Raising Barry J. Sanders

Meet the single mother who raised one of Oklahoma high school football’s singular talents and individuals.

By Jenni Carlson

Kletha House watches her son play on Friday nights and doesn't see all that much difference between him and other running backs.

Then she watches the highlights.

When she slows down the images of Barry J. Sanders, the differences jump off the screen. What she sees is so unique and so special that it reminds her why college recruiters from up the road and across the country have come knocking on her door. In the turn-on-a-dime jukes and the break-a-defender's-ankle moves, she sees something that is almost magical.

She sees his father.

Which is ironic — folks who know Barry J. say that in so many ways, the Heritage Hall standout reminds them of his mother.

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The warm personality? The easy laughter? The engaging attitude?

That's his mom.

His parents share custody, and while Barry J. regularly goes to Michigan to spend time with his dad, Oklahoma has always been his home and his mom has always been his primary caregiver.

“The way I've done things is a reflection on how I was raised,” Barry J. said. “A lot of that is a credit to her.

“I think people should definitely recognize it.”

Everyone knows Barry J.'s dad.

Meet Barry J.'s mom.

A MOTHER'S LOVE

Aletha House has been a constant at her son's games. Whether Barry J. Sanders was playing summer baseball in Texas or high school football at Heritage Hall, his mother has always been there. Now, her 3-year-old son, Terrance Johnson, is a regular, too..

Aletha House has been a constant at her son's games. Whether Barry J. Sanders was playing summer baseball in Texas or high school football at Heritage Hall, his mother has always been there. Now, her 3-year-old son, Terrance Johnson, is a regular, too.Photo by Sarah Phipps, The Oklahoman

Aletha House and Barry Sanders met a few months before the Oklahoma State running back took college football by storm and won the Heisman Trophy.

She first saw him while preparing for the Miss Black Oklahoma Pageant, but a few months later when Sanders walked into the mall clothing store where she was working, House couldn't place him. She'd been a sprinter in the Clyde Ellis-led heydays at John Marshall High School, so she wasn't a sports novice, but his low-key demeanor didn't give her any clues as to who he was.

Finally, Aletha left for lunch.

Barry followed her.

“It scared me to death,” she said, laughing.

Even though Aletha House and Barry Sanders never married, they have always worked together to raise their son, Barry J. Sanders. They made a pact to do it together regardless of her living in Oklahoma and him living in Michigan.
Even though Aletha House and Barry Sanders never married, they have always worked together to raise their son, Barry J. Sanders. They made a pact to do it together regardless of her living in Oklahoma and him living in Michigan.Photo by John Clanton, The Oklahoman

He apologized and asked if he could take her out sometime.

They started dating soon after and were together for the better part of a decade. They were together when Barry decided to leave OSU for the NFL, when the Detroit Lions drafted him third in 1989 and when he became one of the best backs in pro football.

Their son, Barry James Sanders, was born the year his dad won his second of four rushing titles.

They never married and split when Barry J. was 3 years old. Aletha had primary custody, but while Barry was playing football hundreds of miles away, he still wanted to be part of his son's life.

“We just kind of made a pact that we were going to do it together,” Aletha said.

Barry would come to visit when Barry J. was younger, and to pass the time during the school day, he would play golf by himself at Lake Hefner.

He has attended a couple of Heritage Hall's games already this season, usually arriving at the last minute and staying in the shadows.

“His father's a major part in his life,” Aletha said. “He is hands on. We make decisions together.”

They discuss every big issue involving Barry J. While there has been some legal wrangling over the years about child support, Aletha and Barry still consult with each other on everything from school to sports.

Both the Sanders and House families have been heavily involved, too. Aletha's parents and brothers are regulars at Heritage Hall games. Before he died earlier this year, Barry's father, William, drove from Wichita for every home football game.

Still, at the end of most days, Aletha has been the one asking if Barry J. needed help with his homework, the one making sure he had something good for dinner, the one tucking him in at night.

“She's been the center of his parenting,” her father, James House, said. “She's done a great job.”

Many the things that she tried to instill in her son are starting to come out.

A MOTHER'S SON

Barry J. Sanders has become one of the most sought-after recruits in the country. Seen scoring a touchdown during the 2010 playoffs, he has narrowed his list to Alabama, Florida State, Oklahoma State and Stanford and has said that he will make his announcement during the U.S. Army All-American Bowl on Jan. 7.

Barry J. Sanders has become one of the most sought-after recruits in the country. Seen scoring a touchdown during the 2010 playoffs, he has narrowed his list to Alabama, Florida State, Oklahoma State and Stanford and has said that he will make his announcement during the U.S. Army All-American Bowl on Jan. 7.Photo by Nate Billings, The Oklahoman

Barry J. Sanders surprises college recruiters, not with his talent but with his personality.

Heritage Hall coach Andy Bogert hears as much all the time. Recruiters are stunned at the way the 17-year-old handles himself. If they mention a place that they've been, he'll oftentimes have been there, too. His father's means have given him the opportunity to travel, and Barry J. will tell stories and interject memories.

Spend any time with his mom, and you see where he gets it.

“I don't meet strangers,” she said, smiling.

The mother is a people person while the father was among the most guarded, most private superstars that the sports world has ever seen. Heck, he never even had a press conference when he retired from one of the most storied careers ever.

Aletha insists Barry eventually opens up once he gets to know people, but Barry J. is much quicker to trust.

A first meeting is a handshake.

A second might be a hug.

That's the kind of warmth he has always seen from his mother. Aletha grew up the oldest and only daughter of an ordained minister. There was love in her house, but there were rules, too, and with three younger brothers, she was not only supposed to follow the rules but also uphold them.

She mothered long before she was a mother.

After Barry J. was born, she was a stay-at-home mom for several years -- child support from Barry was enough to provide for both of them -- and that time created a strong bond between mother and son.

“We did everything together,” Barry J. said. “We were so close.”

Still are. He describes their relationship more like a big sister and a little brother than like a mother and a son.

When one hurts, both feel it.

Barry J. played baseball for many summers, and one year, his team traveled to Texas for a tournament. One night at the team's hotel, Aletha's car was burglarized. The back window was busted, her camera taken.

Dozens of family photos were on the camera, and Aletha was devastated.

“That day, I ended up hitting two home runs,” Barry J. remembered. “It was one of those things where I saw she was hurt ... and I think I took that as motivation to go out there and try to make something happen.

“I hate to disappoint her. I hope I can continue to make her proud.”

He knows it hasn't always been easy for her.

A MOTHER'S PRIDE

Aletha House watched as Barry Sanders became one of the best running backs in the NFL. Now, she watches as their son tries to lead Heritage Hall to another state championship.
Aletha House watched as Barry Sanders became one of the best running backs in the NFL. Now, she watches as their son tries to lead Heritage Hall to another state championship.Photo by Sarah Phipps, The Oklahoman
Oklahoma
Oklahoma State is among Barry J. Sanders' finalists. It is his father's alma mater, but if he picks the Pokes, it might have more to do with his mother. Aletha House has let it be known that she'd like her son to stay close to home.Photo by Doug Hoke, The Oklahoman

Aletha House marvels at the attention given to her son.

She marvels, too, at the way Barry J. handles it.

“Most boys are not responsible, and he is,” she said. “That's a big thing for me, especially considering the situation he's in where he might go out of state.”

Aletha makes no secret of the fact that she would like Barry J. to stay close to home.

“However ... if he does go away, I'm pretty secure in the fact he can go away and be OK because he's a very responsible kid,” she said. “That would take a lot of worry off me just knowing who he is.”

Barry J. has said that his finalists are Alabama, Florida State, Oklahoma State and Stanford, and no matter of what school he chooses, he will be leaving the house that he has shared with his mom for 17 years. It was just the two of them for the first 14 years, so even though little brother Terrance now shares the house, Barry J. packing up and leaving for college will be tough regardless.

“I'm not looking forward to graduation; I know she's going to bawl,” Barry J. said of his mom, who cried last spring when one of his friends graduated. “I can't imagine what she'll do at mine.”

Not all the tears will be sad ones. There will also be tears of joy and pride.

Lots of pride.

“He's grown into a very respectful human being,” Aletha said, “and I'm just very proud that he's grown into ... a well-rounded young man.”

Thing is, she isn't the only one who is proud.

Barry J. recognizes the sacrifices that his mom made, focusing so much attention and energy on him for so many years. Even though she had help and support from his dad and their extended families, she was still a single mom.

That is never easy.

Turns out, he marvels at her, too.

“She's done a great job,” Barry J. said. “There were a couple times as a kid I can remember it being hard for her. I could see it in her eyes (being a single mom) was wearing on her.

“She's a strong woman.”

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