Dave Walsh: When Barry Sanders And The Oklahoma State Cowboys Came To Laramie

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By Dave Walsh, Columnist

Cowboy Football is on the road this week. The Pokes are now actually “overseas” to play the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors. The Pokes won’t be back in War Memorial Stadium until they close out their home schedule with what appears to be a big game with Boise State in three weeks.

And as we all know, there is no place like War Memorial Stadium when the Cowboys are playing football. Dorothy was right when she clicked her heels and said, “There’s no place like home.”

And over the years there have been a number of great Cowboys who performed in the War. There have been some great teams that have come to Laramie to play. And some big names also have played in the War.

Some veteran Cowboys fans will remember players like Gale Sayers and Roman Gabriel playing here. More recent stars like Marshall Faulk and all of the top players from San Diego State and Boise State who have gone on to the NFL first played in the War.

But of all the games with big-time opponents who sported well-known stars, the first one that comes to mind is the time the Cowboys hosted those other Cowboys, the ones from Oklahoma State. It was the third game of the 1987 season, Paul Roach’s first year as head coach. 

The Oklahoma State Cowboys would come to Laramie ranked in the Top 10, and they would bring a Heisman Trophy candidate with them.

Oklahoma State actually had a number of candidates for the top individual prize. Thurman Thomas was a magnificent running back. He was the heavy Heisman favorite that year, and his quarterback, Mike Gundy, was an All-American and Heisman candidate as well. Hart Lee Dykes was a big, strong wide receiver on that team and another All-American candidate.

And there was one more player on the Oklahoma State roster I hadn’t even noticed before who would become very well-known. He was just a sophomore and was Thomas’s backup.

No one really knew much about this Oklahoma State Cowboy. And it was well before the game began when I heard his name for the first time. I was meeting with the Oklahoma State sports information director in the War Memorial press box. It was the usual pre-game meeting with the visiting SID to pick up any last-minute tidbits of information that might come in handy during the broadcast.

It was during this pre-game discussion when the OSU SID spoke of their young back-up running back who, as he said, was even better than Thurman Thomas. 

Better than Thurman Thomas!

I remember rolling my eyes and thinking to myself, “Oh boy, here comes the big-time talk.” You know, the kind of talk you sometimes get from the “big-timers” with the “big-time” programs. It’s the kind of briefing that we “smaller” programs would get from the “biggies.”

And the name of the player who was “better” than Thurman Thomas?

Barry Sanders.

Well, all of the Oklahoma State offensive stars played exceptionally well that day. Thomas, the Heisman favorite, would run for 193 yards on 29 carries, and also would score a touchdown. Gundy, the quarterback who would become the head football coach at Oklahoma State, completed 24 of 34 passes for 325 yards and two touchdowns. Hart Lee Dykes, the All-American receiver, had eight catches for 154 yards and a touchdown.

And the new guy, this Barry Sanders fellow, this back-up running back who was “better” than Thurman Thomas, had a pretty good day himself.

Sanders carried the ball nine times for 91 yards. He ran one in from 38 yards out for a touchdown. And on every carry he looked like he could take it the distance. The speed, the cutback ability and his knack for making tacklers miss was stunning. 

The crowd in War Memorial Stadium would collectively hold their breath when Sanders got the handoff.

The game itself didn’t turn out well for the home team. The Cowboys would fall behind early, trail by 13 at the half and, after a valiant comeback attempt, would fall to Oklahoma State, 35-29.

Wyoming quarterback, Craig Burnett, would throw the ball 54 times that day. He completed 34 of those passes for a whopping 441 yards and two touchdowns. Tight end Bill Hoffman had eight catches for 77 yards, and wide receiver Anthony Sargent caught seven passes for 132 yards,and two scores. Cowboy running back, Gerald Abraham carried the ball 15 times for 76 yards and two touchdowns.

The two Cowboy teams would meet again the next season, the Barry Sanders Heisman year, in the 1988 Holiday Bowl. In that game, Sanders had 29 carries for 222 yards, and he would score five touchdowns. Gundy threw for 315 yards and two TDs. Dykes had 10 catches for 163 yards and a touchdown. And the Oklahoma State Cowboys trampled the Wyoming Cowboys 62-14.

But it was quite a day back in 1987, the day the stars came out in War Memorial Stadium.

And it was our very first glimpse of the great Barry Sanders.

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