By Mitch Albom
Barry Sanders has something on his mind. He walks over to Jim Arnold, the punter, and sits on a stool nearby. Arnold is talking to a reporter, but his words grow jumpy as he glances at Sanders just sitting there -- What does he want? Why doesn't he interrupt? -- and finally, Arnold stops talking to the reporter altogether. It is damn near impossible to ignore Barry Sanders, even if he is sitting still.
"What's up?" Arnold asks.
"I need a favor from you, man," Sanders says.
Sanders grins, sort of embarrassed. "Nah, really, man," he says.
"Really," Arnold says.
"OK. Yo, um. . . . "
Sanders rubs his face. His eyes dance back and forth. Arnold leans in. What is this favor, for god's sake? Lend him money? Kill somebody? What?
"Lemme have one of your cookies, man," Sanders says.
Arnold grins and drops his head. He reaches into the back of his locker, finds a small box and pulls out a fat, round, chocolate chip cookie. He hands it over.
"Thanks, man," Sanders says, lifting it to his mouth. "I just had to have one of these."
He takes a bite and grins like a kid riding his first bicycle.
"You're OK, man," Sanders says as he walks away. "You and me are gonna be all right."
Barry Sanders is coming out of his shell, and not only when his sweet tooth acts up. He no longer sits with his back turned. He actually initiates conversation. True, you still won't find him at nightclubs, and he is hardly a ladies man, and he dresses, well, "casually" is a nice word, and last year, when the police stopped him for speeding, and the officer looked at his license and said, "Are you the Barry Sanders?" he would only say, "Um, my name is Barry Sanders." The officer shrugged and wrote out the ticket.
"You big dummy!" safety William White, who was in the car, said afterward.
"All you had to do is tell him who you were and you would have gotten off!"
"Nah, I can't do that," Sanders said. He paid the ticket.
And that's not even the best story.
"The best story," says White, who has grown close to Sanders recently, one of several signs that the recalcitrant superstar is finally reaching out,
"the most unbelievable story, is when this Jeep dealership called Barry up and was gonna give him a free Jeep -- brand new! -- just for signing autographs at their place for an hour and a half. That morning he asks me if I could drive him over there. But that afternoon, he said, 'I don't think I'm gonna do it.'
"And he didn't. Passed it up. I guess he didn't feel comfortable or something. I couldn't believe it! A free Jeep? That had to be worth close to
$30,000! For signing autographs? I said to him, 'Man, if you don't want the Jeep that badly, you could have given it to me!' "
White laughs and shakes his head. "But that's the man. B. Sanders. Yes, sir, he is unique." Humility is no act
Well. No argument there. It's not everyone who wins the NFL rushing title in his second season, after missing it by only 10 yards as a rookie. It's not everyone who stands 5-feet- 7 (don't believe the publicity reports), weighs 203 pounds and has barely an ounce of fat. It's not everyone who can accelerate from the backfield, leave one defender groping, another defender reeling, another defender falling -- and none of them touches him.
Still, there are changes in Sanders. They show that, in addition to being perhaps the best at his position, he can be one of the guys. Sanders is loosening up. Lightening up. Growing up, too. "I'm the big two-three now," he reminds us, referring to his age, 23, and if that seems a funny statement, remember that when the Lions drafted him, he was only 20. How mature were you at 20?
"What I've learned since then, man, it's so much, it's unbelievable," he says. In his rookie season, Sanders was an emotional hurricane in a solid steel case. He had a million thoughts -- on religion, football, fame, money -- but he never felt right talking about them, or talking about much of anything, for that matter. Quiet. Quiet was better. For years he had watched his mother, with 11 sons and daughters, take on life with a shield of quiet, while his father screamed and tried to beat the crap out of it. Barry preferred his mother's way.
So when he left college early, and the critics said, "Mistake" -- he kept quiet. And when he held out that first year, wanted more money, and people called his house and said, "Shame on you" -- he kept quiet. And when he finally joined the Lions, and he took his first handoff and scampered 18 yards against the Phoenix Cardinals, he returned to the huddle, breathing hard -- and kept quiet. "Even now, I never say anything in the huddle," he admits.
But the huddle is not real life. Real life calls for interaction. And in his third year of professional sports, Barry Sanders is lowering the gloves. He is letting people inside. But here's the surprise: What's behind the facade is often the same as the facade.
"People think Barry is putting on an act with that humble stuff," says White, grinning. "But I'm telling you, he really is that humble. He's too humble, probably. Like my wife sometimes will tell him, 'Barry, that was a great run you made against Washington, you ran for a touchdown!' And Barry will say, 'Is that right?' "
White cracks up. " 'Is that right?' " he mocks. " 'Is that right?' That's like Barry's favorite thing to say."
Is that right? Thinker before doer
Here are pieces of conversation from an hour with Barry Sanders:
"Most people don't know this, but as a kid, I used to get whuppings every day of my life. I was always doing something wrong. I was loudmouthed. Fighting. Discipline problem. Got suspended from school. I remember this one time, in junior high, I called my gym teacher a punk. He didn't pick me for the ninth-grade basketball team and I was upset, so in class, in front of everybody, I called him a punk. I can't believe I did that. . . .
"When I run with the football, it's this feeling, man, I can't really describe it. It's like being a kid and playing tag, and that fear you have. I'm just trying to avoid the guy out there tagging me, that's all. . . .
"If I could change anything in football, it would be how people worship the athletes. That's wrong. I go to Winans concerts, and I like them a lot, but I don't worship them. I know they're no different than the desolate man in the street. . . .
"When people ask me for an autograph I say to them, 'Why is this piece of paper any more valuable if I write my name on it than if you do?' And most of the time they can't answer. That's amazing to me, man. . . . "
Between these sentences, Sanders looks at his feet, bites his lip, nods with a faraway look, as if listening to a running voice inside his head. This is Barry Sanders, too. More than just "Is that right?" Fact is, he can talk philosophy longer than the average athlete. And when it comes to religion, he can talk you under the table. He wonders about the fate of man, he wonders how we can adore the beautiful and ignore the ugly. He says things like "when you are treated special like athletes are, you don't have to develop any character." Maybe part of the reason he likes to be alone so much -- and you wouldn't say this about every athlete -- is that he likes to think.
Then again, given his refrigerator, he's not exactly expecting company.
"You go over to Barry's house, all he has in there is apple juice, water and banana pudding," says White, laughing. "And maybe some four-month-old milk." Rich contract, austere life Which brings us to the money thing. Certainly, Sanders can afford to stock the fridge with Dom Perignon (if he drank it, which he doesn't) and caviar (if he ate it, which he doesn't). He earns, on average, more than $2 million a season. But it did not come easily. For the second time in three years, Sanders held out of training camp because of his contract. Teammates were supportive. Fans were divided. One disgruntled person drove by Sanders' house and yelled out the window, "There ought to be a salary cap for you guys!"
Sanders shrugs. He says this renegotiation was planned all along. He says the contract he took as a rookie (five years, $5.9 million) was less than what he thought he deserved, given his college statistics at Oklahoma State, where he won the Heisman Trophy. But he figured, fine, he'll play two years, prove himself, and then, like The Terminator, he'd be back. Make no mistake: Barry might be shy, but he will go to management when things get serious. He did it when he thought he wasn't getting the ball enough. And he did it this summer, after gaining 1,304 yards and the rushing title last season.
"I wasn't breaking a contract," Sanders says. "The Lions agreed to renegotiate. They felt something should be done, too. The only difference was how much. People forget that. This was a mutual thing."
The funny part is, you wonder where the money goes. Not for groceries, obviously. And not for clothes. "I went clothes-shopping with Barry not too long ago," White says, "a really nice store in Birmingham. Great stuff. And he picks out the ugliest sports jacket in there; this thing looked like some old English professor would wear it. Tweed job, had patches on the sleeves. I said, 'No. NO! You are not buying that! Put it back.'
"He ended up getting a nice blazer and a couple of slacks. He was gonna buy two suits, but then he said it was cheaper to get one jacket and two pants. It's funny. Everything he looked at, he still checked the inside sleeve for the price. I think it goes back to when he didn't have any money, his mom and dad and all."
Those were the Kansas days, the cement of Sanders' life, the days when he and his brothers would follow their father to a roofing job, working with the shingles in the hot sun, hours at a time. Barry never got an allowance --
"Your allowance is that I pay the damn bills around here," his father would say -- and never spent a penny foolishly, not without repercussions. To this day, Sanders admits, "I basically live on about $30,000 a year. That's all I need. The rest is put away or shared with others." He still gives 10 percent of everything he makes to his church. He owns no fancy cars. Even with his new contract, Sanders still drives an Acura, eschewing Mercedes, Porsche, BMW, Jeep.
"Hey, if they still made the Pinto?" says safety Bennie Blades. "Barry would be driving a Pinto, guaranteed." One of the guys now
But wait. What's wrong with that? Isn't it nice to have an athlete who doesn't think wearing a jockstrap puts him on a throne? Isn't it nice to have a guy who refuses to be moved from coach to first class? Isn't it nice to have a guy who puts a clause in his contract that guarantees $10,000 for each of his starting linemen should he break 1,000 yards rushing in a season?
So he'll never be John Salley. So he'll never grab the microphone and tell
the city how wonderful it is. Big deal. What you get with Sanders is real. And as time passes, we are getting more.
"I think deep down he always wanted to be one of the guys," says Lomas Brown, the offensive tackle. "It just took him awhile to get comfortable."
"He's looser now," White says. "He feels more relaxed around us. The dude has a sense of humor, too, and he doesn't even know it."
The man with the normal car and the apple juice in the fridge only shakes his head and laughs at himself. "I guess I am getting more comfortable being with people. I guess . . . um . . . before I almost preferred to be alone, but that's not the case now. It's different."
He sighs. He smiles. "It's good," he says finally, and it is. Fall is coming. Football is here. And the biggest player in the room is getting comfy with his life, one cookie at a time.
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