Barry Sanders was a transcendent, once-in-a-lifetime football player. He won the Heisman Trophy and turned in the greatest rushing season in NCAA history, and followed that up with a Hall of Fame career with the Detroit Lions.
But in 1987, he was a backup tailback and kick returner for Oklahoma State.
That year's Cowboy squad finished 10-2 and were led by senior tailback Thurman Thomas, himself a future Hall of Famer. I had the great good fortune to score a sideline pass for the OSU home games that season from my employer, the El Reno Daily Tribune, which gave me my first opportunity to try sports photography (see previous post).
While Thomas got most of the carries, Sanders electrified the fans with a season-opening 100-yard kickoff return against Tulsa (and he did it again the next season opener), and he became a threat anytime the other team had to kick off or punt.
Against Colorado on Oct. 10, 1987, Sanders did not disappoint, returning a punt for a touchdown midway through what became a 42-17 Cowboy rout. I got to see the punt return close up.
Once I figured out that my rudimentary camera set-up would only allow me to focus on a particular area of the field, I began to pick my spots and wait for the play to come to me. When Sanders dropped back to receive the punt, I focused on a lane near the sideline, hoping he would run that way (and get that far).
The result is the picture above. Sanders (#21) is gradually cutting toward the sideline as he leaves would-be tacklers in his wake. You can see that Colorado's #74 has already given up on the play. The last Buffalo with a shot at Sanders is the punter, and he's about a half-second away from being taken out by the Cowboys' #92 (Stacy Satterwite, I think).
It looks like Sanders is running right at me...because he is. Right after I snapped this photo, I looked down and realized I was standing about six feet on the wrong side of the sideline - in the field of play! I jumped back just a second or two before Sanders whizzed by on his way to a touchdown.
Had I not jumped back, I most certainly would have died - either from being run over by Sanders, or from the crowd of Cowboy fans who most certainly would have beaten me to death for interfering with the play.
For the rest of that game, I made sure I stood out of bounds before looking through the viewfinder.
Long-time OSU fans will recognize the old West end zone stands in the background. This is the end that is now enclosed in Boone Pickens Stadium. But back when it was Lewis Field, you could see Cordell Hall looming behind the end zone. Really long-time OSU fans will remember the "Give 'em Hell (Censored) Cowboys" banner that used to adorn Cordell on game days when it was still a dorm. The other thing to note in the background is the empty stands. Even in the midst of a 10-2 season, with Thurman Thomas and Barry Sanders on the field, the game was not a sellout.
Postscript: This photo also ran in the El Reno Tribune, as you can see from the crop marks.