KANSAS CITY, MO., OCT. 15 -- Kansas City running back Barry Word went a long way Sunday -- 200 yards specifically -- toward erasing nagging self-doubts and public skepticism.
"I've never dreamed of a day like this," said Word, who set a team record for yards rushing on 18 carries and scored the Chiefs' final two touchdowns in a 43-24 win over Detroit. "I thought it was impossible, 200 yards in one game and a team record. To be honest, I wanted to get fifty-something yards when the day started. I wanted to get my little bit in and help out."
A standout at the University of Virginia, Word hadn't exactly cut a swath through the NFL. After being chosen ACC player of the year in 1985 while rushing for 1,224 yards, his life began to unravel. He was declared ineligible before Virginia's 11th game. Next he was expelled from school for allegedly cheating on an exam. New Orleans drafted him in the third round in 1986, but his pro football career was put on hold after charges of conspiracy to distribute cocaine, for which he served a 4 1/2-month prison sentence that year.
Word played a dozen games, including two starts, with the Saints in 1987, mostly as a reserve behind Rueben Mayes and Dalton Hilliard. Two games into the 1988 season, Word walked away from the Saints and was placed on the retired-reserve list.
"The first thing that happened to me with the Saints was they put me in a three-point stance and said, 'You're a fullback,' " Word said. "I didn't want to be a fullback. I was a tailback at Virginia. I bucked the system a little bit."
Word then flunked tryouts with the Dallas Cowboys, who were begging for a running back after trading away Herschel Walker, and the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1989. Neither team signed him.
"They didn't think I was good enough," Word said.
He started a telemarketing job for US Sprint in Reston, Va., and began wondering if his football days were over.
"I was pretty depressed," Word said. "I wanted to play. I was supposed to be talking to customers, but I was talking to my agent. He said there was no interest in me."
Later Mark Hartley, the Chiefs' personnel scout, called and expressed some interest in Word. "I went back into a different room at Sprint cause there were a lot of people around," Word said. "I was extremely nervous. There were many times I thought my career was over, not because of my ability, but that nobody would give me a chance. It just so happens Kansas City believed in me and gave me the opportunity to come back and show a little something.
"I felt if this didn't work out I wasn't going to play again. The teams that didn't think I could make their team, too bad for them. That's the way I feel about it. I'm kind of mad about that."
In the Chiefs' first five games, he had rushed for 81 yards on 24 carries and served primarily as a backup for Christian Okoye, the NFL rushing leader in 1989. Word had 214 career rushing yards before his record-setting performance and nothing in his past indicated what he would do against the Lions' defense. Joe Delaney held the Chiefs' record with 193 rushing yards on Nov. 15, 1981, against Houston.
"All I know it's a big day," Word said. "It hasn't sunk in yet. I thought I'd have a good game, but nobody ever goes into a game thinking 200 yards. I wanted to have a good average. I wanted to get four yards a carry. Anything extra, it's a bonus."
Word instead averaged 11.1 yards a carry, the fifth highest in a game for the Chiefs (minimum 10 attempts). He did not touch the ball until the final two minutes of the first quarter. At halftime Word had four carries for 26 yards and was right on target for his 50-yard goal.
"It's amazing," he said. "I've never had a day like today. The offensive line opened big holes. If I couldn't go through those then I really wasn't a good back."
His best day at Virginia was 188 yards against Georgia Tech as a senior. "I got most of those on two runs, 88 and 64 yards," he said.
Despite Word's performance against Detroit, he knows Okoye is still the Chiefs' main running threat. Word can accept that.
"I just want to do well," he said. "It's great to be the featured back, but my role here is to back Christian up and do well. Obviously things and situations have changed. In college I was a child. I'm 26 years old, and I'm a man now.
"The difference between here and New Orleans is the big back here gets respect. At New Orleans, they wanted backs to dart here and there. The Chiefs are about power, rock 'em, sock 'em football.
"I think I'm a lot more mature now than I was. All the situations that have happened with me changed me for the better, and I'm thankful for that. Out of college you want to be the man. When you're not, your feelings are hurt. Now that doesn't bother me."