Barry Sanders made sure to wear a sport coat Sunday afternoon, even though the event he was attending didn’t require such attire.
As a crowd of football fans gathered inside the Cox Business Center, some wearing jerseys with Sanders’ name on the back, he waited nearby in a white shirt and jeans.
However, as soon as it was time for the former Oklahoma State star and NFL legend to speak at the Pro Football Hall of Fame Fan Fest, he slipped on the gold jacket he received for being inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2004.
“I feel bad that I never played in the Super Bowl,” Sanders, 47, said. “But at the same time, I realize that I did everything I could within my power to make that happen.
“It just didn’t happen, and I have a gold jacket, which is kind of nice.”
A pair of exhibit halls inside the business center was converted into a large NFL playground for the two-day Fan Fest.
Kids in football jerseys ran across artificial turf, jumped into tackling dummies and lobbed passes at targets across the room. But Sanders was undeniably the main attraction Sunday.
As the Heisman Trophy winner spoke to the crowd, he looked down from the stage and saw Fort Gibson sophomore Ethan Edwards-Douglas sitting in the front row. The teenager was wearing a replica of Sanders’ No. 20 jersey with the Detroit Lions.
“Sweet jersey,” Sanders said.
Edwards-Douglas isn’t old enough to have watched Sanders break tackles and slip past defenders while rushing for 15,269 yards and 99 touchdowns during his 10-year NFL career (1989-1998).
Edwards-Douglas will turn 17 on April 6, but as an early birthday present, his mother got him a ticket to meet his childhood hero, who he’s watched highlights of and read books about for years.
“I was always an OSU fan ever since I could say OSU, and he was the best running back that came from OSU, in my opinion,” Edwards-Douglas said. “I’ve watched clips of him and just always liked him.”
However, as Sanders tells it, he nearly ended up playing college football at the University of Tulsa instead of OSU.
Sanders said he wasn’t highly recruited coming out of high school, so he took recruiting visits to three colleges — OSU, Iowa State and TU.
“My dad really wanted me to come to Tulsa,” Sanders said. “He really wanted me to come to Tulsa because, I guess, the coach who was recruiting me there really did a good job of selling my dad.”
Sanders’ name has been in the news quite a bit over the past week, but not because of something he has done lately.
When former All-Pro wide receiver Calvin Johnson announced March 8 that he was retiring from the Lions at only age 30, national sports commentators immediately compared his decision to the one Sanders had made in 1999.
For the second time in 17 years, a star player with the Lions was walking away from the NFL while still capable of scoring touchdowns.
“It’s hard to explain sometimes, but I realized at the end of my career that playing for the NFL, that really the drive and the desire to continue playing at that level wasn’t there anymore and that it was time for me to retire,” Sanders said.
Hours before Sanders took the stage, former Pittsburgh Steelers star linebacker Kevin Greene met with fans and talked about how he’ll soon also have a gold jacket from the Hall of Fame.
Greene said he was shocked when he received the news on Feb. 6 that he had been elected into the Hall of Fame after five years of being passed over for it.
“I’m still having a hard time getting a grasp on it, wrapping my fingers around it,” said Greene, who recorded 160 sacks during his 15-year career (1985-99).
“But the more and more I sign, ‘K. Greene, Hall of Fame ‘16,’ the realization is getting clearer.”
Greene said he’s already working on a third version of the speech he’ll deliver at his Hall of Fame induction on Aug. 6 in Canton, Ohio. He hopes he can get through his speech without crying.
Sanders, meanwhile, had no problems getting through his talk Sunday.
He even had to laugh when a kid asked about the possibility of Sanders’ son, Barry J. Sanders, breaking his father’s single-season rushing record at OSU this fall.
The younger Sanders recently announced that he’ll transfer to OSU after playing three seasons at Stanford.
“What I’d say to that is ‘Go ahead, son, knock yourself out,’” Sanders joked.
Alex Abrams | tulsaworld.com | March 13, 2016