Barry Sanders retirement a bombshell we should have seen coming

It was the fax heard around the world. Barry Sanders, for the first and only time in his career, mailed it in. Through a piece of paper in a Wichita newspaper office, one of the greatest running backs in the history of football called it quits.

Twenty years later, Lions fans are still scratching their heads.

And banging their tabletops.

And covering their eyes.

You could argue that the Lions’ failures made Sanders leave the game, or that Sanders leaving the game led to more Lions’ failures. Both would be true. Neither makes you feel better.

But as the 20th anniversary of Sanders’ goodbye approaches (it’s July 27 if you want to light a candle) it’s worth examining how that silent explosion changed everything and nothing for a beleaguered, beguiled and yet sometimes beloved franchise, and the fans who support it.

Quite frankly, business-wise, it was the worst day in the history of the Detroit Lions.

And they’ve had some pretty bad days.

The bombshell departure

“I just show up here to work.” That’s what Barry Sanders told me after the seventh game of 1998, a second-half collapse to Minnesota that left the Lions 2-5.

Looking back, that was a sign. Sanders had never fallen back on that tired superstar refrain. Don’t ask me. I just work here.

But here he was, after another crushing loss, saying, “The guys they chose to put out there are my teammates. I don’t make the decisions on things like that. I’d love to have that control, that would be great. But I don’t.

“I just show up and play with the guys they put out there.”

Nine games later, Barry would be taking his last snaps in the NFL. He later said he knew it all along. The season finale was a rainy loss to Baltimore, and Sanders wept as the clock wound down. Like the old Temptations song, “I Wish it Would Rain”, the raindrops hid his teardrops, and his personality hid the rest. Although Sanders had made up his mind to quit, it would be seven more months before he told the world.

And when he told the world, he did it through a fax to The Wichita Eagle:

”Today, I officially declare my departure from the NFL. … I leave on good terms with everyone in the organization. … The reason I am retiring is simple: my desire to exit the game is greater than my desire to remain in it.”

In hindsight, with Barry now in the good graces of the organization, this may seem a benign way to part from your team with four years left on your contract.

I assure you it was not.

Back then, heads were spinning. Venom was spewing. Coach Bobby Ross was bunkering down, saying “Do I think Barry left because of me? No, I don’t.” But others did. The front office was scrambling, because this was July, just before training camp, and they suddenly didn’t know who would be rushing the football — or what would happen with the money Sanders had taken in his signing bonus.

Fans were livid — both at Barry and at the team. Pundits were wisecracking about how bad the Lions had to be that a 31-year-old in the prime of his career would rather quit than play another down for them.

Historians bemoaned the fact that Sanders was maybe one season away from breaking Walter Payton’s all-time rushing mark. Oh, the history being left on the table!

Meanwhile, Sanders was vacationing in London, with plans to hit Paris and Amsterdam, like some college kid on a backpacking. When reporters tracked him down, he defended his long distance saying, “I don’t know the right way to retire. This is just my way of doing it.”

Like everything with Barry, it was understated and overstated at the same time.

Understanding the fuss

If you knew him, you got used to this. Barry Sanders never got what the fuss was all about. The son of a Kansas roofer who gruffly steered his son’s football life, Barry came by his talent naturally. Small and unassuming, he wasn’t supposed to be the best football player in his large family; but as soon as he started running, he was.

William Sanders would tell anyone who asked that Barry wasn’t staying all four years in college, because he needed to make some money and “get me off the damn rooftops.” Sure enough, Barry left Oklahoma State as soon as the rules allowed, after winning the Heisman Trophy, and was chosen by Detroit with the third pick in the 1989 draft (behind Troy Aikman and Tony Mandarich). He reacted to his selection by saying he always wanted to play “for the underdog.”

He had no idea how long that would last.

Or how weighty it would become.

But Barry rarely said a word about it — until he walked away. That was part of his personality. He had opinions. Strong ones. No one should doubt that. In his rookie season, he told me he wasn’t some shy choirboy as the media was portraying him. “They have to come up with some image for me, because plain people don’t sell newspapers.”

This was how he really saw himself: a plain person. But plain people don’t amass 15,269 yards in 10 NFL seasons, averaging five yards a carry, while juking, dashing and all but breaking defenders’ ankles along the way. That wasn’t plain. That was phenomenal. Even if Sanders didn’t think so.

One time, after he amassed over 200 yards of offense, a media scrum was waiting by his postgame locker at the Silverdome. He was taking a while to come out. On a hunch, I pushed out through the exit door and saw him walking alone up the parking lot hill.

“Barry!” I said, catching up to him. “Hey. Where are you going? There’s a load of reporters waiting by your locker.”

“Really?” he said. “How come?”

“Uh, because you had an amazing game?”

“Oh, yeah?” he said. “Hmm.”

This, by the way, was a pretty typical Barry conversation. Lots of “really?” and “how come?” and “hmm.” He was not naïve. He was quite smart. He just didn’t get the fuss.

And when he said goodbye, he didn’t get it either.

‘Thinking about me’

In the 20 years since he walked away, Sanders has explained his departure in dribs and drabs. He wrote a book in which he partly blamed it on the Lions front office for getting rid of certain players and accepting a losing approach.

“That realization trivialized everything I did during the offseason to prepare myself,” he wrote. “… It trivialized everything I dreamed about from the time I was a kid in

Wichita.”

But at other times, in other conversations, Sanders indicated that a flame had just gone out. That the appeal was gone. He also admitted that he could have handled things less awkwardly.

“I wasn’t trying to put Detroit in a bad situation,” he said in 2003. “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.”

There was talk that he would have played for another team. There was a brief effort to trade back his money for his outright release. In the end, Barry retired and stayed retired, and speculation on what he might have done if the Lions were better, or if he wore another uniform, will always remain speculation.

But what effect did it have on the organization?

Life (and losses) after Barry

Well, one way to judge is numbers.

In the 10 years Barry played, the Lions record was 78-82, and they had five winning seasons.

In the 10 years after he left, they were 48-112, and had one winning season.

In 10 years with Barry, they saw six playoff games — including the NFC championship — and won one.

In the 10 years that followed, they saw one playoff game and lost it.

When Barry retired, and the Lions lost Herman Moore to injury in the 1999 season opener, offensive tackle Ray Roberts said, “I thought I heard all the TV sets in Detroit click off at once.”

Indeed, in the decade that followed, the Lions’ passing “stars” were Gus Frerotte, Charlie Batch, Joey Harrington and Jon Kitna. Their rushing leaders were James Stewart, Kevin Jones and Kevin Smith.

Not exactly must-see TV.

The Lions bore the tag of The Team That Barry Sanders Didn’t Want To Play For, just as, three years ago, they became The Team Calvin Johnson Didn’t Want to Play For.

But remember, another famous running back walked away when he was 30; Jim Brown quit football, too, by sending a letter to his owner (they didn’t have fax machines back then) telling the Cleveland Browns he was done. And hey, even Michael Jordan walked away from the game — at his peak — to go play baseball.

The question that haunts Lions fans is this: If the team had been better, would Barry have stayed longer?

All answers are guesses, but my guess is this: maybe, but not much longer. Records held no interest for Sanders, nor did retiring when he could no longer walk. He didn’t love the game of football as much as he was great at it. He didn’t want to die with his helmet on.

Perhaps if the Lions had been climbing, on the lip of making a Super Bowl, he would have stuck around until age 32 or 33. But I could also see, if the Lions had won a Super Bowl (I know, it’s a fantasy world), Barry announcing that was it, and him walking in the sunset after hoisting the MVP trophy.

For me, the most puzzling part of Sanders’ departure was the way in which he dove into things like autograph signings, TV commercials, and personal appearances, even some overseas. He always hated those things. It was the opposite of who he was as a player.

At one point, a few years after he quit, I had a conversation with his father, who said, “I wish you could see (Barry). He looks in better shape than he ever did. I love him, but something’s wrong with his thinking.”

When I mentioned Barry doing autograph shows, William Sanders said, “Yep. I don’t get it. He’ll go out and do an autograph show for maybe $100,000, but he could play football for what, $8 million a year?”

As a coda, he added: “Wait’ll your kids grow up. One day, they’ll do something that makes you wonder if they’re the same kids you raised.”

We should all take something from that. If his father didn’t understand it, fans likely won’t either.

The fact is, Sanders had an amazing Lions career, then had a stretch where he was a pariah, and is now back in the Lions universe, appearing at games, traveling as an ambassador, doing interviews. In some ways he acts as if the ugly departure never happened.

Maybe it’s better that way. You can wonder forever about the reasons, but it’s like wondering about the wind that holds up a kite. Enjoy the flight while it lasts. While it lasted, Barry Sanders flew high.

Contact Mitch Albom: malbom@freepress.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.

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