Barry Sanders’ Oklahoma State career highlighted by 1988 Heisman Trophy run

Becoming just the second member of the Cowboy Football Ring of Honor, Barry Sanders is set to be enshrined in Stillwater on Saturday.

Barry Sanders is one of the greatest football players of all time. His Hall of Fame accolades include Pro Football (2004), College Football (2003), Kansas Sports (1998), and Michigan Sports (2003). He has rightfully been immortalized and engrained into the sport of football since he took off the cleats in 1998. On Saturday, the 1988 Heisman Trophy winner’s immortalization continues as Sanders will join the Oklahoma State Ring of Honor at Boone Pickens Stadium in Stillwater, Oklahoma.

When did Barry Sanders play for OSU?

Before becoming a Pro Football Hall of Famer, Sanders was a College Football Hall of Famer. Prior to that, Sanders dominated Saturdays for the Oklahoma State Cowboys. And even before that, he backed up future Hall of Fame RB Thurman Thomas.

Sanders played for Oklahoma State from 1986 to 1988, three seasons worth of excellence. Yet, he had to wait his turn to see the field, receiving spot duties in the backfield behind Thomas and serving as the team’s primary return specialist. Through his first two seasons, Sanders ran for 947 yards on 185 carries with 10 touchdowns. This, of course, led to the single greatest college football season from an RB in the sport’s illustrious history.

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In the 1988 season, Sanders set 34 individual records on his way to winning the Heisman Trophy. He won a slew of awards, including the Maxwell Award, Walter Camp Award, Big Eight Offensive Player of the Year, and was a unanimous All-American that season, his lone year as the starting running back in Stillwater.

Immortalizing Sanders’ Oklahoma State career

Sanders’ 1988 season is the single greatest season by a running back in history. He carved his way through defenses like a knife through warm butter. Sanders was a man on a mission and averaged 237.5 yards per game. That set a new benchmark, breaking USC’s Marcus Allen’s record of 212.9 per game from 1981. No running back since has averaged more than 200 yards per game for a full season.

Sanders finished the year with 2,628 rushing yards, an NCAA record that still stands. Sanders’ 39 touchdowns and 3,250 all-purpose yards also still stand as NCAA records. The year was capitalized with a 222-yard performance in the Holiday Bowl. And that’s back when the NCAA didn’t acknowledge bowl-game statistics in the season totals.

Despite the incredible success and a runaway Heisman Trophy victory that year, he was far less concerned with individual records. Sanders was famously quoted to say “we can’t really think about that right now” when asked what it felt like to win the Heisman. That’s because he woke at an odd hour to virtually accept the trophy from Tokyo as Oklahoma State was set to play Texas Tech in Japan on the “evening” of the Heisman Trophy presentation.

Sanders became an international star when he ran for 332 yards and 4 touchdowns against the Red Raiders in Japan.

Sanders’ prominent NFL career following OSU

Revolutionizing the position, Sanders has since become the standard when measuring certain traits for RBs both in college and in the NFL. That is largely thanks to his domination at both the NCAA and NFL levels. His highlight reels still conjure up feelings of joy for any Cowboys or Lions fan but not so much for the fans of the teams he routinely torched.

Those commonly seen highlight reels showcase him breaking tackles of a varietal who’s who of Hall of Fame players. Just take a count of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers players he violates on the tape: Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp, John Lynch, Ronde Barber, among others.

Sanders finished his illustrious 10-year NFL career with 10 straight seasons of 1,000+ rushing yards and at least 1,300 all-purpose yards. Sanders’ NFL records total 23, and he was enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame five years after retiring in 1998. Additionally, Sanders was mentioned on the NFL 100th Anniversary All-Time Team as one of the greatest running backs alongside Jim Brown, Walter Payton, Earl Campbell, Emmitt Smith, and many others.

Oklahoma State Ring of Honor

Sanders’ career achievements continue to stack up even 23 years after he hung up the cleats. He will have his name and jersey number added to the Cowboys’ Ring of Honor during OSU’s game against TCU. Sanders will become the second member of the Cowboy Football Ring of Honor, joining his teammate Thurman Thomas, who was inducted just last year.

Perhaps even more noteworthy, a statue permanently honoring Sanders will be unveiled outside of Boone Pickens Stadium. He will be the first OSU player to be honored with a statue outside of the stadium. It will be placed alongside the statue of Boone Pickens, the stadium’s namesake and school’s famous donor.

Sanders wore No. 21 at Oklahoma State, and that number has already been retired. It is just one of four numbers to be retired for the Cowboys.

There is no denying Sanders as one of, if not the greatest running back of all time at both levels. His new accolades further entrench him into college football glory, and nothing could be more fitting.

Cam Mellor is the Senior Director of the College Football/NFL Draft vertical for Pro Football Network. You can find his writing here and follow him on Twitter: @CamMellor.


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