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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

Aug. 09, 1999
Aug. 09, 1999

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Aug. 9, 1999

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

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.

This is an article from the Aug. 9, 1999 issue Original Layout

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."

COLOR PHOTO: COVER PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER COVER Why Barry Bolted THE INSIDE STORY By Peter KingCOLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY AL TIELEMANS So close Sanders retired 1,458 yards short of setting the NFL's career rushing mark.COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO Roadblocks The Lions' payout to Mitchell (19) became an issue for Sanders, and the team's persistent mediocrity added to his frustration.COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT ROGERS [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: DAN WHITE William Sanders says his son wanted to quit after his superb 1997 season. "He was disenchanted with the offense," William recalls.COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Now what? The door is open for Sanders's return, but Ware says his client isn't looking back.

In the two years he coached Barry Sanders, Bobby Ross was
criticized for not giving his marquee back the ball more often
when the Lions were near the opponent's goal line. But for all
his greatness, Sanders wasn't noted for his running ability in
short-yardage situations. In fact, on rushing plays from the
five-yard line and in over the past six seasons, the Lions
scored at a far higher rate when Ross and predecessor Wayne
Fontes put the ball in the hands of someone other than Sanders.

YEAR SANDERS SANDERS OTHER OTHER
RUSHES TDS RUSHES TDS

1998 7 2 16 7
1997 4 1 14 6
1996 9 3 7 4
1995 13 4 8 4
1994 7 1 10 5
1993* 7 1 12 5

*11 games; Sanders missed five games with a sprained knee
Source: Elias Sports Bureau

"Barry has always been professionally vague," says Moore. "He'd
never tell you he was upset, or why."