Looking back at the day Barry Sanders retired

Barry Sanders stunned the sports world when he announced his retirement in July of 1999.

Barry Sanders stunned the sports world when he announced his retirement in July of 1999.

The unassuming man strolled through the London airport. In his wake 3,700 miles away was a fan base in ruins. His announcement hours earlier hit Detroit like a sucker punch – dazed, confused, stunned.

Barry Sanders – just one year removed from that magical 2,000-yard season, on the eve of training camp, and just 1,457 yards away breaking Walter Payton’s career record that we discussed for years – decided to push “send” on a fax and retire from the Detroit Lions.

A fax?

No press conference?

“I never retired before,” Barry said to a reporter at the London airport, according to the Detroit Free Press. “I don’t know how to do it.”

And that was Barry Sanders at his finest. Genuine, sincere, humble, honest. Some fans mistakenly took his retirement as a slap in the face, yet in reality, it was Barry refusing to bring a big spotlight on himself. He tossed the ball back to the official on touchdown runs and asked autograph-seeking fans, “Why is this piece of paper any more valuable if I write my name on it than if you do?”

Barry didn’t see himself as the best running back in NFL history – he saw himself along the same lines as the dad in the Section 112 bleachers who scraped together $20 to bring his kid to a game.

“If I could change anything in football, it would be how people worship the athletes. That’s wrong,” Barry told Mitch Albom in 1991. “I go to Winans concerts, and I like them a lot, but I don’t worship them. I know they’re no different than the desolate man in the street.”

We had no right to be angry or saddened by his departure. He owed us nothing.
Yet, to give it a long, deep thought today, it’s still shocking and always will be. How could the best running back in NFL history leave on the eve of training camp? With four years left on his contract? At the age of 31 without any noticeable sign of slowing?

Here’s why: The fire was no longer burning. Something to remember about Barry: He always said it would be over, “when my desire to leave the game is stronger than my desire to stay in it.”

But to this day, there’s still some Lions fans who will not forgive him for the departure style.
Well, it’s time to let it go. They should remember his symphony orchestra on the football field, a harmonic bliss of running. Any time he touched the ball, the crowd rose, the goosebumps peaked and the adrenaline heightened. A juke here, a stop and start there, just a crevice of daylight and the end zone was within reach.

He made defenders look like trees rooted into the earth. He made the New York Jets practice with a bunny rabbit to prepare for his unorthodox skills.

It’s a shame he finished with 99 career touchdowns. It could have darn well been around 140 – that’s an addition of just four per year for a 10-year career – but Wayne Fontes rarely used Barry near the goal line, a head-scratching move that will never make sense. In 1994, when he rushed for 1,883 yards, he had seven touchdowns. Seven!

It’s a shame he wasn’t used more in the passing game. Marshall Faulk’s best years saw 80-plus receptions, yet Barry’s highest reception total in a season was 48. Why didn’t Fontes use Barry in more creative ways?

It’s a shame Barry touched the ball just a handful times in the first half of the 1995 playoff disaster at Philadelphia. The Lions’ No. 1 rated offense in the NFL had fans whispering Super Bowl, but Fontes allowed Scott Mitchell (four interceptions) to dictate the game, not the best runner in NFL history.

He finished his career with one playoff win in six contests – that’s a shame, too.

But his retirement is not. Ten years of being slammed to the rock-solid Silverdome turf creates enough aches and pains to last a lifetime. He can choose when to retire.

Remember the performance – not the exit.

“I was feeling like I’d done enough, ready to move on … I was never that guy who was going to stay and play until they had to cart me off the field,” Sanders recently told Bleacher Report columnist Michael Schottey. “Some guys have that love of the game where they’re going to get every last play. At year 10, I lost that determination to do it every day.”

12 replies on “Looking back at the day Barry Sanders retired

  • Chris

    He was the greatest running back of all time. He retired because he wasn’t going to be permanently disabled for a team that did nothing to improve. You can’t have the best RB ever and win 1 playoff game with him. Screw the Lions. They didn’t deserve him.

  • Otto

    Concur with Chris. Barrys career with the Lions was greatest waste of talent in professional sports history. On any other team he would have broken a dozen NFL records.

  • Rick

    How can anyone fault anybody for quitting or retiring on an employer who NEVER did ANYTHING to help him BUT did do things (like let his linemen go) to hinder him? Screw the Lions as long as that moron Ford owns them! He should get that idiot manager of the Tiger’s to coach his team then we would have the WORST owner and the WORST coach ruining only one team in this town! God bless Barry Sander’s for ALL of the joy he bought to ALL NFL fans!

  • magold

    Sorry, guys, I disagree. He owed it to his teammates to play or to give them an opportunity to replace him, as best they could, by draft or by trade. Retiring by fax on the eve of training camp was a selfish act. If Barry wanted to go away, fine. He had all off-season to let his team and teammates know. And Barry had more than a little to do with than 1-5 record in playoff games. Remember one yard on 13 carries? No, Barry, you quit on your team. Stay away.

  • Rick

    Why did he owe anybody anything? When you cut through everything he was an EMPLOYEE! He did a job and was paid for said job. He didn’t and doesn’t owe anyone anything. It is his life to do with what he wants. Because we were all sad to see him go does not give any of us the right to say he owed us. If you didn’t like your job would you have to stay because your co-workers thought you owed them? NO! As for 1 yard on 13 carries. How many times did Barry do that in a regular season game and then bust a huge gainer? The problem was the defense always sucked and they had to pass there by relegating what he could do. Add in the moronic coaching that didn’t throw the ball to him and there you have it. Barry Sander’s was NEVER the reason for the sorry teams he played on. That falls to the idiot greedy owner!

  • Gary Steinke

    When I think of Barry Sanders retirement 2 words come to my mind “Bobby Ross”. I still think if someone else was coaching the Lions when Sanders retired he would have played longer.

  • Jack DeSauder

    I think if you commit to the role, you aren’t in it for yourself… you’re in it for the package. To be the best you can be at the game, as a role model for children and adults alike, challenging the spotlight while making good and healthy decisions. Barry Sanders, a man of realness and true character.

  • Steve Cadwell

    The ONLY fault I find, and have always, and will always, was WHEN he chose to retire. No doubt, he didn’t wake up that morning and just decide to retire. He, surely, had been thinking about it for sometime. He should have told the Lions about his decision, before the draft, so they could have, perhaps, changed their draft thoughts. I met him once in Pontiac, at that old church, converted to a multi-storied nightclub, at a Halloween evening extravaganza. He was there with his pal, Johnny Morton. My wife and I were in line, waiting for our car from the valet, and he and Johnny were behind us. A dude across the entranceway recognized him, and went all gaga over him. I was embarrassed for Barry. I recognized him right off the bat, before the other dude did. When it was my turn to finally acknowledge him, I simply told him, “Thank you for your amazing time with the Lions, you are a pleasure to watch.” He nodded and quietly, thanked me. I could tell the other ‘fan’ put him off. Then I gave Johnny a nod of appreciation, too. One of the best celebrity moments of of my life.

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