HE WAS known for his running, but will be remembered for his final walk. Barry Sanders, arguably the greatest running back in football, spent 10 years dodging contact in the NFL, only to depart with his own rocking elbow to the face. The recipients were his team, his coaches, his fans and his city. And the black eye is just beginning to swell.
See Barry walk.
“Knowing what I know about him, Barry’s made up his mind and he’s not changing it,” said a stunned coach Bobby Ross of his star player’s sudden retirement.
“Over the last few months, I called him 10 times, and sent three or four handwritten letters.”
He never received a word in return. Not a call. Not a note. Training camp was about to begin. Rumors were flying. What was Barry thinking? The front office nervously assumed he would show up. He did, after all, have four years left on his contract.
And then, on Tuesday night, came the bombshell phone call from his agents. Healthy, in his prime — one good season away from becoming the NFL’s all-time rushing leader — Sanders had decided to check out. He was retiring from football. He left a written statement, a good-bye note of sorts, which he placed with a Wichita, Kan., reporter. And he flew to London to escape attention.
Wichita. London. It was as if he wanted to take Detroit out of the equation altogether.
Which, of course, is impossible. Sanders’ departure has deep ramifications for this city, its football team, even its image. After all, if we can’t hang onto one of our favorite sons …
So people here want to blame somebody. Fans want someone’s head. Never mind if the simple truth is that Sanders simply tired of the game, the pain or the media attention. Larger theories abound. Theories about blown communication, incompetent ownership, the mishandling of star talent.
Sanders, in many ways, made this mess himself. And yet, such is the measure of this quiet and quixotic athlete, that even in the wake of his sloppy departure, people tried to clean up after him. At the Pontiac Silverdome on Wednesday, the scene was bizarre. A shell-shocked head coach, a tight-lipped general manager, a room packed with reporters, all to talk about a guy who didn’t even bother to say good-bye in person, a guy who, at the time, was walking around London, taking in the sights.
Yet, nary a bad word was spoken.
“You can’t help but like Barry,” said Chuck Schmidt, the Lions’ chief operating officer.
Perhaps. But he sure did slam the door on his way out.
The slighted coach
This is how the door slammed on his coach. Bobby Ross is now splotched with indelible ink. He can spin it any way he wants. He will, for the rest of his career, be the guy who couldn’t hang onto the greatest runner in football.
“Do I think Barry left because of me?” Ross said, “No, I don’t.”
But Barry’s father, William Sanders, has been telling anyone who will listen that Ross and his coaching methods are the reason his son is history. “Three weeks ago, when Ross said he wasn’t changing his offense, I think that’s what did it for Barry,” the elder Sanders said Wednesday. “Barry’s just too nice a guy to say so.”
Who knows whether this is true? Barry isn’t around to explain. In his written statement, he said: “I have enjoyed playing for two great head coaches, Wayne Fontes and Bobby Ross.”
So either Barry is lying or his father is, well, misinformed.
Either way, Ross is stained. Unfairly, if you ask me. He may not have delivered much so far in Detroit, and he didn’t make the world’s smartest move in benching quarterback Scott Mitchell last year. But Bobby Ross didn’t just crawl out of the laundry chute, either. He has been a successful coach in college and the pros, he has been to a Super Bowl, and until he got here barely had a losing season. He is in his 60s, works hard, and believes — whether you do or don’t — in what he’s doing.
He deserved better than to be rudely ignored.
“People said I should have talked to his father or someone else around him,” Ross said, shrugging. “I don’t know. Barry’s a 31-year-old man. I don’t think I should have to go to his father or any other in-between guy. It should have been between Barry and me.”
Instead, Ross is left without a starting running back the day training camp opens — and a team full of devastated players who suddenly are looking up to reach a .500 season.
See Barry walk.
The million-dollar ghost
This is how the door slammed on the team and its future. Sanders not only leaves a huge hole at his position and takes away the Lions’ best offensive weapon, he also leaves them a salary cap dilemma. Under the complex rules, Barry’s ghost still will count for nearly $2 million this year — the salary of a quality lineman or defensive back — and a whooping $5.5 million next year.
“It’s one of the risks when you give a guy a big signing bonus,” Schmidt admitted.
There is also the thorny issue of $7.3 million that Barry now owes the Lions from that bonus. The Lions expect that money back. (Of course, you might ask, if they couldn’t get Sanders to return their calls about coming to camp, how fast will he respond to the call that begins, “Barry, about that $7.3 million
“We didn’t think it would be appropriate to make that kind of call at this time,” Schmidt said.
“We still have great respect for him. We can’t trade him, and we won’t trade him. That was never an option or even spoken about. But if he ever wants to play football again, we want it to be here. He’s welcome back here anytime.”
Schmidt forced a grin.
“He’s welcome back right now if he wants.”
See Barry walk.
A dysfunctional family
This is how the door slammed on the fans. For many a Sunday, Sanders was the only reason to go to the Silverdome. Even in defeat, he could provide magnificence. You never knew when a simple 2-yard gain would be woven into a ballet. And you never knew when a simple off-tackle play would see Sanders explode and go 80 yards for a touchdown. There were many games when even opposing players had their jaws drop at Barry’s fluidity.
Sanders was hope. He was light. He won rushing titles; he set records; he was a bona fide star that everyone in America wanted to watch. If the Lions as a franchise were traditionally second-rate, Sanders demanded they be given marquee status. He made them Big Time.
And now he’s gone. Without a retirement year. Without even a farewell news conference. Not to be mean, but how attractive are the Lions to a national audience now? It’s like someone emptying your gas tank.
And as if his departure weren’t bad enough, the mystery of it only fuels the anger and vitriol that characterize typical Lions watchers.
“It’s Ross’ fault . . .”
“It’s the Fords’ fault . . .”
“This franchise will never go anywhere …”
“This team stinks so bad, Barry would rather not get paid than work for it . .
A word about that. Some believe that the Fords themselves — William Sr. or Bill Jr. — should have visited Barry personally these last few months. And maybe they should have — if they could have found him. If you ask me, it wouldn’t have changed his mind one bit. His problems with the ownership were things like 1) letting Lomas Brown and Kevin Glover go, 2) hiring Ross as coach, 3) previous contract squabbles. He wasn’t looking for a home visit.
Still, Sanders, in his good-bye statement, claimed he thought of the Lions as his “family.”
Odd way to treat your family.
But then, Barry always has been one of those guys about whom people make excuses. He is eminently likable in person, soft-spoken, polite, humble. And oh-so-incredible on the field.
So when he held out in salary disputes, he wasn’t greedy; he was “worth it.”
When he gained minus-1 yard in a playoff game against Green Bay, he didn’t let the team down; rather, “didn’t get the blocking he needed.”
When he didn’t show for minicamps like the rest of his teammates, he wasn’t being a prima donna; he was “being smart about his body.”
When he failed to rise as a locker-room leader, he wasn’t shirking a role; he was “being himself.”
When he fathered a child out of wedlock, he wasn’t denying his oft-celebrated morality; he was “being as good a father as he could be.”
There was always an explanation — as is often the case with movie stars, athletes or Kennedy family members. But these explanations often cloud the truth. Barry, simply put, was his own guy. He did things his way, at his own pace, with his own set of manners. Like the famous Peter Sellers character in
“Being There,” his silence resulted in other people’s sometimes glowing explanations.
But they were not necessarily true.
While he was eminently humble, he wasn’t much for returning calls or keeping appointments. While he worked terribly hard, he never embraced leadership.
As to being sick of losing as a justification for departure, well, fans might want to think that one over before hugging it. Nobody likes to lose. But nobody is guaranteed winning. If everyone who hated losing quit the Lions, they’d never field a team. And there are plenty of other franchises over the last 10 years that have worse records than Detroit that never made it to a conference championship game, as the Lions did in January 1992.
Did the Lions owe Barry Sanders a winning team? No. They owed him a paycheck. They delivered that — at the highest rates in his last contact — just as he delivered excellence. No doubt the front office has made many mistakes, and the coaches have made enough bonehead moves to anger veteran players. But where does it say that once you’re in the league 10 years, you are somehow entitled to a championship, a winning program or even a playoff game? If that’s the case, anyone who has played for New Orleans, Cincinnati or St. Louis in recent years has a big debt coming. And guys like O.J. Simpson or Archie Manning should have quit long before they did.
This is how the door slammed on Barry’s legacy. He walks away 1,457 yards shy of Walter Payton’s all-time rushing mark. We shouldn’t be surprised at that. Sanders has often walked away from records when he was within spitting distance. Not only do they mean very little to him, I believe in some ways he prefers not to have the burden of being the record holder. It only means more obligations.
In retirement, however, what he might have done will loom larger and larger. People will extrapolate. Play games with numbers. The footage of Sanders will glow brighter as time passes. Like Jim Brown before him, Sanders leaves as a question mark. Perhaps, when you think about it, that is fitting punctuation.
In the end, Schmidt may have said it well: “Nobody really knows Barry.”
And in the end, Ross may have said it best: “I’ve had worse things happen in my life.”
Both are true. And neither reduces the sting this morning. Detroit has lost a big reason for watching football on Sundays, and whether it is Sanders’ fault, or the Lions’ fault, or merely the fault of Father Time and an unforgiving game, no one is very happy around here.
See Barry walk. When he landed at the London airport, Sanders was approached by a reporter who asked why he chose to fly overseas.
“I never retired before,” he said. “I don’t know how to do it.”
He did it the way he did everything else: quietly, yet louder than thunder.
MITCH ALBOM can be reached at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch
“Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).