Why Barry Sanders left the NFL in his prime

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Sports fans tend to feel ownership over their heroes, as if the stars owe us more than the heroics and physical sacrifices they make on the field. The better the athlete, the more we expect and demand. So when Detroit Lions all-star offensive guard Barry Sanders announced his retirement in 1998, after ten exemplary seasons with a largely losing team, fans were angry. How dare he? Doesn’t he know that we like to look at him? Part of the discontent was due to the way Sanders was walking away, with a fax (remember those?) to team management and a quick getaway to clear his head in London. But the Lions’ most vocal fans were dismayed that Sanders would even consider walking away while he could still walk.

The new documentary Goodbye Barry takes us back to the Barry era, when once a week a 5’8″ blur made a hulking lineman look stupid as he tried to tackle the air. He calls for a a number of Michiganders, including Eminem, Jeff Daniels, Jemele Hill, Jalen Rose and Tim Allen, to describe the agony of being a Lions fan, the ecstasy of watching Sanders play and the confusion of watching him start a life after …It follows Sanders himself on a return trip to London, this time with his four sons.

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There is no revelation I got you moments here. If anything, Goodbye Barry reaffirms some common sense: when a ten-year NFL veteran, who spent a career carrying a mediocre franchise and watched his teammates suffer serious injuries, decides to retire, it is neither strange nor scandalous. It’s sane. Or, as sports commentator Dan Patrick says in the doc: “The real mystery might be why we were surprised in the first place.” »

A collaboration between NFL Films and Amazon, Goodbye Barry works primarily as a profile of a superstar who was unusual as an elite athlete because he was so normal as a person. He didn’t dance or throw the ball when he found the end zone (which he did 109 times in his career). Instead, he casually threw the ball to the referee. He didn’t care much about accumulating records or accolades; as a rookie, he could have easily won the NFL rushing title, but didn’t ask to re-enter the game when he was only five yards short (he would win the crown four times). He let his father, William, talk big to the press, preferring to recede into the background. But like most athletes, he hated losing, an activity to which the Lions were unfortunately accustomed. As Daniels, a longtime fan of the team, puts it: “You grow up in obscurity. »


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Barry Sanders in “Bye Bye Barry.”

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From 1989 to 1998, Sanders carried the light. Even if Goodbye Barry were thoughtless and bland — and it certainly isn’t — the doc would still deliver the absolute pleasure of all that NFL Films footage featuring Sanders working. He was a lightning Houdini, coming out of some backfield tackles with moves that bordered on the criminal. Some backs run with power, others with speed; Sanders still had both, his legs moving like furious pistons until he exploded in the open field. But what made Sanders my favorite running back, and perhaps the athlete who gave me the most pleasure to watch, was his sense of balance. He looked like he was running on ball bearings, dipping one shoulder halfway to the ground, pivoting from side to side, defying human physics. To quote an amazed announcer calling a game in the documentary: “Normal joints don’t move the same way Barry Sanders’s do.” » Patrick compares him to Rembrandt and Picasso, and the idea seems entirely reasonable.

In current interviews and archives, Sanders, now 55, comes across as a serious human being who decided he’d had enough and hasn’t looked back. Free agents were leaving the Lions in droves. The team was losing. He didn’t really want to play anywhere else. The inner fire had disappeared. The average career for an NFL running back is less than three years. Sanders more than tripled that figure. Could he have stuck around if he had the benefit of the quarterback and offensive line of his closest counterpart, Emmitt Smith of the Cowboys? Maybe. But he did not do it. So he sent his fax and headed off into the sunset. Goodbye Barry forgoes sensationalism and screaming pearls for an implicit statement of the obvious: Barry Sanders owes you nothing.

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