Work in Sports
Out Like a Lamb
Proving even more elusive off the field than on it, Barry Sanders made a quiet but stunning exit from the NFL
By Peter King
After four days of taking the temperature of nearly everyone associated with Barry Sanders's retirement except the elusive Sanders himself, one is left feeling like a dog who has chased his tail till exhaustion.
It has been 33 years since a brilliant football player ended his career so mysteriously in his prime. In the summer of 1966, the NFL's alltime rushing leader, 29-year-old Jim Brown, shocked the world by announcing his retirement in London. Last week, despite needing only 1,458 yards to become the NFL's alltime rushing leader, the 31-year-old Sanders shocked the world by issuing a statement announcing his retirement while he was on his way to London.
At least Brown, who was filming The Dirty Dozen when he quit, had postfootball plans. Best anyone can tell, Sanders, vacationing overseas, has none. At least he didn't reveal any in the respectful, 17-sentence statement that he chose to release on July 27 to his hometown paper, The Wichita (Kans.) Eagle. (The Lions first read the statement on The Eagle's Web site.) "The reason I am retiring is simple," the statement read. "My desire to exit the game is greater than my desire to stay in it." He was cryptic about his future even with his agents. When one of them, David Ware, asked Sanders whether he'd reconsider his decision if a trade could be arranged, he says Sanders told him, "That situation doesn't exist."
Whatever the future holds, Sanders's announcement blindsided pro football and its fans. The NFL uses Sanders, a humble and clean-living sort, in publications and video promotions to represent all that is good with the league, and it scheduled the Lions-Broncos game on Christmas Day in the late-afternoon national TV slot, when Sanders's chase for Walter Payton's record of 16,726 career yards might have meant blockbuster holiday ratings. When Detroit vice chairman William Clay Ford Jr., attending an NFL meeting in Chicago, heard about Sanders's exit, his knees appeared to buckle. Club officials had to scrap a plan to feature a great Sanders run on each of the Lions' 10 home-game tickets this year. Training camp attendance for the first three practices at Saginaw (Mich.) Valley State totaled 12,600, down 32% from last year.
The overriding question in Saginaw last weekend was, How could this happen? How could a multimillion-dollar business lose contact with its most valuable employee for seven months, hear the news of his retirement in a conference call with his agents and then have to retrieve his retirement statement off the Internet? Sanders has to be either a) the most intensely private star in sports history; b) fed up with the mediocre play (78-82 plus 1-5 in the postseason) of the Lions for much of his career; c) very unhappy with the Detroit front office and coach Bobby Ross; or d) all of the above.
Let's start at the beginning, in Wichita. Sanders, the seventh of William and Shirley Sanders's 11 children, was taught that no matter how fervently he or his siblings might disagree with their father's orders, their only answer could be, "Yes, Daddy." As William said last Friday, "They couldn't question me, and I told them that in school their coaches and teachers had the same authority." It was that same dutiful respect, perhaps, that kept Barry from publicly expressing frustration over his role or with the Lions' maddening inconsistency. "Barry has always been professionally vague," says wideout Herman Moore, who has been with the Lions since 1991. "Once I saw him in the huddle looking a little upset after a play was called, and I said, 'You upset?' All he said was, 'What do you think?' He'd never tell you he was upset, or why."
One of Sanders's friends, who asked not to be identified, believes Sanders was insulted by what he saw as management's penurious stance during contract negotiations two years ago. Early in the talks Sanders got the impression that the team would not pay him more than unspectacular Detroit quarterback Scott Mitchell. "The clear communication to us was that the quarterback normally makes more than anyone else on the team, and the same tier system should apply here," adds Ware. If Sanders's anger over those negotiations contributed to his decision to retire, it was a monumental miscommunication. In fact, Mitchell's contract was for $21 million over four years (including an $8 million signing bonus). Sanders's deal was worth $36 million over six years (including an $11 million bonus). Lions chief operating officer Chuck Schmidt, who negotiated Sanders's contract for the club, said last Saturday that he was shocked to hear that the team's salary structure might be an issue. "Never, ever did we say to Barry's agents we would pay Scott more than Barry," Schmidt said. "In fact, we told Mitchell, 'You will not be paid more than Barry Sanders.'"
Mitchell, who originally signed with Detroit as an unproven free agent in 1994 and was immediately handed the starting job, was benched early last season and in March was traded to the Baltimore Ravens for a third-round draft pick in '99 and a conditional middle-round choice in 2000. According to Sanders's friend, however, the damage had already been done, during the negotiations; since then, he says, "it's been like pulling teeth to get Barry to play."
Sanders missed three days of training camp before signing the new contract in July 1997. The Lions had fired laid-back coach Wayne Fontes after the '96 season and replaced him with Ross, a much-needed whip-cracker. Sanders welcomed the change, but one of Ross's first moves was to add a full-time fullback to the Detroit offense for the first time in Sanders's pro career. Time and again, a source said, Sanders quietly complained about running behind a fullback, but the new set worked: Sanders had his best season ever, rushing for 2,053 yards, the second-highest total in NFL history. "I asked Barry about the two-back set," Ross said last Saturday. "He was polite, sort of noncommittal. He had no objections about it to me."
Nevertheless, William Sanders remembers the call he got from his son after that remarkable '97 season, during which the Lions went 9-7 and were a wild-card team. "He wanted to quit," William says. "He was disenchanted with the offense. I told him no, give it a year." Last season Barry's frustration grew. His father said he has never seen Barry as low as he was on Oct. 4, after the Lions blew a 27-10 second-half lead to the Bears in Chicago and lost 31-27. "A lot of times," Barry told SI a week after the Chicago debacle that left Detroit 1-4, "after a bad loss like that, I go home and I'm ready to quit. I just can't stand it."
Sanders seemed to be thinking about retirement a lot in '98. He often went to dinner before games with safety Mark Carrier and his understudy at running back, Ron Rivers. "One night he asked me, 'How much longer do you think you'll do this?'" Carrier said last Saturday. "He kidded about how, after he retired, he'd be ready to play in the NBA in a month."
Last December the Lions folded, losing their last four. With a minute left in a dispiriting 35-13 Monday-night road loss to the San Francisco 49ers, Sanders ran to the locker room, sick of his team's effort. Then after a putrid season-ending loss at Baltimore -- Detroit had as many penalties (11) as first downs -- Sanders went underground. From late December until July he didn't respond to 13 letters and telephone calls from Ross. When defensive end Tracy Scroggins saw Sanders at a Michigan mall one winter day, he says Sanders "still was messed up about the season. I could see the disgust on his face." While his father blasted the organization and suggested his son might retire ("He's sick of the Lions," William said in April, "and he's sick of losing"), Barry said nothing. The silence worried the team. Schmidt called Ware in an attempt to reach Sanders, but Ware said, "Barry needs his space." Running backs coach Frank Falks was so concerned that he went to Barry's Rochester Hills, Mich., home and sat on his front porch waiting for him to return. Hours passed. Sanders never came home, so Falks finally left.
William kept suggesting to reporters that Ross was the problem. Odd. Barry played 10 years, and in his two seasons under Ross he gained more yards (3,544) than in any other two years combined; he carried the ball more times (678) than in any other two-year stretch. Ross was aghast at the thought that Sanders, who was one of six veterans he used on a player advisory board, had a problem with him. "I called Barry in before we made the change from Scott Mitchell to Charlie Batch last year," Ross says, "and he was helpful."
When William suggested that the way to get to Barry was through him, Ross wrote to Barry and asked if that's what he wanted. "If that's how Barry was to be reached," Ross says, "I had to hear it from Barry. Barry is 31. A lot of people that age don't want their parents handling their business. How do I know that if I meet with his father, I'm not offending Barry?" That letter went unanswered. Finally, in his last letter, in early July, Ross wrote: "If I don't hear from you, I will assume you'll be there for the start of training camp on July 29."
Despite the ominous signals, the Lions believed Sanders would be in camp, especially after he phoned Risa Balayem, a Lions public relations assistant, six days before he was due to report. The two exchanged small talk, Balayem recalls, before Sanders said, "By the way, what's that exit we take off [Interstate] 75 for training camp?"
The day before the retirement news leaked, Lions director of security Jocko Hughes, who is close to Sanders, sidled up to a reporter and said, "Talked to Barry today. He'll be in Thursday." The following afternoon Rivers, probably Sanders's best buddy on the team, called Barry to see if he wanted to go out in Saginaw the night before camp opened. "He said he was still thinking about not playing," Rivers says. "I thought he was kidding."
The Lions are left to pick up the pieces. Because of salary-cap constraints, it would be virtually impossible for Detroit to trade Sanders in '99. The Lions have Rivers, a five-year veteran who has gained 427 yards, and Sedrick Irvin, a rookie fourth-round draft pick, left to fill Sanders's shoes. The Miami Dolphins have called, feeling out a possible trade, but Schmidt says he isn't listening to offers at this time. (Detroit retained its rights to Sanders by putting him on the reserve-did not report list. As of Monday, Sanders hadn't filed his retirement papers with the league.)
Next year? The cap will rise from $57.2 million to around $61.5 million; in addition, Sanders must repay the Lions $7.2 million of his $11 million bonus, and the team should have at least $3.6 million of that credited to its cap. That should make a Sanders trade easier to pull off. Of course, if the Lions have another year anything like last season, when they finished 5-11, they could have a new coach and a new management team trying to deal him.
Last winter Ford lost a power struggle with his father, team owner William Clay Ford Sr., when he tried to bring former NFL linebacker Matt Millen into the front office and give him full personnel control. Then the incumbents lost Sanders after a seven-month failure to communicate with him. "It makes no sense, based on any business I've ever heard of," says Brown, a friend of the Sanders family. "Anyone in a leadership position in sports has to have a line of communication open with his stars."
Though William Sanders told Ford Jr. that he will try to arrange for him to meet with Barry when he returns from Europe next week, those talks likely would change nothing. "Too little, too late," Barry's friend says.
A great talent has quit in his prime, and the game is diminished. But Sanders, walking the streets of London over the weekend, seemed perfectly comfortable with his decision. "I've talked to him every day since he left," Ware said last Saturday night, "and it's obvious he has no regrets."
Issue date: August 9, 1999