Barry Sanders. (Gregory Shamus, Getty Images Sport)
Brett Molina, USA TODAY
Add one more accolade to the incredible career of Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders: Madden NFL cover star.
The retired Detroit Lions star topped Adrian Peterson to grace the cover of Madden NFL 25, beating the Vikings running back by winning 58% of fan votes. Sanders' inclusion marks back-to-back years for Detroit Lions players featured on the Madden cover, following wide receiver Calvin Johnson.
Yet despite finishing with more than 15,000 career rushing yards, several rushing titles and multiple Pro Bowl appearances, Sanders remains surprised at his cover cameo.
"I was a little bit shocked," Sanders said during an interview. "It was a tough competition, not only going up against Adrian (Peterson), the most dynamic player in the league last year, but even in some of the earlier rounds. I was definitely surprised. I would not have put heavy money on myself."
In honor of the video game's 25-year anniversary, publisher Electronic Arts and ESPN's SportsNation hosted a tournament-style fan vote featuring 64 players: 32 current stars and 32 NFL legends.
Sanders beat out Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis -- fresh off retirement and a Super Bowl title -- retired San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Jerry Rice and quarterback Joe Montana en route to claiming the cover.
"I had a good career, and I know I still have a lot of fans, but I wasn't expecting to get past Jerry and Joe, two of the greatest winners in the history of the NFL," says Sanders. "And then going up against Adrian Peterson -- I certainly wasn't counting on that one."
Sanders credits the Madden series for allowing him to stay relevant to a younger generation of video game players.
"Many kids come up to me all the time who play Madden who are not old enough to have seen me play," he says. "My sons know Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris and Joe Montana. They know of those guys through the game."
Sanders is the perfect fit as Madden NFL 25 cover star, as this year's game emphasizes the "NFL ball-carrier." A precision modifier will allow players to perform specific moves to dodge defenders or make breaks on a pass. Other tweaks such as improved tackling, recovering from stumbles during a run and upgrades to cutting while on the run are also featured.
The former Lions star loves Madden, and often serves as referee to his young sons "because it gets pretty competitive when they do play." As the pro football video game has evolved in 25 years, Sanders is impressed with its advancements.
"It captures the game so well," says Sanders. "You really get a feel and a sense for playing the game, and (its) nuances. Offense and defense, the formations, coverages, audibles -- everything that goes into designing each play is pretty detailed. The game that I first played as a kid, (players) were more like stick figures. You couldn't really tell it was a football game, except you could see the grid lines on the field. It's amazing how far the game has come."