‘A real treat’: Barry Sanders on Oklahoma State’s uniforms honoring 1988 Heisman season Thirty years ago, the now-retired Pro Football Hall of Famer pieced together the greatest campaign college football has ever seen
These are just some of the words that have been used to describe Barry Sanders’ junior year on the football field at Oklahoma State in 1988. It was a season deserving of an entire thesaurus, and college football hasn’t witnessed another quite like it since.
Sanders, then 20 years old, rushed for 2,850 yards and tallied a total of 44 touchdowns while setting 34 different NCAA records (stats include Holiday Bowl). And he didn’t even begin the year as Oklahoma State’s surefire starter at running back. But on his first touch of the season, he took the ball 100 yards on a kickoff return for a touchdown. And on his last carry of the season, in the Holiday Bowl against Wyoming, he also went for six. That’s really all Sanders did in ’88: run and score, to the tune of 7.6 yards per carry and at least two touchdowns in all 12 games.
With 559 first-place votes, Sanders was named the winner of the 1988 Heisman Trophy, finishing in a landslide ahead of USC quarterback Rodney Peete (70 first-place votes) and UCLA quarterback Troy Aikman (31 first-place votes). It wasn’t even close for Sanders, who accepted the most coveted award in college football via satellite television from Tokyo the same day his team faced Texas Tech in the Coca-Cola Classic.
“It’s something that I could take with me for a lifetime,” the humble Sanders said live on ESPN that day. “I certainly had a lot of help doing so. It’s something everyone can be proud of.”
After his monster season, he decided to forgo his senior year at Oklahoma State to turn pro. And in the 1989 NFL draft, the Detroit Lions selected him with the third overall pick. Sanders played 10 seasons in the NFL, all for the Lions, emerging as a 10-time Pro Bowler, a four-time rushing yards leader, the 1997 league MVP and ultimately a first-ballot Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee in the Class of 2004. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2003.
To celebrate the 30-year anniversary of his Heisman season, Nike unveiled a special-edition throwback uniform honoring Sanders’ storied days in Stillwater, Oklahoma. On Monday, the legend’s No. 21 college jersey went on sale on the sportswear brand’s website in the lead-up to Oklahoma State’s game against Texas on Saturday, when the Cowboys will break out the full uniform. It’s a look that consists of a white helmet with the retro “OSU” logo, an orange jersey with a patch commemorating Sanders’ Heisman campaign and white pants with ’80s-era striping. Nike also released an apparel collection featuring a hoodie, T-shirt, hat and pair of turf shoes, available exclusively at the university’s bookstore.
Before returning to his alma mater for the game, The Undefeated caught up with Sanders, who reminisced about the season that Oklahoma State, and college football, will never forget.
What comes to mind when you see the throwback Oklahoma State uniform?
I think about the guys I played with. I think about that season … and just how neat it is to be commemorated 30 years later. Being able to have the kids represent me today, it’s a real treat.
Can you believe it’s been 30 years since you’ve won the Heisman?
It just doesn’t seem real. Time does go by fast. I always heard that when I was younger, and this is a great example of that.
What are your fondest memories from that 1988 season?
The first play of the season, I ran the kickoff back for a touchdown. I think we were playing Miami of Ohio. I was still carrying the bulk of the load on special teams. It wasn’t sure in my mind that I was going to be the starting running back going forward. My understanding was it was going to be on a game-by-game basis because Thurman [Thomas] had been there. As far as games, I remember the Colorado game well … that being considered our first little test of the year. They had a couple of future pros on the team. After that game, I remember there being some hype. … The Nebraska game was big … because people wanted to see how we would play against them and how I would do against them. It meant tons to me going to play in Lincoln, Nebraska, against Tom Osborne. A team that had future pros all over the place. And then the University of Oklahoma game I’ll always remember because my dad was a big OU fan. He let it be known while he hoped I had a good game, he was still a big Barry Switzer fan and rooted for the Sooners. That was a little awkward, but at the same time that’s who my dad was.
What do you remember from playing in Japan in the regular-season finale?
How could I ever forget Tokyo? (laughs) Heisman ceremonies were actually taking place. Being over there, and the big time difference. I don’t know, 12-13 hours. Having the game the same day as Heisman ceremonies, waking up at some strange hour to go to some studio to take part. I knew I was awake, but it all felt like a dream. Going from not knowing I was going to be a starter to now I’m here with Troy Aikman and Rodney Peete. They were the preseason favorites, and now I’m about to win the Heisman. It was a lot. It was such a turn of events for me.
What emotions did you experience when you found out you won the Heisman?
It was mixed. I was excited. I was intimidated. It seemed very much overwhelming because my focus was always on the field. What can I do to improve? I loved being a student-athlete in Stillwater. So those little details you think about as a young kid, just trying to make your way through college. A lot of things with the Heisman were intimidating. I was always a big college football fan and remembered watching the ceremonies, whether it was Doug Flutie, Mike Rozier, Tony Dorsett, Marcus Allen, Herschel Walker, Vinny Testaverde, the list goes on. I just felt unprepared in a lot of ways.
Nike is releasing a special-edition turf shoe similar to the one you used to wear. What did you like about playing on turf in college?
Growing up, that was like the new thing — AstroTurf. It was a big deal to play on turf. At Oklahoma State, that’s what we had. It was a fast track. For a guy with my game, it helped me in a lot of ways. It made me faster and quicker, it seemed like. I loved playing on turf.
Did you prefer it over grass?
As a young athlete, absolutely.
Where would you say your elusiveness on the field came from?
It’s hard to say. I remember watching Terry Metcalf, a little squirrelly running back for the St. Louis Cardinals in the early ’70s. Of course, I was only 6 or 7 years old. I remember watching Joe Washington … and Tony Dorsett was probably the first running back I linked onto as a player when I was a kid, like, ‘Let me try to do what he does.’ In my neighborhood I was always playing football, even before I was on an organized team. I have an older brother, and that’s what we did. Our entertainment was playing football outside or at recess. I felt like I was always running like that. I was always the little guy on the field. Some of it was God-given ability, and some of it was trying to imitate those running backs that really made an impression on me as a youngster.
What did it mean to you to get your own shoe, the Nike Air Zoom Turf, in 1996?
That was a big honor. That was like the stamp of approval in a lot of ways. You go from having a standard deal where you get apparel to now we’re going to have a shoe for you. It was a big deal when that happened, certainly back then. I don’t know how many guys in the NFL had their own shoe, but it didn’t seem like that many.
Of the current NFL running backs, who do you think deserves his own shoe?
I leave that for you guys to decide! But there’s certainly a great crop of young running backs. You look at [Todd] Gurley, [Ezekiel] Elliott … don’t forget about Adrian Peterson. I assume he’s already had his own shoe. … You also look at [Kareem] Hunt from Kansas City … [Leonard] Fournette. There are great running backs in the game, and for me, it’s enjoyable to see. Especially when you think back to a couple years ago, and people were saying the running back position was devalued. These guys are making a strong case from themselves … and obviously, Le’Veon Bell, who’s sitting out, is a part of that conversation. … I enjoy seeing them be successful, getting what they deserve, being a part of winning teams and continuing to make their presence felt on the field.
You got to meet Saquon Barkley during the preseason. What was that moment like?
It was a quick meeting, just wishing him well, good luck and that I’ll be watching. ‘Keep working hard and doing what you’ve been doing.’ … He’s on the right track. I’ve enjoyed so far what he’s able to do. He looks like he’s going to be quite the player, an impact player, the same way he was in college.
How do you feel about the comparisons between Saquon and yourself?
I enjoy the comparisons. It’s always a compliment for me. I hope it is for Saquon as well. It gives him something to shoot for. But I think he’ll end up making a name for himself. The great thing is, hopefully, when he’s done, people will say, ‘This new kid reminds us of Saquon Barkley.’ And I’ll be long forgotten about. (laughs)
How will it feel to be back in Stillwater this week?
I’m looking forward to being with my family and former teammates. And I appreciate Nike for taking the lead on this. It makes it that much more special for all of us. We never could’ve imagined, never would’ve imagined, 30 years ago, that we’d be coming back for something like this and having the team and school honor us in this way.
What was it like seeing your son, Barry J. Sanders, wear the orange and black in 2016 when he transferred from Stanford to Oklahoma State?
It was fun, man. It was a great homecoming for him. For me, it was a treat. College football, for me, was not a means to an end. It’s a destination. That’s a thing that I always tried to teach him and talk to him about. For a lot of guys, college football is an avenue to greater things. But it is pretty great in and of itself. Seeing him play at Oklahoma State, that was an honor. It brought back a lot of memories. And the great thing is, that’s something he really wanted to do. He enjoyed himself. And as a parent, that’s really all you can ask.