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SO YOU PLAY FOOTBALL?" says the girl, while the ink of his autograph is still drying. Barry Sanders looks up to see if she is serious; decides she is. ¶ "Used to," he says. "A little bit." ¶ It has been a long Saturday. First, Sanders' flight in from Detroit was delayed. Then he scribbled his way through a Chicago hotel conference room full of Detroit Lions and Oklahoma State helmets, signing 345 of them in two hours, occasionally adding 97 MVP 2053 or 89 ROY 97 MVP or 10 X Pro Bowl or, just a few times, Heisman 88 37 TD 2628. Then he and his three companions—the woman assigned to keep track of his every signature; Brian Schwartz, the 22-year-old president of Schwartz Sports; and Brian's 20-year-old brother, Kevin—piled into a dented compact gray Malibu, Sanders in the back, and rushed toward the Northbrook Court mall, rushing even more after Kevin realized halfway there that he'd left the special silver, gold and blue pens back at the hotel.
Still, being 20 minutes late for an autograph signing has its benefits. It gave the crowd of 200 fans snaking outside the Schwartz Sports memorabilia store just enough time to imagine the worst—He's not coming!—so that when Sanders finally arrived, there was as much relief as joy in the cries of, "We want Barry!" Then the parade of supplicants, who paid $89 to $200 apiece for Sanders' autograph, began: a boy with a football signed by Walter Payton (maybe), a man named Dave who asked Sanders if he might play for the Miami Dolphins next year, a guy and his wife who had driven down from Detroit. Now a man walks up with his son. Sanders asks the boy's name, says that he looks like a ballplayer and asks him if he plays. But the father cuts in.
"You coming back?" he asks.
"Yeah, sure," Sanders says, looking away. "Why not?"
This, of course, is the question people have been asking ever since July 28,1999, when Sanders announced at age 31 that he was retiring from professional football. Not since Cleveland's Jim Brown left for Hollywood at 29 had a great athlete clearly in his prime made a departure so startling and so perplexing. Uninjured, poised to break football's most coveted record—Payton's career rushing mark of 16,726—and to make at least $7 million from Run for the Record promotional tie-ins, Sanders sent out a fax stating that "my desire to exit the game is greater than my desire to remain in it" and flew to London. Cornered by reporters at Gatwick Airport, he said that football was "not as fun" as before and added cryptically, "I've been battling for the last few years; as I've gotten older, the game has changed in my mind." Then he went silent. For the past 3½ years Sanders has turned down every opportunity to explain himself.
To this day neither his closest friends nor his parents nor former teammates understand his decision. His father, William, a roofer in Wichita, Kans., calls Barry's explanation about diminished desire "the lie he told" and says he's still flabbergasted. "I don't know what's up with Barry," William says by cellphone on his way home from a job. "I think he's probably confused. This is what I tell my wife, Shirley: He goes off to do autograph shows—it's work. I don't know what they pay him, $50,000, $100,000, whatever. He's still working. You would think a guy would make as much money as he possibly could as long as he could. When Barry quit football, he was making $6 million a year. Personally, I think he's crazy."
Yet here Sanders is, two weeks before Super Bowl Sunday, looking fresh and fit and quite able, at 34, to break off one of those astounding runs that altered one's sense of the possible. Here he is, with everyone else talking about the big game in San Diego and the Playboy party and the limousines that will carry around all the famous faces, signing autographs in a mall. Here he is, the greatest running back of his or maybe any time—the man who, if he hadn't retired, would've carried the rushing record well beyond the reach of the Dallas Cowboys' Emmitt Smith and anyone else for generations to come ("He would've had 20,000 yards, no question," says Denver Broncos tight end Shannon Sharpe)—seeming anything but confused or insane.
Still, it's a surreal sight, and not only because Sanders' world has been reduced from stadiums filled with 80,000 voices to a prime corner near the Food Court. It's also because, for many who know Sanders, this is the last place they thought he'd end up. No one belittles the $250,000 deal he has with Schwartz, but Sanders certainly doesn't need the money, and he never wanted the attention. Indeed, during his 10-year career, Sanders did all he could to diminish the magnitude of Barry Sanders, Superstar, setting new standards for dull humility in interviews, embracing every chance for anonymity. When the Lions traveled to London for the 1993 American Bowl, they were given passes that would allow them to avoid the lines at the Hard Rock Cafe, but sports writers noted a familiar face waiting calmly in the queue. They told him about his pass, but Sanders refused to budge. He liked being part of the crowd.
"Fame and fortune?" says Dale Burk-holder, Sanders' coach at Wichita North High in the early '80s. "I don't think Barry ever felt comfortable with that—in fact, he was sick of it. He told me one time, 'One of the worst things I have to do is a four-hour autograph signing.'"
When he won the Heisman Trophy as an Oklahoma State junior in 1988, Sanders skipped the award ceremony to be with his team. Autograph shows? "That's not him," says Oklahoma State sports information director Steve Buzzard. "That's not the Barry I think I know."