Lions' key is play of Mitchell, not Sanders

On the NFL

December 28, 1997|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

It's Barrymania time in the NFL.

After becoming the third player to gain 2,000 yards in a season, Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders is the talk of the league.

There will be clips of his best runs on all the pre-game shows today as the Lions prepare to play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a wild-card playoff game.

But Sanders isn't the key to the Lions' playoff hopes. Take it from one pro football expert who knows -- William Sanders.

"I'm going to say this and I'm not trying to criticize anybody," William Sanders said. "Not only do I know it, 80,000 fans know it, the coaches know it, they've got to have good quarterback play. If the quarterback [Scott Mitchell] can give them the kind of games I know he can give them, they can go to the Super Bowl and take everything in San Diego. But the quarterback's got to play [well]."

Those are the comments of a man who knows the game. After all, Jim Brown and Walter Payton each played on just one championship team. Eric Dickerson and O. J. Simpson never did.

Franco Harris played on four of them because he had Terry Bradshaw throwing the ball.

A great running back needs a good quarterback to complement him. Mitchell, who has been erratic at times, has to play well for the Lions to advance.

But what makes those comments interesting is the fact that William Sanders is Barry's father.

He'll never get caught up in the Barry Sanders hype. His demeanor also explains why Barry is so low-key. William Sanders will tell anyone who listens that his son isn't as good as Brown.

"I think Jim Brown could throw on his uniform today and come back and play and he's 61 years old," he said.

The best he'll give his son is: "Barry's getting closer."

When reporters told him last week that Sanders shook his fist after scoring a touchdown, William said jokingly, "Did he do that? I didn't see that. I'll have to talk to him about that. Showboating after a touchdown."

Sitting on the stool next to Barry's locker last Sunday, William, a roofer and the father of 11, said, "I raised 11 kids and the one thing I found out about kids is they're the same the world over. What the difference is, is parents. And no matter what my son did, he never got the star treatment. I think most parents treat their kids like they're stars. I never did, not even today.

"You've got to make them humble because it's only by the stroke of God any of them are in the NFL. Parents don't want to tell their kids that. They want to tell their kids they're something great. He's just lucky to be there. There's probably some wino somewhere in the ghetto who's better than Barry."

The NFL, which has a Teacher of the Year award, should start a parent of the year award.

William Sanders would be the first nominee.

Inspiration

Outside of Detroit, most fans probably hadn't heard of Reggie Brown of the Lions until he suffered that serious injury last Sunday.

But the second-year linebacker, a first-round pick, was on the verge of making a name for himself. He was being touted as one of the NFL's best young linebackers.

Now his career is over and the Lions will wear his number (59) on their helmets.

He'll be watching the Detroit-Tampa Bay game from his hospital room today. At least, coach Bobby Ross expects he'll be.

Trying to keep a light tone, Ross said: "He's got a TV in there. He was watching Montel -- some guy named Montel, what's his name -- the other day. If he can watch him, he'd better watch us."

The Lions hope Brown's saga will provide some inspiration for their game today.

As wide receiver Johnnie Morton said: "I think if anything, his situation will provide some motivation and dedication."

Even the Tampa Bay players are affected by the situation.

"My wife and I got down and prayed for him," Bucs quarterback Trent Dilfer said. "I hope he would find encouragement from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, knowing that our thoughts and prayers are with him. You don't want to see that happen to anyone."

Added Dilfer: "[The Lions] are going to have some enthusiasm. They should go out and try to play their best game of the year if they're playing for him. We're going to have to meet that emotion. We're going to have to play even better than we had to at first, but that's the way it should be."

Bucs coach Tony Dungy said: "It's been eerie for me watching the tape and seeing this guy run around, sideline to sideline, making plays, and all of a sudden you really have to stop and realize this guy is in the hospital fighting for a chance to walk again."

Home-field edge

It wasn't so long ago that Tampa Bay, which is playing host to its first playoff game since 1980, had trouble drawing 35,000 for a game.

Now the team can sell 35,000 playoff tickets in one day. That's what the team did last Monday after the Bucs qualified to play host to a game.

This is the franchise that isn't in Baltimore only because the Browns were a step ahead of it in 1995 in taking the Baltimore deal. Otherwise, maybe the Lions would be in town today playing the Baltimore Bucs.

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