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Barry Sanders' hot pursuit of a 2,000-yard rushing season could drag the Detroit Lions running back reluctantly into the product-endorsement limelight.

Mr. Sanders, a soft-spoken superstar with a handful of endorsements today, is certain to get more national attention as he closes in on the 2,000-yard benchmark.

That publicity is sure to make Mr. Sanders more nationally at-tractive to corporations looking for a handsome, sure-fire Hall of Famer to market their products, said John Caponigro, president of Sports Management Network, a Bloomfield Hills, Mich.-based legal and marketing agency.

So far, Mr. Sanders has been relatively slow to get noticed. He has rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each of his first six seasons.

He also has excellent endorsement qualities: good looks, a humble demeanor and a strong family background, Mr. Caponigro said.

Peter Schaffer, Mr. Sanders' Denver-based agent, said his client is a reluctant celebrity who gets many more endorsement offers than he takes.

Currently, Mr. Sanders makes close to $1 million in endorsements as a spokesman for Nike footwear, Frito-Lay, Wilson Sporting Goods Co.'s footballs and Wichita, Kan.-area McDonald's Corp. franchises, Mr. Schaffer said.

But he doesn't worry about getting new endorsements any more than he seeks individual football honors.

Since his $17.5 million salary over four years makes him the third-highest paid NFL player, Mr. Sanders feels he already makes enough money, Mr. Schaffer said. As a result, he's very selective about investing his time and image with corporate sponsors.

That's not to say that Mr. Schaffer couldn't interest him in a national deal spawned out of a 2,000-yard season. Mr. Schaffer said a major car endorsement deal or the right fast-food chain promotion might fit into Mr. Sanders' plans. "We'd be interested in the right situation," he said.

The elusive Mr. Sanders seems to have accepted a certain amount of fame after relishing his privacy for so many years. On Dec. 13, he will appear as a guest on the "Late Show With David Letterman," giving in to years of entreaties from the host, Mr. Schaffer said.

If Mr. Sanders reaches 2,000 yards for the season, he would be joining elite company. Only two other players in NFL history have surpassed the milestone: Eric Dickerson with the 1984 Los Angeles Rams and O.J. Simpson as a member of the Buffalo Bills in 1973.M

Mr. Barkholz is a reporter with Crain's Detroit Business.

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