the totals jump to 2,850 and 44 touchdowns in 12 outings.

What made Sanders’ 1988 campaign all the more amazing was his seeming indifference to it all. Long touchdown runs became more common than smiles from the amazingly reticent running back, a trait he carried all the way to the professional ranks. Week after week, Sanders busted NCAA records while wryly shrugging it all off as if it was just Barry being Barry.

Somewhere in there is a message that would be well received by today’s athletes. In an era where high-profile sports stars are seemingly always on the lookout for some kind of attention grabbing behavior, Sanders remains the clearest example of an athlete worried about on-field performance above everything else.

Nary was there a time when Sanders felt the need to celebrate his triumphant forays into the end zone. For Sanders, the latest touchdown simply meant another would be coming as a matter of routine. In today’s football culture, over-the-top celebrations are not only revered but encouraged for everything from tackles to 10-yard runs. Anyone who has watched either college football or the NFL in recent years is all too familiar with that growing trend.

It’s therefore fitting that Sanders’ greatest contribution was not so much his on-field exploits as his indifference to them. No matter how big the game or how impressive his performances were, Sanders always maintained a sense of perspective which has resonated with the American public ever since he first grabbed the nation’s attention 26 years ago.

In other words, Sanders is not just beloved. Rather, the 5-foot-8 dynamo is revered.

Sanders wasn’t just the guy who ran around defenders with ease. He was the guy who broke records and did so with a level of humility that belied the level of his achievements. It’s no wonder so many football fans, a full 16 years since his retirement from the NFL, immediately name Sanders as their favorite player.

Will there be another Barry Sanders in future years? One can only hope. Until then, fans will cast their votes online wondering where all the Barry’s of the world have gone.

Matt Johnson is a Big Ten Conference basketball writer for  Follow him on Twitter at mattytheole or “like” him on Facebook.

You May Also Like