There used to be this “Saturday Night Live” routine in which Chevy Chase, as the Weekend Update newscaster, reported on the death of Spain’s dictator, Francisco Franco. Every week, Chevy would say, “This just in: Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead!”

It’s starting to get that way with Barry Sanders, isn’t it? Every few months, we get a new report, a man on the microphone, a newspaper account, an eyewitness. The message is always the same: “This just in. Barry Sanders is still retired.”

This just in: Water is still wet.

This just in: The sun is still hot.

This just in: Jerry Springer is still idiotic.

If I ever retire, I only hope people will be this disbelieving. I fear that immediately after my farewell party, someone will take my desk, and if I happen to forget something and come back 30 minutes later, that person already will have pictures of his wife and kids out and he’ll say, “I’m sorry, do you have an appointment?”

With Barry, it’s different. It has been four years since he quit. No one wants to believe it. A recent Sports Illustrated story followed Barry to Chicago to try to get an answer. Speculation arose on ESPN this week. Even Matt Millen, the Lions’ president who now has a new coach, admitted to calling Barry recently, just to test the waters.

Millen has made this call before. So have Marty Mornhinweg, Bobby Ross, Gary Moeller, members of the Ford family, members of Barry’s own family, and, most likely, sales representatives from Sprint, MCI and AT&T.

“Hello, Mr. Barry Sanders? Are you interested in our new long-distance rates? No? OK. Are you interested in coming back to play football?”

The answer is always the same. It’s what Barry told Millen, in essence, in his last call: “I’m surprised you’re still interested — but I’m not.”

His father can’t believe it

Now, Sanders was the most exciting running back ever. And he did retire at 31. And he wasn’t hurt. And he kept himself in shape. So you can’t blame Millen for trying.

“If I was Matt Millen, I’d be trying, too,” said William Sanders, Barry’s father. We spoke this week, and the elder Sanders — a roofer in Wichita, Kan., who all but yanked Barry out of college early so he could earn big money
— is as mystified as you are at what his son has done.

“I wish you could see him. He looks in better shape than he ever did. I love him, but something’s wrong with his thinking.”

I mentioned the stories that Barry was doing autograph shows.

“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?”

But the Barry I knew hated signing autographs en masse.

“The Barry I knew, too.”

Papa Sanders admits he doesn’t talk football with Barry. In that way, father and son are the same. The most obvious subject swarms around them like hornets, and they ignore it without a word.

“Wait’ll your kids grow up,” Mr. Sanders said, chuckling. “One day, they’ll do something that makes you wonder if they’re the same kids you raised.”

Another view of Barry

Here’s my take. Barry is the same kid his father raised. It’s everyone else who doesn’t get it.

I’ve known Sanders since he entered the league. He never once talked about playing until 35. He never once talked about needing a championship to
“validate” his career. He never once coveted individual records. All those goals come from “the norm” in sports, from other athletes’ interviews, never from Barry himself.

Sanders played football because he was good and because it was expected and because he could earn a big living from it. All of that was more important to other people, most notably his father, and once Barry satisfied their expectations, he sought his own path.

Four years ago, that meant quitting. Football wasn’t fun. He was still healthy. Why not quit? I doubt he ever wanted to surpass Walter Payton as the NFL’s all-time rushing leader, because that just would have attracted more attention.

So he walked. Said good-bye. As for the autograph shows? I think he does them for the same reason his father — who is quite comfortable thanks to Barry — still takes the occasional roofing job.

“I take the easy ones,” he said, “and the good-paying ones.”

Easy? Good paying? Isn’t that what Barry’s doing? Besides, anyone who ever knew him knew that Barry was, shall we say, frugal?

But that’s a long way from changing his mind. He’s not changing his mind. He’s never coming back. We can write, talk, call, debate, speculate, contemplate and postulate. He told Millen. He told the Fords. He told anyone who listened.

Maybe one day, when he’s 50, they’ll stop asking. Maybe not. Maybe one day, many years from now, people will visit his grave and a tombstone will carry his parting words: “The answer is still ‘no.’ “

But Franco is reconsidering.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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