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Eccentric Millionaire : In These Days of 'Me First,' Sanders Finds Joy in Giving

August 30, 1991|JOHN WEYLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"I'm excited because it's a new season, but that doesn't have a lot to do with the new system," he said. "Supposedly, I'm going to playing a bigger part of what's going on, but you never really know, because we're going to be taking what they give us.

"We'll see what happens. You just can't expect that you'll go in and all of sudden everything will be ideal. So I'm taking a wait-and-see approach."

WICHITA, KAN.

When he was in fourth grade, one of Sanders' sisters--he has eight and two brothers--gave him one of those vibrating electric football games for Christmas.

"Even then I identified with the tailback," he said. "Running back was always my favorite position."

The same year, he joined his first organized football league, making his debut with a helmet and shoulder pads for the Beech Red Barons. He scored three touchdowns in his first game.

"I remember the game very well, and I remember feeling pretty good. Heck, I felt real good actually," Sanders said. "It was my first year out of the neighborhood sandlots, and I wanted to prove I was good enough to play organized ball.

"Yeah, I was happy, man. I had my chance and I did well."

It seems that every time he happens upon a door of opportunity, Sanders kicks it in. He's just had some trouble finding the door.

He didn't get his first start at tailback for North High School until only five games remained in his senior season. He rushed for 274 yards and scored four touchdowns that day and finished the year with a city-record 1,417 yards.

Sanders learned many lessons about perseverance as a child, but most were taught at home, not on a football field.

"My mother was a huge influence on me," he said. "She was a living example of what a Christian should be. Her conviction, her discipline. She would rather see other people happy than herself."

And from his father?

"Ooooh, I got a lot, especially in terms of work ethic," he said. "I learned respect, how to be independent, to make decisions and be a man about it."

He said he was amazed when he discovered that other kids in school were getting an allowance just for being alive. When he told his father, William Sanders told his youngest son his pay was having a roof over his head and food to eat.

Now, Sanders' parents live on Easy Street. But they live in the same house.

STILLWATER, OKLA.

A lot of football fans know that Barry Sanders played behind Thurman Thomas at Oklahoma State. What they don't know is that he also played behind three or four other guys whose names you would never recognize.

"The whole scenario about Oklahoma State hasn't been portrayed the way it really was," Sanders said. "When I went to Oklahoma State, I didn't really expect to play for a long time. They recruited a couple of All-American running backs the same year as me.

"I was fourth or fifth string. The only reason I got a chance to play was that some of the guys ahead of me got hurt. There was never any competition between me and Thurman. I was basically recruited to play special teams."

He became a very special special-teams recruit, establishing 13 NCAA single-season records and winning the Heisman Trophy as a junior in 1988.

After that season, the NFL decided to make an exception and accept Sanders' petition to be included in the college draft, rather than face litigation over its rule prohibiting the drafting of undergraduates.

A lot of people believe Sanders decided to become a professional because of pressure from his father, who reportedly told his son, "If you go out for spring ball, I'll break your legs myself."

Sanders insists that it had more to do with his inability to keep up both ends of the student-athlete burden. He says practices, meetings, weightlifting and film sessions left little time for academic pursuits. He even turned down an invitation to the White House after winning the Heisman because he had to study.

"I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do in school, but I definitely didn't have adequate time to reach my full potential as a student," he said. "You know, I'm fairly intelligent, but I don't think my grades reflected that."

He laughs.

PONTIAC, MICH.

He's 23 and he's the franchise.

"Barry poses a threat that other teams simply have to respect in their game plan," Brown said. "They have to begin by considering what Barry can do, and that changes a lot of people's schemes."

He's only 23 but willing to voice an opinion in the face of certain ridicule. A short locker room discourse on the evils of fornication elicited more than a few snickers.

"It's something you have to go through, being a Christian," Sanders said. "It's not my law. It comes strictly out of the Bible. I guess if it was up to me, I wouldn't do it like that. And I admit I've done otherwise in my life."

He's 23 and seems oblivious to individual honors.

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