Barry Sanders is used to dodging tackles, but now the Detroit Lions rusher wants to tackle banking.

In what has become a common occurrence among professional athletes, Mr. Sanders-along with basketball's John Starks of the New York Knicks-has invested heavily in a minority-owned bank in Oklahoma during the past few months.

Similarly, Gale Sayers, the former All-Pro running back for the Chicago Bears, recently joined the board of a Missouri minority-owned banking company.

While the banks give the athletes a stable place to invest their considerable income and a means to help their communities, the athletes provide the banks publicity to boost their image and the cash influx to boost their capital.

None of the three sports stars returned repeated phone calls.

"A bank ages more gracefully than many investment opportunities" that are presented to professional athletes, said Eddie Jackson, president and chief executive of ASB Corp., Tulsa, Okla., the bank Mr. Sanders and Mr. Starks invested in late last year. "Those who invested in bars and restaurants 30 years ago, they're all gone. But for the most part, the banks are still here."

Mr. Sanders, a Heisman Trophy winner and star of the NFL's Lions, purchased a 38.89% ownership in ASB in the fourth quarter of 1996.

He and Mr. Starks led a group of six lesser-known athletes in paying $1 million for a majority ownership in the company, parent of American State Bank. The investors bought out the 65% stake held by the bank's former chairman and another director.

Mr. Sanders, now the bank's largest shareholder, joined the board with Mr. Starks and brought in new management to lead the $17 million-asset bank.

Ironically, that new management team is led by Mr. Jackson, an attorney and banker for 25 years who played forward for basketball's Golden State Warriors from 1966 to 1969.

Mr. Sanders, who majored in business while playing football at Oklahoma State University, plans to use this investment to launch a career in banking, Mr. Jackson said. "He'll learn the industry from the top down," Mr. Jackson said.

The football star has ambitious plans for ASB. The investors want to grow the bank to $50 million of assets by 2001, Mr. Jackson said, and eventually market its minority bank image nationally. They would also like to open branches in about 15 cities with NFL and NBA franchises to help minority communities there-to form, in effect, a nationwide minority-owned bank.

About 200 miles north, Mr. Sayers has joined the board of $65 million- asset Douglass Bancorp, Kansas City, Mo. Mr. Sayers, who retired from the Bears in 1971 after a seven-year career, is president and chief executive of Sayers Computer Source, a hardware and software store in Mount Prospect, Ill., outside Chicago.

Officials at the 14-year-old community development bank say they hope to take advantage of Mr. Sayers' business experience as well as his contacts and prominence. The former star does not own stock but plans to invest in the bank shortly, according to bank officials.

"We wanted to leverage the relationships and contacts he has in the community and leverage his status," said Ronald L. Wiley, Douglass president and chief executive officer. "It's interesting to see guys who are athletes who go into the business world and end up being very successful. You don't hear about it that much."

The three prominent athletes join the ranks of former Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton, former Texas Rangers star pitcher Nolan Ryan, and former Detroit Piston guard Isaiah Thomas, who have also bought or invested in three other Midwest banks over the past few years.

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