Barry Sanders set to be voted into Pro Football Hall of Fame

DETROIT (AP) _ Barry Sanders was jogging off the field after a game at Washington in 1991 when he was playfully wrapped up by Matt Millen. <br><br>``He turned around and looked at me like, `What are you

Thursday, January 29th 2004, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

DETROIT (AP) _ Barry Sanders was jogging off the field after a game at Washington in 1991 when he was playfully wrapped up by Matt Millen.

``He turned around and looked at me like, `What are you doing?''' said Millen, a former linebacker and current president of the Detroit Lions. ``I said, `I wanted to tell my kids that I tackled you once in my life.'''

Sanders, one of the most elusive running backs in NFL history, is expected to be voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday after running for 15,269 yards in 10 seasons with the Lions.

``I probably don't completely appreciate the significance of the Hall of Fame right now,'' Sanders said Thursday in a phone interview with The Associated Press. ``But it definitely is beyond anything I expected when I started playing the game.''

Few expected Sanders to retire when he did _ soon after his 31st birthday and just before training camp in 1999.

He quietly and mysteriously walked away from the game with Walter Payton's rushing record only one of his average seasons away.

Sanders announced his decision through a written statement released by his hometown newspaper, The Wichita Eagle. He then eluded reporters as if they were trying to tackle him for four-plus years.

Two months ago, Sanders had his first news conference since his retirement to answer questions and promote his new book.

He acknowledged the way he retired was ``a little clumsy,'' and shot down many rumors, including the one that the move was a ploy to be traded.

``The press conference needed to be done and it definitely has lifted a burden off of me,'' Sanders said. ``Even though the way I retired was messy, I think most people gave me the benefit of the doubt. I think the press conference confirmed what a lot of people thought _ that I just didn't have the desire to play, like I said was the case in the first place.''

When he did play, from 1989-98 _ after winning the Heisman Trophy at Oklahoma State _ there wasn't much more he could have done as a running back.

He was the first player to gain 1,000 yards rushing in each of his 10 seasons and he led the league in rushing four times. Sanders also was the first to have five 1,500-yard rushing seasons, and the only one to do it four straight seasons (1994-97).

In 1997, he was named the NFL's MVP after becoming the third player to run for 2,000 yards and the first to have 14 straight 100-yard games.

``From my era, the last 25 years, there has not been a better running back,'' Millen said. ``Walter Payton, Emmitt Smith, Eric Dickerson, Tony Dorsett, Earl Campbell and John Riggins were great, but none of them could scare defenses more or make fans hold their breath with excitement like Barry did.''

The next time Sanders brags about anything he did will be the first time.

When Sanders scored, he simply gave the nearest official the football and trotted to the sideline. When reporters crowded his locker, he acted surprised that the media wanted to talk to him.

``We would try to get him to spike the ball _ just one time _ but he wouldn't do it,'' said Kevin Glover, Sanders' center in Detroit and close friend. ``It just wasn't in his makeup as a person. He was a true superstar, but you would never know it because he was so humble. That's why all of his teammates loved him.''

In addition to the record Sanders walked away from at the end of his career, he chose to not go after another in his first NFL season.

He ran for 1,470 yards before being taken out against Atlanta _ just 10 yards behind Kansas City's Christian Okoye _ in 1989.

``When I heard how close he was to leading the league in rushing, I told Barry that I was going to put him back in,'' former Lions coach Wayne Fontes said Thursday. ``He said, `No, that's OK. That's not important to me.' That was always his attitude toward records.

``I think he could still be playing now, and if he was, nobody would touch his record _ ever.''

Emmitt Smith, who broke Payton's record in 2002, agrees.

``Barry had not only the best chance of getting the record, but blowing the record way out, setting it in the 20,000-mark area,'' Smith has said.

Unlike Denver's John Elway, who also is expected to be voted into the Hall of Fame on Saturday, Sanders played for a franchise with only one playoff victory since winning the 1957 NFL title.

Sanders led the Lions to the playoffs five times and to a win over Dallas in the 1991 playoffs.

``I think I would trade a Super Bowl championship for the Hall of Fame,'' Sanders said. ``I can certainly say it's disappointing to have never even played in a Super Bowl. I feel like I missed out on something.''

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