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Friday, November 17, 2006
Updated: November 22, 2:14 PM ET
Burning questions: Barry Sanders

By Patrick Hruby
Page 2

Lines, delays, screaming babies. Holiday air travel has always been hectic. Thanks to the new security regulations surrounding carry-on liquids – drop the toothpaste, al-Qaida, right now! – it's even more so. Which is why American Airlines and MasterCard are giving away 1.5 million comfort kits to domestic passengers this holiday season, TSA-friendly packages containing lip balm, lotion and other goopy goodies.

And you thought big, faceless corporations were only in it for quarterly reports and eventual world domination.

What does this have to do with Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders? Simple. Last week, Sanders was spreading the word about the comfort kit program … and taking time to answer Page 2's burning questions:

Barry Sanders
Count Barry Sanders among those who aren't sure if turducken is edible.
As a member of the Detroit Lions, you always played on Thanksgiving Day. Meanwhile, the rest of the country was stuffing itself with turkey before passing out on the couch. What was it like working on a national holiday?

There's really several things to it. Even going back to the week before Thanksgiving, you're getting ready for that game. Subconsciously, you realize that a few days after the upcoming Sunday game, you gotta be at another game. It's a quick turnaround. Thanksgiving comes so fast. Guys are just healing up on that Thursday, and it's not your traditional practice week.

But the national attention, John Madden coming to do the game, knowing that it's tied in with military bases all over the world and players all through the NFL are watching? It's special. We always got up for that game. It was something the city of Detroit was proud of. It was our day to shine, really.

You mentioned John Madden. Does anyone actually eat that gigantic turducken leg he hands out?

I hope not. [Laughs] I don't know what kind of animal that actually is. I don't know if it's edible. If it is, it's probably very gamey.

If no one eats the turducken, then what happens to it?

Man, I have no idea. [Laughs]

New York Giants running back Tiki Barber has talked about retiring, even though he's arguably still in his prime. Some people say he's smart to get out while the getting is good; others can't understand why he'd walk away from football. You went through something similar. Can you relate?

I can. Whether it's Tiki or Brett Favre, it's a personal decision. The game means something different at different times in your career. It's good to be able to think about it coming to an end, even if you don't have a date, to think about the reality of it eventually happening.

Tiki seems like a person who knows what he wants and has thought about it. That's good. I think that frees him up to have a great year, which he's having. There's no guesswork involved.

Was there any guesswork when you decided to walk away?

I knew that my playing days were over. I didn't have enough of the desire to continue to play, and with certain things going on with the [Detroit Lions], there was really no reason to stay around. It's a realization that you come to.

Tiki Barber
Tiki Barber could follow Sanders' lead and retire at the top of his game.
You mention Tiki Barber knowing what he wants outside of football. Did you have any sort of retirement plan?

At first, it was just time for me to take time for myself, figure things out and explore other opportunities.

Be honest. Did you ever seriously consider returning to football?

I really didn't. I pretty much knew I was done. My first couple of years, I wondered if I would get the itch. But after I didn't, it was pretty clear.

So what are you doing now?

Business stuff. I'm part-owner of a small bank. I'm working on opening up a car dealership. And I'm spending time with my family.

Anything else?

I fit in a few rounds of golf now and then.

What's a good score for you?

Probably in the low 80s. I love to play. I'm pretty competitive. My game's getting there. It's one of the hardest things you can do, athletically. It's a different animal than football. The only similarity is the way I practice. I don't mind staying on the range all day.

A recent book entitled "Size Matters" makes the case that, statistically speaking, men taller than 5-foot-9 enjoy significantly better lives. Would a few extra inches of height had made your life any better?

[Laughs] It depends on how much taller I would have gotten. You know, I was always convinced that I needed to be bigger. In junior high, I thought I would need it for high school. In high school, I thought I would need it for college. And even in college, you heard rumblings that I wasn't big enough to make it in the NFL. But I think it worked out just fine. My lack of height ended up being one of my biggest advantages.

Great athletes often say that at key moments, everything around them seems to move in slow motion. When you were dodging defenders and making tacklers look silly, did you ever experience a similar sensation?

The thing that sticks out to me on a lot of my runs – and still seems strange – is that a lot of times, I would lose the sound. I wouldn't hear anything until after it was over. I don't know if that's common.

Before the ball would snap, everything was normal – but after the snap, the sense of sound was gone.

So what went through your mind during a great run?

The thing I loved about running the ball was that you never knew what was going to happen on any given play. In my mind, I was always asking, "Is this the play where I break one?" As a kid, I dreamed about running the football, and in some ways, I was a born runner. A lot of times, you never knew how those runs looked until after it was over. Sometimes, you had a sense of surprise when you went back and looked at it on film.

The rest of us were surprised, too. Be honest. Did you ever see one of your runs on film, or maybe on the Jumbotron, and wonder "How in the heck did I just do that?"

There's definitely a sense of that, of "why did I go this way instead of another way?" But I was the type of runner who responded to what I saw the defense do, knew how to change the angles [to make it hard] for the defenders.

Wait – so all those spin and juke moves were planned?

In a lot of those things, you're aware of what you're doing. But sometimes, it was surprising to see what you were actually able to get away with. [Laughs]

Looking back, what made you such an elusive runner?

I think it was a lot of things. I know I had the physical makings of being a good runner. But there's some imagination there. I don't know how many hours I spent replaying certain scenes on the field, just in my mind.

Give us an estimate.

Many, many hours. [Laughs]

Where did that imagination come from?

A lot of it was coming from things you did on the playground, or playing two-hand touch as a kid. It also came from watching other great runners, guys like Tony Dorsett, O.J. Simpson, Terry Metcalf.

Running backs typically absorb a lot of punishment, but you always seemed to avoid huge hits. Was that really the case, or did you take some nasty licks that those of us watching at home couldn't see?

Ummm … well, it's natural to get hit hard. And some shots are tougher than others. But because of the type of runner I was, most guys were concerned with just getting me to the ground rather than get that good shot on me. It's generally more difficult to hit a smaller guy, and when you're not sure what a guy is going to do or which way he's going to run, approach with caution.

Barry Sanders
Hall of Famer Barry Sanders doesn't take his place in football history for granted.
Two years ago, you were inducted into the Hall of Fame. What did that mean to you?

It was a very unique experience to be assembled there with football history and football royalty. Very special for me and my family. It still takes some getting used to, but having been out for a while and able to reflect on things, it's something that I'm more and more proud of.

What was the most memorable part of that day?

Just doing the acceptance speeches with all of the other Hall of Famers. From my class – I went in with John Elway, Bob Brown, Carl Eller – to having all those other guys behind you, the shoulders you stand on, that's special.

Did you tear up?

A little bit. The natural impulse for me is to try to hold back. But I did.

When it came to touchdown celebrations, you were famous for simply handing the ball to the officials. No spikes, no shimmies, no Sharpies. Were you ever tempted to pull a Chad Johnson?

Not really. I had my own style of the way I played the game. I took more of a business approach. At the same time, one of the things that makes football so great is that you don't always know what to expect – so I think that a spontaneous celebration, one that's natural, is good. As long as it doesn't get carried away. And I never had a problem with other guys celebrating.

Emmitt Smith just won "Dancing with the Stars." Your feet are at least as nimble as his. Would you consider appearing on the show?

Probably not. [Laughs] It would take a long time for me to get where I could get even get through one of those dances.

Wait, so you're not in good enough shape for it?

I feel great. I feel like I'm 17. It's just that there aren't a lot of physical demands on me these days. It's kind of like my dad says – "He feels like he's 17, until he tries to do something."

So just to be clear: We won't be seeing you in any sleeveless satin shirts, like the aforementioned Mr. Smith?

Nope.

Phew. Forget free lotion. Now that's comforting.

Patrick Hruby is a columnist for Page 2. Sound off to Page 2 here.