More than a football star: OSU community shares stories of Sanders’ down-to-earth personality before Ring of Honor induction, statue reveal

News Press file photo Former Oklahoma State running back Barry Sanders, the only Cowboy to ever win a Heisman Trophy, will have a statue unveiled next to Boone Pickens Stadium, as well as having his name put in OSU’s Ring of Honor – following his former teammate Thurman Thomas as the first two honored.

Kirsten Dirato had an ambitious idea for a newspaper story.

She wanted to interview Barry Sanders.

In the late 1980s, the Oklahoma State football team’s record-shattering running back garnered abundant media interest, but he typically shied away from the spotlight.

If Sanders preferred to avoid extra recognition from nationally known publications, then what were the chances he would agree to talk to an editor of a local junior high school paper?

Kirsten, then a Stillwater Junior High student, decided to find out. She relayed her message through her father, Tom Dirato, the Cowboy Radio Network’s color analyst who had built a cordial friendship with Sanders. Tom couldn’t guarantee anything – he knew Sanders’ personality well and realized he wasn’t one to draw attention to himself.

“I didn’t know what to tell her, other than, ‘I’ll pass it along to him, and we’ll see what happens’,” Tom said. “So I did, and I didn’t think anything about it for a week or so.”

Then Kirsten arrived home from school with exciting news for her dad. Stillwater Junior High had a visitor that day, and his name was Barry Sanders.

“He had taken time out of his (day), I think he came before practice,” Tom said.

Thirty-three years after Sanders’ last season as a Cowboy, as OSU prepares to reveal his long-awaited statue outside Boone Pickens Stadium, memories of his awe-inspiring touchdown rushes are stamped in the minds of Tom Dirato and others who watched him ascend to Heisman Trophy status. Sanders skillfully eluded a stingy Nebraska defense for a standout rush – OSU coach Mike Gundy joked that his former teammate “made about nine guys miss” on that play. Then there was his iconic dive into the end zone against Colorado.

He captivated the football world with his speed and cleverness on the field, but his distinct personality is just as striking to those who spent time with him in Stillwater.

Tom Dirato described Sanders as the best offensive player he ever watched at OSU, an opinion many longtime Cowboy fans share. He also characterized Sanders as “the most unassuming superstar” he had met during more than 40 years of sports coverage.

Sanders’ role in OSU history is so prominent that he is becoming only the fourth individual to have a statue on campus. He follows well-known university president Henry Bennett, first Black OSU student Nancy Randolph Davis and mega-donor T. Boone Pickens. Sanders’ statue will be unveiled in a ceremony two hours before the Cowboys kick off against TCU on Saturday, and during halftime, OSU will recognize his initiation into the football program’s Ring of Honor.

His achievements at OSU were unmatched.

“He was Michael Jordan playing football,” Pat Jones, Sanders’ coach, said.

Sanders is undoubtedly one of the Cowboys’ biggest celebrities, yet he acts as if he is any ordinary alumnus. As he rose to stardom, first at OSU and then with the NFL’s Detroit Lions, he retained his humble, down-to-earth nature that has endeared him to so many people.

Sanders’ coach didn’t see him celebrating touchdowns. Jones said he doesn’t think it’s bad when guys revel in the moment, but it would have been unnatural for Sanders.

Instead, Sanders’ routine involved casually giving the touchdown ball to an official and returning to the sideline. When the Cowboys huddled before a PAT, Jones remembered, Sanders would pat each offensive lineman on the head, as well as fullback Garrett Limbrick.

“He did that every time,” Jones said. “And that’s just him.”

Aside from Sanders’ extraordinary accomplishments, in many ways, he was a typical college student. He enjoyed playing basketball at the Colvin Recreation Center with his friends. He took naps during the day when he had time in his busy schedule. Sometimes, if he was on campus between classes, he stopped by Dirato’s office in Gallagher-Iba Arena.

“I’d be looking up, and he’d be taking a snooze on the couch,” Dirato said. “Then I’d go about my business and we never said a word, and he’d be gone all of a sudden. I just learned that that’s him; he felt comfortable coming around.”

Although Sanders is reserved, he established strong bonds with the people around him. He selflessly credited his teammates. He had serious conversations with Dirato about his decision to leave for the NFL. When he won the Heisman, Sanders was immersed in a network of high-caliber athletes, yet the fame didn’t go to his head.

The night before the ceremony in 1988, Jones accompanied Sanders, his family and running back coach Bill Shimek at the Heisman dinner in New York City. NFL star Earl Campbell, the 1977 winner, approached them and asked Sanders to sign his program.

After Campbell complimented Sanders and walked away, a look of astonishment spread across Sanders’ face. Famous Heisman winners surrounded him at the dinner.

“Coach, that’s Earl Campbell,” he said.

“Barry, you have won the Heisman Trophy,” Jones reminded him. “You are one of them.”

Jones never forgets the moment. Sanders couldn’t believe Campbell, one of his football role models, was requesting his autograph.

“He wasn’t naive,” Jones said. “But he just did not care about being the center of attention.”

When Sanders returns to OSU, he doesn’t seek praise, either, but it always surrounds him. This season, the Cowboys were thrilled when Sanders met with them on a game day. Gundy said Jaylen Warren, OSU’s star rusher who transferred from Utah State, looked as if he had met Santa Claus.

Jason Taylor II, a safety from Carl Albert High, might not be a running back, but Sanders’ stardom was evident to him as a kid growing up in Oklahoma.

“I’ve always known him as the greatest college player of all time,” Taylor said. “That’s just what he is. (Me) being from Oklahoma and coming to Oklahoma State, that’s all you think of when you first think of Oklahoma State, is Barry Sanders.”

Although the current Cowboys never had the opportunity to watch Sanders play in person, he is making an impact on them as a mentor.

“It’s very important for us to continue to pursue him to do that,” Gundy said. “He’s an iconic figure, and he always will be.”

His iconic image exists not only because of his unparalleled statistics, but also because of the way he carried himself away from the field. Dirato has never asked Sanders why he decided to take the time to let Kirsten interview him for the student newspaper, but Jones said the anecdote doesn’t surprise him.

The story captures the nature of the person Jones coached: modest and quiet, yet willing to go out of his way to help others.

“Most of his teammates are extremely loyal to him to this day,” Jones said. “Not because he’s maybe the greatest back to ever play the game. It’s because of the type of person he is.”

Follow News Press sports reporter Hallie Hart on Twitter @halliehart for updates on Oklahoma State athletics.

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