clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Barry Sanders once beat the Bears so badly on Thanksgiving, I felt nothing but awe

For NFL Rivalry Week, historian Jack Silverstein looks at Barry Sanders, the rare player who transcends rival hatred.

I wake in the night with cold sweats, whimpering, wondering, waiting for the fear to subside:

Could Barry Sanders somehow come back?

Stop it, I tell myself. That is silly. Barry Sanders is 50 years old. He has now been retired for twice as many years as he played for the Lions. Go back to sleep, sir. Number 20 roams no more.

Thank goodness.

Yes, today is Thanksgiving and the Bears are going to Detroit to play the Lions for the latest chapter in this storied history. Our first game was in 1934. Our most recent, 2014. But the height of the turkey day rivalry came in the 1990s, when we linked up for four games between 1991 and 1999, losing three of four, including 1997.

Oh, 1997.

You might remember that day, Bears fans.

You definitely remember that day, Lions fans.

That was the day we were the turkey and Barry David Sanders was everything else. Cooked us. Carved us. Ate us. And bounced. Chef, host and house guest all at once.

The date was Nov. 27, 1997, and we were struggling. Mightily. We were 2-10, which was a nice upswing after starting 0-7. The Lions, meanwhile, were 6-6 and in the midst of one of those will-they-or-won’t-they Wayne Fontes playoff years, an annual tradition at the Silverdome in the 90s.

Our Thanksgiving battle started well enough: we led 17-3 in the 2nd quarter behind some rockstar passing and catching from Erik Kramer and Ricky Proehl. Barry had 2 yards on five carries.

And then, disaster.

Sanders ripped off a 15-yard run and caught a 12-yard pass to launch Detroit’s first touchdown drive. We hit a field goal to go up 20-10 — our final points of the game. Sanders closed the 1st half with a 40-yard touchdown run to pull the Lions to 20-17, and opened the 2nd half with four straight runs for 27 yards, leading to a Jason Hanson field goal to tie the game at 20.

Detroit took the lead on Scott Mitchell’s 2nd TD pass of the game, and after the Lions forced and recovered a Kramer fumble, Sanders bagged runs of 25, 20, 19 and 15 yards, with the 25-yard and 15-yard runs going for touchdowns.

The Lions scored twice more on non-Barry plays and went home that day with a 55-20 win.

I was stunned.

And battered.

And frankly, in awe.

There is more to rivalry than bitter hatred. As much as I can’t stand Lions fans right now, with their brash silliness and unearned swagger, I will never ever ever not like Barry Sanders. This man used to basically show up in my living room twice a year, beat my ass, and have me thanking him for the pleasure.

As a sports fan, I take my greatness where I can get it. Yes, it’s preferred when it comes from my teams, but I know that on a long enough timeline that just ain’t always possible. Now and again, I accept that any uplift in my sports viewing experience will be delivered by my opponent, so long as I can harness my ability to accept the beating as part of a sports fan’s life.

When the giver of that beating is someone I can’t stand, or the circumstances of the beating disrupt my team’s consequential positivity — I’m looking at you, Bears-Packers Week 1 — I can’t enjoy those, and in fact feel worse because I can’t enjoy them. Like, objectively, I know what Aaron Rodgers did to us in Week 1 was nothing short of magic. But the pain outweighed everything else.

Barry Sanders, on the other hand, was always a joy to watch even when he was making my team look like children. Part of that is because the Lions are inherently not a threat (which makes their #WeOwnTheBears nonsense so aggravating) (like, y’all, you went 0-16 once. Sit down). But part of it is that Barry was just pure magic on the field and pure class off it that you couldn’t help but smile even when he filleted you.

We were going nowhere in 1997. On Thanksgiving that year, Barry Sanders was going anywhere but. He’s not coming back to haunt me. I wouldn’t be angry if he did.

Chicago Tribune, via




Jack M Silverstein is Windy City Gridiron’s Bears historian, and author of “How The GOAT Was Built: 6 Life Lessons From the 1996 Chicago Bulls.” He is the proprietor of Chicago sports history Instagram “A Shot on Ehlo.” Say hey at @readjack.

Ed. note from Jack: a previous version of this story cited the first Bears-Lions Thanksgiving game as 1947. It was 1934. Here is the history of that game. This post has been updated. I regret this error.