The deafening roars spiked the decibel gauge to amazing heights. Never before was it this loud at the Silverdome. Scream in the person’s ear 12 inches away and they stared at you confused. HUH? WHAT DID YOU SAY?
Barry Sanders charged the Silverdome with 20,000 volts. Moments earlier, he magically sidestepped a N.Y. Jets defender to give the Lions a 13-10 lead in a game coupled with playoff implications and his quest to reach the 2,000-yard plateau.
But he was still shy of the majestic mark, and Lions fans were yelling like beasts, every ounce of energy in their lungs channeled toward the eardrums of the Jets offense.
New York faced a first-and-10 from their own 16-yard line, the rowdy beasts of the Silverdome’s end zone jungle within earshot. A long drive could very well eat away at Barry’s time needed to earn more carries and hit the 2,000-yard mark that he came oh-so close to achieving three seasons prior.
So the Dome screamed.
“It was so loud,” Robert Porcher said on December 21, 1997, “the turf was vibrating.”
Jets receiver Keyshawn Johnson raised both arms in confusion at the line of scrimmage – which caused the Jets to burn a timeout. Two more times the Jets broke the huddle, unable to hear the signals of quarterback Neil O’Donnell, who glared at the referee, politicking for relief.
The dome was so deafening loud, the head official stopped the game twice, even issuing the following warning: “If the noise persists, the defense will be charged with a timeout.”
As the turf rumbled and No. 20 stood along the sidelines, filled with goosebumps and awaiting his shot at history, suddenly, everything went pin-drop silent.
On his back, looking toward heaven was second-year linebacker Reggie Brown, who lay motionless on the turf. He assisted on a tackle of Jets running back Adrian Murrell, but the 300-pound body of offensive lineman Lamont Burns crashed into Brown’s helmet, jarring his neck.
“Get up, get up,” Lions linebacker George Jamison said, according to the Chicago Tribune. “Reggie, move something.”
Brown’s eyes rolled into the back of his head.
His breathing stopped.
His face turned purple.
Kevin Glover and Johnnie Morton sprinted to the tunnel and grabbed a stretcher. Herman Moore and Tommie Boyd bolted too, alerting the ambulance crew. The Silverdome – after being the loudest its ever been in its 22-year history – was now eerily silent.
“I couldn’t stop crying,” Morton told reporters. “Reggie wasn’t moving, and I saw them cutting through his jersey, his pads and then beating on his chest to get him to breathe.”
Brown, just 23 at the time, needed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Medics stuck a tube down his throat to help him breathe. Players from both the Jets and Lions – who were in a fierce gridiron war moments earlier – now knelt in prayer. And Lions cornerback Corey Raymond tucked a prayer card against Brown’s motionless body before the ambulance doors closed, according to the Los Angeles Times.
“After they took Reggie away, I just wanted to get the game over with,” Porcher told Mitch Albom.
After a 17-minute delay – now with the perspective of life heavily outweighing the playoffs or Barry’s quest for 2K – O’Donnell crouched back under center, the ‘Dome still in shell shock.
The Jets offense marched downfield to the Detroit 9-yard line, primed to ruin the season finale. But that’s when rookie Leon Johnson attempted a half-back pass that was intercepted by Bryant Westbrook with 7:34 left.
If the Jets would’ve found the end zone and taken a 17-13 lead, maybe the Lions opt to pass more than run. But with the lead still in their hands, Barry had a chance at history.
On the ensuing drive, he would take six hand-offs for 35 yards that eventually faced a fourth-and-2 at the Jets’ 42. The Silverdome fans furiously begged “go for it!” as his yardage total sat at 1,998, the minutes dangerously ticking away. But Bobby Ross elected to punt.
Thankfully, the Lions defense forced a three-and-out and had the ball back with 2:15 remaining.
And on the next possession, Barry gained two yards on a first-down carry to become the third running back in NFL history to reach 2,000.
He was given the ball by the head official and mobbed by his teammates as fans rose to a standing ovation. Sanders ran to the sideline and tossed the ball to his father, William, then went back to the huddle.
“Sanders is as modest a superstar as I have ever met in all of sports,” said NBC legendary announcer Dick Enberg.
And on the very next play, pandemonium struck.
“Trying to add to 2,000 on second-and-8,” Enberg broadcasted the play-by-play on NBC, “He gets the call ..
“THERE HE GOES!!”
Barry weaved though the Jets defense, all the way down to the 3-yard line for a euphoric 53-yard run that nearly blew off the Silverdome roof. Here came Morton and Moore and the offensive line, congratulating him.
It’s easily the best franchise moment under Ford ownership. In 1997, his yardage total was the second best single-season mark for a running back in NFL history, only behind Eric Dickerson (2,105 in 1984, L.A. Rams). Sixteen years later, Barry’s output stands as the fourth-highest total.
“Barry, he’s unbelievable,” Jets safety Victor Green said to the Associated Press, this after his team held Sanders to 20 yards on eight carries in the first half, only to see him finish with 184 yards on 23 carries. “You can shut him down for a while, then he breaks one.”
Barry, who had 114 yards in the fourth quarter alone, gave an interview with NBC’s Jim Gray, only to be cut off by Ray Roberts, Kevin Glover and the rest of his offensive linemen. They picked up No. 20 and carried him off the field as the crowd chanted, “BAR-RY! BAR-RY! BAR-RY!”
One of those linemen was Jeff Hartings, who summed it up best.
“If you ask anybody on this team,” Hartings told the AP, “we’d give up the 2,000 yards and we’d give up this victory if it would make Reggie Brown healthy.”