Barry Sanders' 1988 Season May Never be Matched
STILLWATER, Okla. (Nov. 12, 1988) – Thurman Thomas, the Buffalo Bills’ Pro Football Hall of Famer, used to joke that one of his greatest accomplishments in the game was that he kept Barry Sanders on the bench for two years at Oklahoma State.
But then he would turn serious and recognize the fact that having Sanders push him during their time together in Stillwater helped make him the player he became for the Bills.
“I think what got me to the top was that my last two years in college, I had to work really hard to get my game to where I wanted it to be because I had a guy behind me whose name was Barry Sanders,” Thomas said. “With him being behind me, and not wanting him to take my job, if he ran 10 100-yard sprints, I had to run 11, just to keep that edge.”
After serving two seasons as Thomas’ understudy, Sanders moved to the top of the depth chart in 1988 with Thomas off to Buffalo as the Bills’ second-round draft pick.
With current Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy at quarterback, the Cowboys’ offense was one of the most prolific in history as it averaged 514 yards and 48.7 points per game, No. 1 in the country in both categories. And while Gundy was productive with 19 TD passes and 2,162 yards passing, Sanders was simply incredible as he rushed for 2,628 yards and 37 touchdowns, both of which remain all-time single-season Division I records.
On Nov. 12, 1988, in just the ninth game of the year, a 63-24 blowout of Kansas, Sanders erupted for seven touchdowns to give him 31 for the season, breaking the record of 29 set by Penn State’s Lydell Mitchell in 1971 and tied by Nebraska’s Mike Rozier in 1983.
He also rushed for 312 yards on 37 carries against the overmatched Jayhawks, and that pushed him past the 2,000-yard barrier, just the fifth player at that time to do so behind Tony Dorsett (1976), Charles White (1979), Marcus Allen (1981), Rozier (1983), and Lorenzo White (1985).
To date, there have 30 been players to reach 2,000 yards in a Division I season, but no one has surpassed Sanders, though Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon came close with 2,587 yards in 2014.
After winning the 1988 Heisman Trophy, Sanders eschewed his final season at Oklahoma State, became the No. 3 overall pick in the 1989 NFL Draft by the Lions, and went on to rush for more than 1,000 yards in each of his 10 seasons in Detroit, tied for the longest such streak in NFL history with Walter Payton and Curtis Martin behind Emmitt Smith’s 11 straight seasons. And by the way, Thomas is tied for fifth with eight straight.
In 1997, Sanders became just the third man in NFL history to surpass 2,000 yards behind O.J. Simpson and Eric Dickerson, but he was the first to have a 2,000-yard season in both college and the pros.
With 15,269 yards, he was easily on track to break the all-time career rushing record of 16,726 yards held by Walter Payton, but Sanders shocked the NFL by retiring following the 1998 season.
“I never valued it (the career rushing yardage record) so much that I thought it was worth my dignity or Walter’s dignity to pursue it amid so much media and marketing attention,” Sanders said. “I’m very competitive when it comes to winning and losing and playing well. And I did put up big numbers. There were some times in 1997 when I could have gone back in to pad my numbers, but I wasn’t as competitive with the numbers as I was about winning and losing.”
Emmitt Smith, who played five more years than Sanders, eventually zipped past Payton and set the new standard with 18,355 yards, dropping Sanders to third on the all-time list.
SOURCES: Pro Football Hall of Fame; ESPN