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.
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.”