HOUSTON - He tackled himself short of the NFL s career rushing record, and lack of support prevented him from ever playing in a Super Bowl.
But nothing was going to keep Barry Sanders out of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The running back who thrilled Detroit Lions fans for a too-short 10 seasons was elected to the Hall yesterday in his first year of eligibility. So was John Elway, the great Denver quarterback who walked away from the game after back-to-back Super Bowl titles.
They will join defensive end Carl Eller and offensive tackle Bob Brown, also elected yesterday, at the Hall-of-Fame induction ceremonies in Canton on Aug. 8.
Elway, the winningest quarterback in NFL history, walked away at the top of the game. Sanders surprising retirement after the same 1998 season left him 1,457 yards short of Walter Payton s all-time rushing record, which has since been broken by Emmitt Smith.
“I think I ll always miss the game,” an often-emotional Sanders said yesterday. “There is nothing like waking up on Sunday morning with anticipation of the game. There s nothing like the locker room, the smell of the pads, putting on cleats. There s nothing like the intense competition.
“But, simply put, it was time to move on and do other things with my life. I had experienced so many wonderful things. I was conscious of the rushing record, but being right behind Walter Payton is still an honor. I focused on the things I had accomplished instead of the things I hadn t.”
Sanders finished his career with 3,062 rushes for 15,269 yards, an average of 4.99 yards per carry - second-highest in league history behind Cleveland Browns great Jim Brown, who averaged 5.22 yards per attempt. Sanders posted an NFL-record 25 games with 150 or more rushing yards. He gained more than 1,000 yards in each of his 10 seasons and scored 99 of his 109 career touchdowns on the ground.
“I think Jim Brown was the most dominant running back to ever play,” Sanders said. “After that, Payton and Gale Sayers come to mind. I m somewhere up there, but I definitely think there are a couple guys ahead of me.
“It s an absolute honor and privilege to be selected for the Hall of Fame and to go in with the greatest quarterback to ever play the game. My only regret is that I truly feel like I missed out on something not getting to play in a Super Bowl. No matter how good you are, you need help and you need everything to fall into place. It s the greatest team sport on Earth and it isn t easy. It s a tough reality that a lot of great players never make it.”
Such was not the case with Elway, who played 16 years with the Broncos and started in five Super Bowls, more than any other quarterback. Denver lost in its first three appearances, but won back-to-back titles in Super Bowls XXXII and XXXIII following the 1997 and 98 seasons.
“The thing I m most proud of was my ability to hang in there long enough to win a couple Super Bowls,” Elway said. “After that, I could walk away without looking back. Winning the Super Bowl is the ultimate as a team player and this is the ultimate team sport. As an individual, being selected to the Hall of Fame is absolutely the ultimate compliment.”
Elway retired No.2 in all-time passing yards (51,475), total offense (54,882 yards), attempts (7,250) and completions (4,123), trailing only Dan Marino in all those categories.
But he was best known for his remarkable come-from-behind efforts, none more than the 1986 AFC championship game in Cleveland, a 15-play, 98-yard drive that tied the game with 39 seconds left in regulation. The Broncos won 23-20 in overtime.
“That legitimized me as a good quarterback,” said Elway, whose career included 47 fourth-quarter or overtime drives to win or tie games. “It put me on the map.”
It was the first of three AFC title wins over the Browns in a four-year stretch and Elway was reminded that next summer s induction ceremonies would be held in the heart of Browns Country.
“I hadn t thought of that,” he said. “I haven t been back to Cleveland since The Drive. I remember all the fire hydrants were painted orange with my number on it. I wonder if that paint has worn off yet.”
Brown, a Cleveland native, played offensive tackle for 10 seasons (1964-73) with the Philadelphia Eagles, Los Angeles Rams and Oakland Raiders.
Eller was one of the cornerstones of the “Purple People Eaters” defense with Minnesota from 1964-78. He played in four Super Bowls and was named All-Pro five times. He also played one season (1979) with the Seattle Seahawks.