THE WRITER’S PLAYBOOK
The Consistent Grace of Barry Sanders by Steven C. Harms
Barry Sanders. The greatest running back in NFL history (calm down Browns and Cowboys fans). The forever pride of the Detroit Lions. Electric. An athlete absolutely worth the price of admission. Slashing, spinning, juking, power-running, twisting, lunging, and whatever other contortions he needed to make to succeed on a football field. Over a 10-year career, he scrambled his way to over 15,000 rushing yards, 109 touchdowns, 8 All-Pro selections, 10 1000-yard seasons, 10 Pro Bowls, NFL Rookie of the Year, 4 consecutive 1500-yard seasons (only player ever to do that), MVP in 1997, and Hall-of-Fame Inductee. The accolades could go on…and on.
John Teerlinck, the Minnesota Vikings defensive line coach in 1994, said that the only way they could figure out how to simulate his abilities during their practices was to have the defensive linemen chase chickens around the field.
He was poetry in motion, and I had a perfect seat as a front office executive of the Lions from 1994 until Barry’s sudden retirement following the 1998 season. I got to know him during my time there and I never met a professional athlete humbler and kinder than this man. For all his celebrity and stardom, he’s lived an unassuming life with a consistent character of grace. He was the same man on and off the field during his career, and if you ever watched him, his character never wavered. Look up any number of his touchdowns and you’ll see him calmly give the football to the referee after every single one. Never spiked the ball, never called attention to himself. Grace.
I bring up Barry not to call out that I was fortunate to know him and work with him, but to shine a light on consistency of character. He never did anything out of character and interacted with anyone around him with the same demeanor, whether you were a fellow player or the woman at the supermarket checkout.
As writers, we should take note of Barry’s character consistency. As we all know, when we introduce and develop the people who populate our stories, it’s vitally important to keep consistency with each’s character. Readers can easily sniff out a faux moment when one of our characters says or does something that’s, well, out-of-character. It’s a major distraction if there was no particular reason why he/she would do that other than you, the writer, needed something to occur and used the wrong character to facilitate that plot moment.
I’m not suggesting fictional characters can’t change throughout a story, but substantial character shifts without a change agent (as examples an accident or being victimized) should cause you to be circumspect. Pay attention to a character’s reaction, action, verbalizations and thought process. A character can’t be a science flunky in Chapter 2 yet figure out the forensics in Chapter 34. And I’d argue that it’s not necessarily as glaring as the previous sentence, but rather it’s the subtleties around consistent character detail that make a story believable.
The character of each character, so to speak, is a crucial element. An effective means for consistency’s sake is to develop a back story for each one by taking a deep dive into what made them who they are. Once you have that, writing their moments within your story makes it flow so much easier. Actors do this so that by the time they appear on stage or film, the actor knows everything about their character’s past, so they perform in the present at a believable and consistent level. Writing is the same exercise. So, if one of your pivotal plot moments doesn’t fit with any character, then either ditch that plot line or reconstitute one of your characters. You’ll find the plot moment you want goes amazingly well using the right character doing/saying/reacting at the right time with the right reason.
One final note, because it’s a story of the consistent grace of Barry Sanders that only myself and one other person experienced. During my third or fourth year, I used to hold a private event with a sizeable number of Lions sponsors and fans on a weekly basis to “talk football” with our radio color analyst – dinner, discussion, and then Q&A. That event occurred with regularity during the season specifically on a Tuesday night because that was the player’s off-day during the week, and we always wanted one of them to make an appearance.
I had bugged Barry about participating and giving me just one night. Understand it was usually the second or third tier guys that would do this. Once in awhile we’d get a solid starter, but mostly it was the guys that didn’t have the spotlight. My cajoling finally worked with Barry, and he agreed to appear at one of them sometime around mid-November. Once he agreed I suggested we can arrange to have him picked up at home and then brought back afterward but he told me ‘No,’ that he’ll just drive over to the stadium and meet me at my office, which he did, showing up on time and dressed in a nice suit and tie (I didn’t ask him to wear that). I had one other employee assist – a young guy from our public relations department named James.
The evening went spectacular as you can imagine. Barry toughed out about an hour talking and taking questions. At the end of the program, James and I walked him back to my office. It was a cold night and James said he’d run out to the parking lot and grab Barry’s car to warm it up and bring it to the curb near my office. As James exited with the car keys, Barry and I had some nice time together just asking questions about family and the like. Eventually we both noticed that James hadn’t returned. Awkward minutes went by and finally James reappeared, sweating, head down, and clearly shaken. Long story short – he had accidentally broken the car key off in the door (yes, this was before remote starts were around).
In classic Barry Sanders fashion, the Pro-Bowl, MVP, multi-million-dollar superstar NFL running back simply told him that it was okay, and he’ll have it attended to the next day with his car dealer, then asked if James would be kind enough to take him home using his own car.
Humble grace. He didn’t spike the ball. He stayed consistent. Never broke character.
Steven C. Harms is a professional sports, broadcast and digital media business executive with a career spanning over thirty years across the NBA, NFL, and MLB. He’s dealt with Fortune 500 companies, major consumer brands, professional athletes, and multi-platform integrated sports partnerships and media advertising campaigns.
He’s an accomplished playwright having written and produced a wildly successful theatrical production which led him to tackling his debut novel, Give Place to Wrath, the first in the Roger Viceroy detective series. The second book, The Counsel of the Cunning, is due out in fall of 2021.
A native of Wisconsin, he graduated from the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse. He now resides in Oxford, Michigan, a small, rural suburb of Detroit.