Barry Sanders’ retirement at the top remains an NFL mystery | Detroit Lions

Detroit Lions

New documentary attempts to get to the heart of the legendary running back’s decision to leave the game while still in his prime

Barry Sanders’ retirement from the NFL in 1999 is still relevant today. Jim Brown and Michael Jordan at least moved on to new pursuits (theater and, in MJ’s case, baseball for a while) and their legacies are assured. Sanders was 31, ringless and about a season away from becoming the NFL’s all-time leading rusher when he fled to London to escape the press, faxing a farewell letter to his hometown newspaper on the eve of Detroit Lions training camp. . “Until yesterday,” one fan whispered at the time, “OJ was my least favorite runner, but he only stabbed two people in the back.”

It took Detroit hitting rock bottom time and time again and other star players walking away from the NFL in their prime — Calvin Johnson, notably — for fans to appreciate Sanders’ lion-hearted appeal. It’s the motivation behind his early retirement that has long been so mysterious. A new documentary from Amazon Prime called Bye Bye Barry aims for more clarity, but ends up being gripping.

Of course, there were bound to be challenges in building a film project around Sanders, one of the most low-key superstars you’ll ever meet. He wasn’t so much distrustful of the media as embarrassed by his celebrity status and eager to disappear whenever the spotlight became too intense. “Some things are just unnecessary,” Sanders said after venting on ESPN after being selected third in the 1989 NFL draft — between Deion Sanders at No. 5 and first-round pick Troy Aikman. “I’m not trying to minimize what you do, but you have to respect my judgment and the way I am as a person.”

Since then, Sanders, 55, has become a cuddly character who isn’t as serious these days. But Bye Bye doesn’t exactly prepare him for the kind of deep introspection that Jordan and Brown present in their materials — a real demerit for an NFL Films team that rarely has to worry about access. (Disclosure: I was a college intern at NFL Films during the 2001 season.) Over the course of the documentary’s 90 minutes, producers interview Sanders under the lights of the Fox Theater, then return to London with him and his sons — but don’t do it. I don’t really get much out of him.

Worse still, directors Paul Monusky, Micaela Powers and Angela Torma had a winning playbook in Sanders’ 2003 autobiography, Now You See Me – which delves into his regrets, his loneliness and his true feelings towards his father, William. “I sometimes wondered if I was ever really the son he thought I should be,” he wrote. “One of the worst moments came shortly before the NFL Draft deadline, when Dad cornered me and swore at me because I was even considering staying at Oklahoma State for my senior year.”

Without much in-depth introspection on the part of their main subject, Bye Bye draws from NFL Films’ familiar bag of tricks of soaring musical numbers, celebrity interviews (Jeff Daniels, Eminem), and archival reels – the star of the series by default. Poetry in motion ” is a phrase used ad nauseam in sports – but in Sanders’ case, it really applies. Even now, he doesn’t look like anything in the game — a 5-foot-8 Houdini with his own knack for moving the chains, an escape artist with a knack for eluding would-be tacklers before turning on the jets. (Think of Lamar Jackson on his best day against the Cincinnati Bengals – only more unstoppable in running.) Sanders’ knack for running in circles behind the line of scrimmage, stretching 30 yards just to gain three, also made him the king of negative runs.

Like the genius painter or composer, Sanders was much better at letting the work speak than at explaining the features. It’s no coincidence that Bye Bye falls the week of Thanksgiving, a football holiday defined by Sanders with his ritual carving of my damn Chicago Bears. (“I hope he doesn’t leave before we can give him the turkey leg,” cracked Fox’s John Madden, Thanksgiving Day host extraordinaire, as the clock ticked down on a masterpiece of three touchdowns in 1997 that moved Sanders into second place on the all-time rushing list.) In the Sanders era – when a running back was the team’s cornerstone, not flesh cannon – he stood head and shoulders above the rest.

At the end of the 1998 season, Sanders was just 1,458 yards away from breaking the all-time rushing record – light work for a guy just a year after he became the third back to rush for more 2,000 yards in one season. “You see the love of the game in Barry’s eyes, in his performance and in the way he carries himself off the field,” said Walter Payton, the Bears god who knocked Brown off Mount Rush-More of the NFL. “Even though you cheered for Barry’s team, you always respected him as a player.”

In hindsight, Sanders’ retirement shouldn’t have surprised anyone, considering how many times he had refused to be in the spotlight in the past — not even snatching a high school race record or curbing mass attention that fell upon him when he won the 1988 Heisman Trophy at Oklahoma State. “Finally, a guy won the award (based) on his ability alone,” Aikman said after UCLA’s charm offense failed to put the quarterback over the top.

“I thought we were going to play each other for many more years,” Cowboys great Emmitt Smith said in a Bye Bye exclusive, recalling the blowout loss Dallas suffered to Detroit in the divisional round of the 1992 playoffs The fact that Smith ended up surpassing Payton in rushing yards never really sat well with people outside of Dallas. Sanders worked a decade on some truly putrid Lions teams to produce his numbers, while Smith had five more years and a slew of All-Star teammates to help him. In Bye Bye, even Sanders laments how much further he could have gone with a stronger supporting cast – but doesn’t subject the Lions leadership to another round of scathing critiques from his book. As time passes and emotions cool, Sanders’ retirement seems more like the final chess move, with fleeting glory sacrificed for his long-term well-being.

As for the question, What was Sanders thinking?, the film is happy to leave the task of shedding light on this issue to longtime blockers Kevin Glover, Lomas Brown, Herman Moore and legendary Lions coach Wayne Fontes. They say it was seeing them and other key teammates move on to greener pastures and two other Lions retired on disability that affected Sanders the most. (The astroturf field inside the crumbling Pontiac Silverdome should have been justification enough for him to quit.) But I suspect Sanders also felt uneasy about the idea of overtaking Payton the same year Payton announced irreversible bile duct cancer – which killed him three months after Sanders’ retirement announcement. If only someone had asked Sanders about all of this in the doc, especially now that he’s no longer dodging anyone.

Bye Bye is part of a broader NFL strategy to expand its dominance from television to the streaming world and attract many younger viewers there — ironic, given that NFL Films practically invented the behind-the-scenes sports documentary. But to stand out in a new era where documentaries are designed to be as gripping as scripted dramas, well, it’s going to take more than the typical effort that has hooked NFL diehards watching on ESPN Classic. This document doesn’t just look like a facsimile of one of those old PR jobs — the last thing Sanders would want for himself. The whole production feels a little rushed and reheated.

Sanders has never been a more ripe target for the tough questions that followed his sudden retirement. It’s a shame that Bye Bye lets Houdini slip away under the same old shroud again.

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