The Heisman Trophy is one of the greatest honors a college football player can receive. Every December it’s awarded to the nation’s top college football player, and one thing for sure – if you get it, it meant you had an outstanding season. That said, there’s a curious trend among Heisman winners when they enter the NFL. For whatever reason, very few of them typically have great pro careers.
There are a few Heisman winners who did excel at the next level, however, and running back Barry Sanders was one of them. Here’s why Barry Sanders is still the Heisman winner with the best NFL career.
Barry Sanders’ college football career
In three years at Oklahoma State, Barry Sanders thrived. His first two seasons were modest while he exploded during his junior year of 1988. Here were the numbers he put up during that banner campaign:
- 2,628 rushing yards on 344 attempts
- 37 touchdowns
- An average of 7.6 yards per carry
- 19 catches for 106 receiving yards
Sanders didn’t just win the Heisman that season. He also was named a consensus All-American, while also winning the Walter Camp and Maxwell Awards, both given to the most outstanding player in the country. His 2,628 rushing yards set a record that stands to this day for most rushing yards in a season.
It was a no-brainer that Sanders would forego his senior season to move to the NFL at that point — his body of work in 1988 was too strong for him to not go to the next level.
The Detroit Lions selected Barry Sanders with the third overall pick in the first round of the 1989 NFL Draft. While Sanders and the Lions were never able to win a Super Bowl, he still went on to have one of the greatest careers for a running back in NFL history. Here were some of the achievements he was able to accomplish during his brief but brilliant career:
- 15,269 rushing yards
- 99 touchdowns
- 5.0 yards per carry
- 10-time Pro Bowl selection
- Six-time All-Pro selection
- 1989 Rookie of the Year
- One Most Valuable Player Award
- 1997 AP Player of the Year
After his 10th season at the age of 30, Sanders called it quits. He was relatively young and was still effective. Two years before that he’d rushed for over 2,000 yards and had totaled nearly 1,500 in his final season. Sanders retired as one of the most dazzling, frustrating-to-tackle running backs who had ever played in the NFL.
Why Barry Sanders is still the Heisman winner with the best NFL career
USA Today conducted a poll where Barry Sanders was voted the greatest college football player of all time. But Sanders’ greatness is only part of the reason why he’s the Heisman winner with the best NFL career. The other part of it is the fact that often Heisman winners don’t have great careers professionally.
Look at some of the great players in college football history. Tim Tebow dominated at Florida, yet aside from one flukey season leading the Broncos to the playoffs, largely struggled in the NFL.
Robert Griffin III played wonderfully his rookie year and then crashed and burned before settling on a second act as a backup in Baltimore. Andrew Luck was one of the most heralded number one picks of all time and played great in the pros, but retired young after battling injuries.
It’s not clear why other Heisman winners have struggled in ways that Sanders never did. Maybe it just emphasizes how truly exceptional Sanders was. The only challenger on the horizon is Lamar Jackson, a Heisman winner coming off an MVP season. But he has a while to go to catch Sanders’ record of achievement.