It’s hard to believe, but it was 20 years ago today that Lions running back Barry Sanders broke the NFL’s 2,000-yard single-season rushing mark, becoming only the third man in league history to do it, after O.J. Simpson and Eric Dickerson.
In the final game of the 1997 regular season, Bobby Ross’ Lions faced off against Bill Parcells’ New York Jets at the soon-to-be-abandoned Pontiac Silverdome. For each team, the playoff implications were the same: Lose and you’re done; win and you’re in.
O.J. Simpson was nowhere to be found that day (hello, Miami?), but the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, Eric Dickerson, was on hand at the doomed Dome to personally witness Sanders join the 2,000-yard club.
Clinging to a 3-point lead midway through the fourth quarter, Sanders was just a few yards shy of 2,000. But before he could get his hands on the ball again, Lions linebacker Reggie Brown went down.
He wasn’t breathing.
It was a chaotic scene down on the Silverdome turf. With Brown’s teammates gathered around their fallen comrade, paramedics rushed out of the tunnel with a stretcher. But time was of the essence, and they weren’t moving fast enough. That’s when Lions players Johnnie Morton and Kevin Glover grabbed it from the paramedics and rushed it out onto the field themselves.
The 23-year-old Brown, a second-year linebacker out of Texas A&M, lay motionless on the ground. The Lions trainer and team doctor David Collon gave Brown mouth-to-mouth and got him breathing again, but he was still unconscious.
He was rushed to a local hospital, paralyzed from the waist down.
Just six years before on that same old-school Astroturf, Lions lineman Mike Utley was paralyzed on a similar play against the L.A. Rams in the infamous “thumbs up” game of 1991.
Reggie Brown would never play another down in the NFL. But miraculously, his paralysis was temporary. Just days later, after emergency surgery at Detroit’s Henry Ford Hospital, Brown would walk again.
Sanders, who somehow managed to avoid serious injury despite playing a decade under the Dome, would shock the football world with his unexpected retirement after the 1998 season.
After a 20-minute delay, the Lions got the ball back with just over two minutes left in the game. With Sanders stuck at 1,998 yards, quarterback Scott Mitchell handed the ball off once again to his star running back.
With his outspoken father William (who insisted Sanders would never be as good as Jim Brown) watching from the sidelines, Sanders plowed into the Jets’ defense for a two-yard gain.
After a prolonged discussion among game officials, the game was finally stopped. The ref handed Sanders the ball, and the Silverdome crowd broke into hesitant applause. Well aware of Sanders’ tendency to lose yardage on any given play, fans feared he might slip below 2,000 if the Lions handed him the ball again.
But on the very next play, Sanders took one final handoff from Mitchell and burst through the Jets’ defense on an electrifying 53-yard run that put him well over 2,000 yards and into the NFL history books.
“It was awesome,” says longtime Lions fan Paul Zeiter, who was at the Silverdome that day. “That was the loudest I ever heard the Dome.”