I guess those of us who said there would never be another Barry Sanders were dead wrong.
There is another one, Barry's son. Barry.
But not Barry, Jr.
"His name is Barry James Sanders,'' said his grandfather, the irascible William Sanders, the father of the former Heisman Trophy winner who grew up in Wichita and played at North, went to Oklahoma State and established himself as one of the greatest running backs in National League Football history during a 10-year Hall of Fame career with the Detroit Lions.
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He ran like nobody ran before. And when he retired — suddenly — in 1999 at only 31, there was a national day of mourning for football fans.
One of a kind. There will never be another.
But there already was another. Barry, the son, was born four years before Barry retired. He was given that name at the height of his father's popularity and effectiveness.
"There was no debate at all,'' said Aletha House, Barry's mother. "Being a Junior, though, sometimes can carry a little pressure.''
Yeah, like when your dad is the greatest running back on the planet.
At Heritage Hall in Oklahoma City, where Sanders attends high school, they don't call him Barry, Jr. He's Barry J. Sanders. Of course, everybody is aware of the Barry he belongs to. But as he readied himself for a second-round playoff game Friday night against Bridge Creek, he was just one of the guys.
"I have some nerves,'' he said. "Yeah, a little bit.''
Because Barry J. Sanders, as he'll be referred to from this point, was returning to the field after missing five games with a foot injury. In the six games he did play, he averaged nearly 200 yards rushing and 14 yards per carry. In 81 carries, he scored 16 touchdowns and didn't play a snap in the second half of any of those games. He injured the foot during a 55-yard touchdown run and his return Friday was the most-kept secret in Oklahoma.
It was Barry J. who scored the first touchdown of the game against Bridge Creek, which Heritage Hall won 34-0, on a 25-yard touchdown pass. He broke into the clear behind the secondary and made an easy catch in stride.
I was hoping Barry J. would score a touchdown to see how he would react. Remember how his father reacted? He didn't. Unfazed and looking almost embarrassed, he flipped the football to an official and trotted to the sideline. A teammate might tap him on the helmet or pat his behind, but the elder Sanders — can Barry Sanders be an elder? —never reacted.
Neither did Barry J. Sanders, Barry 2.0. He, too, flipped the ball to an official and left the field. It was eerie.
There are obvious differences between son and father, though.
Barry J. Sanders is almost 6 feet tall, four inches taller than his dad. He runs more upright, although that perhaps was by necessity Friday night. It was obvious his foot was not right and he finished with only 34 rushing yards on 15 carries.
"He wasn't full speed, he's just getting back into it,'' Heritage Hall coach Andy Bogert said. "I asked him if he wanted to hold out of the game and he insisted he wanted to play. Just having him out there was a huge lift for our team. We were pretty amped up.''
I talked to Barry J. in the Heritage Hall training room before the game. He was receiving treatment for his foot. He has the same bright face of his father. If you saw him on the street you'd notice the resemblance. Except for one thing. His hair.
Barry never did much to his hair, as far as I could tell. It was almost always cropped close.
Barry J. is going with a Mohawk, the same look he had two seasons ago when Heritage Hall, a private school similar to Wichita Collegiate — won its second Oklahoma Class 3A state championship.
"My dad was a little shocked the first time he saw it,'' Barry J. said. "But I think he's gotten used to it. I did this before our first game this season and kept it ever since. I figured, why not bring it back in style? I didn't do it last year and maybe our team lost a little mojo.''
The kid acts as if he never met a stranger. He talked to me — a stranger — easily, laughing and expressing appreciation for the attention.
"People always say he has my personality,'' House said. "But it's probably because they don't really know his father. I always tell people that my Barry is a lot like his dad. Once you get to know Barry, he's pretty vocal. It maybe takes him a minute to warm up, but I think his personality is pretty similar to my son's.''
Aletha is no longer with Barry Sanders. He lives in Detroit with his wife and three sons, but he has made it to a few of Barry J.' s games this season and the two talk frequently.
Recruiting has been a recent topic of conversation, Barry J. said. A couple of weeks ago, he announced that four schools — UCLA, Alabama, Oklahoma State and Florida State — were the finalists for his college choice.
While not completely renouncing that Friday, Barry J. did say he isn't locked in on just those four.
Oklahoma State, obviously, would be a winning choice in his home state. But if sharing a name with his father is difficult, imagine following his footsteps into Stillwater.
Anyway, at least one person close to Barry J. thinks it's way too early to get caught up in recruiting hoopla. You can probably guess who that is. It's his grandfather, William, who when speaking at Barry Sanders' induction ceremony into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2004 told the audience that his son was the second best running back in the family. He, of course, was first.
The soon-to-be 74-year-old patriarch of the Sanders clan isn't cutting his grandson any slack, either.
"Like I told him about four weeks ago, they've got 5,000 kids doing the same thing he's doing every Friday night who are probably just as good as he is,'' William Sanders said. "They're coming out of Texas, Florida, Alabama, Georgia. He knows what I think and I think his dad tries to tell him the same things. But nobody can communicate the way I do.''
Besides, there are people who think Barry J. is an even better baseball player. An outfielder for Heritage Hills, it wouldn't surprise anyone if he's picked in the 2012 MLB amateur draft.
"He's probably a better baseball player than anything,'' William Sanders said.
Not even Barry J.'s football coach disagrees.
"I've heard several people say he's quite the deal in baseball,'' Bogert said. "And that he's a pro prospect.''
Football, though, has a hold on Barry J. It has from the time he started playing when he was a second grader. In those days, he was a lineman. He didn't start running the ball consistently until he was a seventh grader.
If that sounds familiar, it's because it is. At North, Barry Sanders was a wingback during his junior season and ran the ball only a few times. He moved to tailback as a senior and rushed for more than 1,400 yards.
Barry J. Sanders, who has a 3.2 GPA at Heritage Hall and wants to study some aspect of mathematics in college, visits Wichita three or four times a year to visit relatives.
"My connection to Wichita is my dad,'' he said. "Besides family, there's not a lot about Wichita I get into.''
But because of those family connections, he feels like one of us. As I watched him carry the football Friday night, I couldn't help replaying his father's great runs in my mind.
Who knows if Barry J. will even approach his father's amazing success. The best thing is that he feels no pressure to live up to a name. He's proud to be known as Barry Sanders.
Yes, there is another.