Barry Sanders said he’d been “sort of selfish.” He said his departure “might have been a little clumsy.” He said he could have been more “courteous” and might have done things “more respectable.”
The funny thing is, he had nothing to apologize for.
But there he was Tuesday at Ford Field, ostensibly to promote his new book but in reality answering questions reporters had been trying to ask him for years. His tone was patient, at times even conciliatory, a man not so much asking for forgiveness as for peace.
“I wanted Mr. Ford to know that my retirement wasn’t anything personal against him,” Sanders said of the team owner. “I’d like to re-emerge into the organization.”
Amazing. Fans get to rip the Lions. Writers get to insult the Lions. Broadcasters get to laugh at the Lions. But Barry Sanders doesn’t have the right to retire from them?
Personally, I don’t feel Barry owes any explanation for his abrupt departure four years ago. I know some Detroiters were angered by it, and some still are. But if you are one of them, ask yourself why? Was it because he ever gave less than 100 percent? No. Was it because he ever refused to play hurt? No. Was it because he ever demanded to be put on a pedestal, above his teammates — even if he was the best running back in the game? No.
If you were mad, you were probably mad the way a boy gets mad when the perfect girl breaks up with him. It’s not that she was bad. It’s not even that she left to be with someone else. It’s simply that she’s no longer his.
And that is what rankled Detroit when Barry quit — that he wasn’t ours anymore. That he broke up with us while we still had so many fun dates on the horizon.
That off-the-field stuff
I spoke with Barry a few days before Tuesday’s news conference. He was concerned about his media perception, things he thought journalists had said about him. It showed me that although he never voiced it, it did matter to Barry what people thought.
On Tuesday, he tried to explain it:
“I wasn’t trying to put Detroit in a bad situation,” he said when asked why he waited until so close to the 1999 season before announcing his retirement. “I was only thinking about me. . . . It was sort of selfish. But I sort of feel once you leave the white lines you have a right to be selfish.”
That sentence says a lot about Barry. He never quite got the off-field stuff. The hysteria. The media crush. He looked at his job, I think, much the way his father, a roofer, looked at his: You get paid to do what you do. Not to be what someone thinks you should be.
Which is what made Tuesday so interesting. This news conference was billed as an olive branch in the chilly relationship between Barry and the Lions. And inviting Barry to use Ford Field was a nice gesture, and Matt Millen introducing him was a nice touch — although Millen was never here when Barry was — but a building is not a human being, an introduction is not a hug, and the Lions and Barry have a long way to go before people confuse them with Ben Affleck and Matt Damon.
Still, you begin somewhere. What remains to be seen is exactly what kind of relationship the Lions are hoping to forge here. Barry is not going to coach. He’s not going to work in the front office. He’s not going to be the spokesman for the alumni association. At least I don’t think he is.
That’s the thing with Barry. You never know. The Lions do know Barry will be elected to the Hall of Fame early next year and will be inducted next summer. They want him happy. They want him acknowledging the team and its players. They don’t want him snubbing or dismissing them.
After all, how many Lions players will be going in that hallowed place in the near future?
The trip to Ford Field
It’s funny. The thing I remember most about Barry’s running style was that he took the ball, then stopped, surveyed and then made his move. His magic was woven into that micro-second pause, seeing the smallest hole, then willing his body to spring through it into the open field.
It was a lightning-quick decision, but in the end, still a decision. His running was all about decisions, tiny, multiple microbe decisions.
So was his departure, if you ask me. And so, too, was his return Tuesday. I think Barry thought a long time about leaving, a bunch of micro-decisions, and he thought a long time about how to explain it, finally resulting in Tuesday’s news conference at Ford Field. Barry moves to his own timetable. The time had come.
“I didn’t really feel comfortable coming around before,” he said, when asked why he hadn’t attended a game in the new facility. “But I’ll come to one this season. This season. Yeah.”
He should be welcome. Tuesday felt like burying the hatchet. I’m just not sure what for.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). He will sign copies of “The Five People You Meet In Heaven” at 3 p.m. Saturday at Waldenbooks in Troy’s Somerset Collection.