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Happy 51st birthday to Barry Sanders, the greatest running back of all time

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Sanders may not have the most yards in NFL history, but that doesn’t detract from him being the truest GOAT of them all.

AFP PHOTO/Matt CAMPBELL; ILLUSTRATION BY KARYIM CARREIA

I couldn’t even tell you the first time I watched Barry Sanders run the football. In fact, my first memory of Sanders is thinking he was a bit short for the NFL.

Don’t judge a book by its stature, hey?

Sanders turned 51 years old Tuesday. It’s not one of those milestone markers where people jump up and celebrate the perfect roundness of a decade, or the fact some fellow made it 40 trips around the sun and has still managed to survive.

No, 51 is just a number.

Take that 51 and add 100 to it and you have the number of games Sanders started for the Lions, the only team he played for during his 10-year career. Add 48 to it instead and you have the number of touchdowns he scored along the way.

You only need to tack on 15,218 on top of that 51 to get his total number of rushing yards throughout his career — good enough for third all-time despite having played fewer seasons than either first-place Emmitt Smith (15) or runner-up Walter Payton (13). Frank Gore may surpass him this season as he currently stands at 14,748 yards and will be suiting up for the Buffalo Bills for his 15th season in the league.

I may not remember the first time I watched Sanders run the football, but I can tell you I sure remember a lot of those yards he tallied. Being from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, you basically have the option of watching the Green Bay Packers or the Detroit Lions. While Sanders was suiting up in the Honolulu blue and silver, it wasn’t hard to find somewhere his game was being shown on television.

It was always glorious to watch, wasn’t it? The way he could shift his hips and just change direction. The way he could see the field as though his eyes could catch glimpses over his shoulder without the need to turn his head. How smoothly he accelerated once the ball was in his hands, and how he found yet another gear as soon as he found the opening he was looking for.

Sanders is arguably the greatest running back to ever play in the NFL. I know, I know — point to the statistics and say otherwise all you’d like in the comments, but it doesn’t change my opinion much. I’ve been around for most of the greats. In the top 20 all-time list, the only players I didn’t get a chance to watch in a game were No. 11 Jim Brown, No. 15 Franco Harris, and No. 19 John Riggins.

There are so many amazing running backs on this list, including my all-time favorite LaDainian Tomlinson. But I would be hard-pressed to be swayed by any argument saying any of them were better than Sanders.

And to be clear, I’m no Lions fan. I don’t get upset when they go 0-16. I don’t mind when they lose by some incredibly dumb call from the officials. I don’t mind the misery of their fanbase. The Lions are the Lions. I’ve come to simply accept them for what they are.

So my love for Sanders isn’t because I bleed for Detroit football. No, it’s simply from pure respect.

At 51 years old, Sanders could probably still score a touchdown before calling it a career one more time. I guarantee he moves better than most of us who are on this website right now. And I definitely think he’s still faster than Tom Brady or Philip Rivers when they are scrambling. He might even still be able to edge out a few of the running backs who currently occupy a place on an NFL roster.

Sanders could do it all. He could run. He could catch. He could score touchdowns. Heck, he even threw for 11 yards during his career.

It was a pleasure to watch him play the game of football. The moves. The grace. The way he always found a referee to return the ball to. His respect for the game. His drive to always be the best he could be, even for an organization that didn’t seem to want to build a winning team around him.

I’m lucky to say I watched the greatest running back of all time. If you had the fortune of seeing it as well, then you should count yourself blessed by the Football Gods.

Here’s to a happy birthday for Sanders. Thanks for the many gifts you gave football fans over the years.