I love Thanksgiving.  It’s always been my favorite holiday.  I mean really, who doesn’t?  First of all, dinner is at like 1pm.  I’ll say it again, DINNER is at 1pm.  So, I can eat like a pig in the middle of the day, watch football, eat again, go see a movie with the family, and eat again.  It is honestly too good to be true.

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The food isn’t the real reason, though.  I love Thanksgiving for a different reason.  I guess I should say that I used to love it for a different reason.  Barry Sanders.

My favorite football player, and probably sports athlete, of all time is Barry Sanders.  For those who did not watch football in the 1990’s, Barry Sanders was arguably the best running back of that decade, and one of the best running backs of all time.  Sanders set NCAA records for single season rushing yards and total touchdowns as a junior at Oklahoma State University.  Barry then went on to rush for 1,000 yards in each of his ten NFL seasons, including an astounding 2,053 yard season in 1997.  Only seven players in NFL history have accomplished the 2,000 yard milestone.  While I played football in a much slower, less graceful way, Barry made the game seem like a ballet. Then, before we all knew it, Barry was gone.  He retired after the 1998 season, walking away within arms grasp of NFL records that most players could only dream of breaking.

His approach to retirement was the reason I loved Barry Sanders.  I am sure that this was the reason so many others loved him, too.  Records meant nothing to Barry.  In fact, all fame and accolades meant nothing to Barry.  He seemed to be a different kind of athlete; one committed to playing at an elite level, but also committed to having perspective.

Not many of us will become, or are, professional football players.  But the point is that the lessons learned from watching Barry Sanders can, and should, be applied to how we model behavior for our kids, employees, and others searching for the passion and purpose to life.  A life truly well lived. A life full of social impact, deep relationships, and economic nourishment.  Here are 9 characteristics that Barry modeled for me.  Things I strive to live by each day.

1.  Be humble, and “Act Like You’ve Been There Before”.

For me, the most memorable routine of Barry’s career was this:

No one else did that.  After scoring a touchdown, most players took the opportunity to choreograph dances, show excitement, or taunt the other team.  Vince Lombardi once said “when you get into the endzone, act like you’ve been there before”.  The takeaway is in the value of consistent humility.

2.  Be respectful.

Consistent humility also forces one to make respect a priority.  Respect for one’s self, competitors, teammates, coaches, and referees (3rd parties).

3.  Be confident.

Barry showed me that practicing humility and respect, did not mean weakness.  You should be confident in your current abilities and what you can achieve in the future.

4.  Failure is part of the journey, if you know WHO you are.

Sanders own the NFL record for most total yards lost in a career.  He lost over 1114 total yards over his ten year career.  If that is not failure, I don’t know what is.  If Barry decided to abandon his running style, then it is safe to say he would not be in the NFL Hall of Fame.  Barry believed in who he was as a runner, and accepted failure as part of the journey.

5.  Work to be the best.

Barry did not just “out talent” his opponents.  Sanders was never satisfied in himself, and always prepared mentally and physically to thrive as an athlete.  Read, watch, learn and surround yourself with success, in whatever way you define it.

6.  Make it about the team.

Football is the ultimate team sport.  A running back is only as successful as the offensive linemen blocking for him.  Many will argue that Sanders did not have a great offensive line, but I wouldn’t tell Lomas Brown that (6 Pro Bowls).  Regardless, Sanders never made any win or award about himself, it was about how the team played as a unit.

7.  Develop Vision & Be Decisive.

In the 1990’s, the Lions ran a zone blocking scheme called the stretch.  In a stretch right, the offensive line will block to the right, attempting to “stretch” the defense and create “seams”, or running lanes for the running back.  Success in the stretch is predicated on the running back’s ability to use his vision to read blocks and find those seams.  Barry was the best stretch running back all time because of his vision and decisiveness.In life, its important to set short and long term goals, and to decisively take action when one sees an opportunity.

8.  Simplicity

Barry Sanders was asked by a member of the media once (and I am paraphrasing, so bare with me), “Barry, what is it that you see that others don’t when running the football?”. Barry’s response was, “I see the same things you do, I can just get there faster”.  The moral is:  Don’t overcomplicate things.

Steve Jobs always said that “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”.  He couldn’t be more right.

9.  Consistency

Over the course of ten NFL seasons, Barry Sanders ran for 1,000 yards in every single season. In fact, in nine of those seasons, he actually ran for over 1,300 yards.  He reached the Pro Bowl (the NFL’s all star game) in every season.  He only missed six games due to injury, and played in a total of 153 games.  In other words, consistent preparation, focus and a little luck will help build a brand that lasts.

Renowned research psychologist Angela Duckworth and writer Paul Tough have helped bring non-cognitive skill development to the forefront of education and human learning.  I think we should study men and women like Barry Sanders.  What we could add to the conversation is essential in the development of our children, especially children from disadvantaged and low-income communities.

Thank you Barry, for being a role model.



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