SUPER HOOPLA REVS INTO HIGHER GEAR

He was a small man, by football standards, but he cast a huge shadow. And in a week when the world is rushing to Detroit, he remains the most famous man to ever walk away.

Barry Sanders is still not playing. Still not coming back. And still hearing about it.

“You know me, man,” he says over the phone, “just because someone asks me a question, doesn’t mean I feel I have to answer it.” He laughs. “But these days, I try to have fun with it. I tell a lot of people I’m gonna wait until my 50th birthday and then come out of retirement.”

Barry Sanders will be around this week. No entourage. No dark glasses. Just around, the way he’s often around Detroit, at an event, or a health club, or a restaurant, or a gas station. But try as he might to be a normal, 5-foot-8 guy, Sanders remains the “What If” king. What if he hadn’t quit the game seven years ago? What if he had been with a winning organization instead of the bumbling Lions?

What if he had been … in a Super Bowl?

“Yeah, I definitely feel like I missed out on that,” he says. “When I came out of college, you naturally expect, yeah, I’ll play in a Super Bowl. You figure that’s what you’re here for.

“I remember my third year, when we beat Dallas in the playoffs, I figured, ‘Gah, all you gotta do is win three games and you’ve won a Super Bowl? How hard can that be?’ “

As it turns out, impossible. Although he was arguably the most elusive, explosive and creative running back in history, that victory over Dallas was Sanders’ only postseason highlight. In his 10-year career, he played in just five playoff games, four of them losses. He quit the sport in the summer of 1999, after the Lions had gone 5-11.

He was only 31.

It remains one of the most mysterious departures in the history of the NFL. Two years earlier, Sanders had his best year ever, gaining 2,053 yards and winning co-MVP honors with Brett Favre. The next season, even when he wasn’t having any fun, Sanders still finished fourth in the league in rushing and gained more yards (1,491) than LaDainian Tomlinson gained this year.

And then he checked out. Disappeared. Released a statement that said, in part, “My desire to exit the game is greater than my desire to remain in it.” He surfaced in London. Rumors swirled. He was going through a “phase.” He wanted more money. He wanted a trade. He would be back.

It was all wrong. He was done.

But we weren’t.

We’re still asking, “Why?”

Envious of the Packers

“What if you had been on the brink of a Super Bowl season?” I ask him now. “Would you have stayed then?”

“Maybe,” he says. “But you put everything into football and you never know what you’re gonna get out of it. It’s not a popularity contest.

“Like this year. I wanted to see Peyton Manning on the stage of a Super Bowl. I know a lot of people felt that way about me – what would it be like to see me in a Super Bowl?

“But Peyton Manning didn’t get here. The Steelers are here instead. That’s the beautiful thing about football. Pittsburgh didn’t have the best record, but for the last month they played better than everybody, so they’re here.”

“Did you envy other teams when you were playing?” I ask.

“Envy? Hmm. I do remember seeing Green Bay built into a winner,” he says. “And I remember thinking, ‘This team used to be on a par with us, and now they’re in back-to-back Super Bowls. Why can’t that be us?’

“Even Tampa Bay. Even the Vikings – they should have been in a Super Bowl. You see these other teams twice a year and you say, ‘Man they did it! Why can’t we do it?’ “

He sighs. “You’re right. I was jealous.”

“Did you quit because you were sick of the Lions?” I ask.

“I definitely was disappointed in some of the decisions we made. I felt like we were getting worse for no reason. So, hey, that certainly made it easier for me to leave.”

“Why didn’t you just demand a trade?”

“Because that’s a big mess. That just isn’t me. Anyhow, I really was ready to be done with football.”

I ask him the question many have wondered: “What if another team – a really good franchise like, say, New England – had called you after you quit and said, ‘We want you right now.’ Would you have gone?”

“I would have thought about it, yeah,” he says. “From New England? Yeah, I may have went out to the backyard for them. Stretched out some. Did some jumping jacks.”

He laughs. He can laugh now, because these questions are all hypothetical, like asking what if the old Yankees played the new Yankees? It’s not going to happen. Although Sanders, at 37, is still several years younger than Jerry Rice or Lomas Brown or Earl Morrall when they played in Super Bowls, running back is not quarterback or lineman.

And Barry doesn’t play football anymore.

“I don’t know what I would run in the 40 now, or how high I jump or anything. … Sometimes when I drive past a high school football practice, I get curious about what I could still do on a field. But anything more than that I’m in trouble.”

He laughs again.

He really is done.

Enjoying football fans

Barry Sanders will do a slew of appearances this week, including one at noon today at the downtown Cheli’s Chili Bar for MasterCard’s PayPass. He is scheduled to be joined by Archie Manning, another guy who starred for one lousy franchise his entire career and never made it to the big game.

I mention to Barry that I am surprised – as are others – at his willingness to be so visible, to do endorsement appearances and card shows, considering his quiet, reserved demeanor when he played.

“I’ve gotten more at ease with it now,” he says, “because I don’t have to deal with things every day. It’s kind of cool to go to a card show and some kid is really excited to meet you. I was once a fan, but I never really had a chance to meet anyone I saw play.”

He splits his time these days between Detroit and Oklahoma, where he owns a bank and is considering a Hyundai dealership. He says the majority of his time is spent with his family, including his 11-year-old son, B.J.

“He watches some old tapes of me sometimes,” Sanders says. “And he says, ‘You should go back. You should go back and play.’ “

“What do you say?” I ask.

“That’s one of those times I don’t feel compelled to answer.”

“And do you ever watch those tapes with him?” I ask.

“Sometimes,” he says.

“And what do you say?”

The King of “What If?” laughs one last time.

“I say, ‘Man, that guy was good.’ “

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. www.freep.com/mitch.

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