It’s hard to believe that it has been that long, but ten years ago this July 28th, the Lions’ all time leading rusher — and arguably their most electrifying player ever — shocked the sports world by suddenly announcing his retirement, one day prior to the opening of training camp.
With his unbelievable dazzling moves, for ten seasons Barry Sanders had defied defenders as they were left cross-eyed, vainly grasping at nothing but air.
Only 31 years old, and just 1,458 yards shy of breaking Walter Payton’s NFL career rushing record of 16,726 yards, the 1988 Heisman Trophy winner quit at the top of his game, without a news conference, without speaking to his coaches or teammates, and without any explanation except to say, “I just don’t feel like playing anymore.”
Although the Lions had once witnessed the sudden retirement of another one of their legendary running backs, 1948 Heisman winner Doak Walker, (who quit following the ’55 campaign after only six seasons) the NFL had not been this shocked since Cleveland’s legendary back Jimmy Brown suddenly quit at the top of his game in 1966 to pursue a movie career.
It has long been speculated that Sanders retired because he was sick of the ineptitude of management (i.e., letting go of center Kevin Glover who had helped pave the way for Barry’s runs) and for his dislike of head coach Bobby Ross. Two months before Barry quit, his father William had told the media that Barry was “sick of losing.”
What the Lions were like with Barry, and what it has been like without him, speaks volumes.
During Sanders’ ten seasons in Detroit, the Lions had a 78-82 regular season record and made the playoffs five times, winning one playoff game. And we thought that was so-so. Looking back, it looks like a fabulous record when you consider that in the ten seasons since Sanders retired, the hapless Lions have amassed a record of 48-112!
Sure, Sanders would have been retired by now, but it just shows that the Lions have failed to produce even one outstanding, game-changing player since he quit.
Unlike many of pro sports’ most legendary players, at least Barry didn’t hang on longer than he should have and end up just another faded star playing with another franchise.
So often, many of our legendary athletes have had difficulty quitting their sport, even when their skills have been greatly diminished. Sadly, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Michael Jordan, Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Wayne Gretzky, and Gordie Howe were mere shadows of themselves when they finished their careers on teams other than the ones on which they starred. And of course, Muhammed Ali and Joe Louis provide perhaps the saddest examples of athletes who should have quit while they were ahead.
So even though we lost one of our most exciting players, long before his stardom was even beginning to fade, we can still pay tribute to Barry Sanders and relish the Youtube videos of the runs that brought us out of our seats.