DETROIT, MI - OCTOBER 18: Barry Sanders during the Pro Football Hall of Fame half time show during the Chicago Bears v Detroit Lions game at Ford Field on October 18, 2015 in Detroit, Michigan. Credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Despite Barry Sanders averaging 30 yards a carry in his first three games as a receiver at our Wichita high school, head coach Dale Burkholder said the athletic director warned him not to start Barry at running back.

But for Burkholder’s advocacy — defiantly starting Barry at running back and then producing a highlight reel and shopping it to universities — Barry might have found his own dreams deferred.

Coaches, athletic directors and governing organizations exercise tremendous authority — sometimes petty or vindictive — over the dreams of prep athletes. Even Barry nearly fell victim. This story surfaces soon in the 20th anniversary edition of Barry’s book and in a new documentary from NFL Films and Amazon.

The film covers Barry’s life beyond football. The book, “Barry Sanders: Now You See Him,” will update readers on his life since retirement at 31. I was its co-author. We grew up on the same street a block apart. Both drop in November, a couple of months after the Detroit Lions unveil Barry’s new statue outside Ford Field.

Still, Barry’s story almost didn’t happen.

“It’s amazing to me the fine line between becoming an all-time great athlete, maybe the greatest running back to ever play football, and also never playing your sport professionally,” said Paul Monusky, senior producer for NFL Films. “If Barry Sanders’ high school coach doesn’t ignore the noise and viewpoint of his predecessor, then Barry probably winds up with a completely different life. Every football fan that has ever enjoyed a Barry Sanders run in Stillwater or in Detroit owes a debt of gratitude to coach Burkholder.”

Former Barry Sanders coach Dale Burkholder watches the 50th annual Shrine Bowl football game in Hays last month. (Mark McCormick for Kansas Reflector) Credit: (Mark McCormick for Kansas Reflector)

Coach B became our coach when our previous coach, Bob Shepler, became athletic director. Shepler, like most of Barry’s coaches, considered him too small. Worse, Shepler read Barry’s frenetic running style as one driven by fear rather than talent.

Shepler ordered Coach B to start a younger but larger player at running back and move Barry to receiver. Coach B acquiesced but saw what everyone later would see: supernova talent.

When he told Shepler he intended to move Barry to running back, Shepler threatened his job.

But Barry roared in his debut, rushing for 274 yards and four touchdowns and another 50 yards receiving. Officials stopped the game to check Barry’s jersey. Defenders claimed Barry had smeared Vaseline on his jersey.

Barry finished the season averaging 10.2 yards per carry. Despite that, few recruiters showed interest. Coach B, recently inducted into the Shrine Bowl Hall of Fame with Barry, produced a highlight tape and wore out shoe leather advocating for Barry.

Finally, an Oklahoma State University assistant who was recruiting Joel Fry, a lineman from our team who was also a scholar and wrestler, asked: Who was that running through your blocks?

The rest was history, but in part, an ugly history.

It took Wichita longer to integrate than many Southern cities. The school board considered foregoing federal funds rather than integrating. Black athletes from that era said white coaches allowed only a few Black players on teams.

Mark McCormick

It took Wichita longer to integrate than many Southern cities. The school board considered foregoing federal funds rather than integrating. Black athletes from that era said white coaches allowed only a few Black players on teams. Innumerable talented Black athletes lost innumerable scholarship opportunities.

In February, I wrote about a prep basketball player who’d been racially harassed at school (depicted as a thick-lipped gorilla in a PowerPoint) and wanted to transfer. He petitioned an all-white Kansas State High School Athletic Association panel that denied his request.

After that article, several Black parents recounted similar encounters with KSHAA.

In a situation likely reported here for the first time, Wichita Collegiate School basketball coach Mitch Fiegel was recorded a few years ago trashing a biracial former player and his family. The caller claimed to be a Georgetown University assistant basketball coach.

“But deep down, do I believe he’s a good kid from a good family?” Fiegel said in the recording. “I wouldn’t touch that family with a 10-foot pole.”

Nathan Washer, head of school at Collegiate, said in a statement that the school had been made aware of the recording “a number of years ago” and that because of an employee confidentiality policy, Fiegel would not be made available for comment.

He added that the coach expressed regret and so did Collegiate leadership.

“Coach Fiegel is clear in his regret for the unfortunate term he used,” Washer said in an email exchange. “As a school, we also regret the words used by our coach. But in making decisions on an individual in our employment, we take into account the entire scope of their work over, in this case, three decades of employment.”

Washer also said via email: “We have a policy that all media enquiries of this nature must only be with the Head of School,” adding that “we do not share the details around an internal investigation concerning any of our employees. What I can say is that we considered all the facts and Mitch Fiegel remains as an employee.”

Tuition at Georgetown is about $60,000 a year. Fiegel seemed willing to destroy a kid’s opportunity over petty pride. The youngster, the coach’s former player, had a good playoff game against him and bowed defiantly in front of the coach on the bench.

Barry Sanders offers a pregame pep talk to high school football students at the Shine Bowl last month in Hays. (Mark McCormick for Kansas Reflector)

Coaches and athletic directors should not have this kind of negative influence over a kid’s future. But for Coach B, this might have happened to Barry.

Shepler died in 2014, at age 85. He coached North’s football team from 1964-74 and then from 1978 to 1984. His win total left him ranked sixth in City League wins, and he led our school into the playoffs six times. He served as athletic director for nearly 20 years before retiring in 1991.

In fairness to Shepler, no one had seen anything like Barry before. Shepler was old school and wanted Barry to run the play as called rather than improvise.

But Black genius often gets overlooked in our culture, and the consequences are greater for Black athletes who tend to have fewer resources and fewer opportunities.

Barry really was something to see — if you could actually see him. That proved challenging without instant replay. The fleeting glimpses of Barry’s genius were almost just that: fleeting.

Despite his talent, our flawed prep football system that had difficulty acknowledging Black talent — a system still firmly in place — nearly accomplished what a decade’s worth of college and pro defenses could not: stopping him.

Mark McCormick is the former executive director of The Kansas African American Museum, a member of the Kansas African American Affairs Commission and deputy executive director at the ACLU of Kansas. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.