13 years ago this Saturday on July 28, 1999, legendary running back Barry Sanders shocked the Detroit Lions and the National Football League by faxing a retirement letter to his hometown newspaper, the Wichita Eagle, in Kansas.
The 30-year-old Sanders, who amassed 15,269 yards and was inevitably going to shatter Walter Payton’s rushing record, then boarded a plane bound for Europe.
“I don’t know the right way to retire,” said Sanders, a member of the NFL 1990′s All-Decade Team who averaged 5.0 yards a carry and scored 99 touchdowns. “This is just my way of doing it.”
Many fans, onlookers and pundits speculated Sanders, a healthy, 5-foot-8, 200 pound physical marvel, was attempting to orchestrate a trade to a contending organization like the Green Bay Packers or Miami Dolphins.
Unfortunately, the most electric and elusive runner ever, who earned the 1997 Most Valuable Player award after becoming one of only six backs to rush for in excess of 2,000 yards in a single season, would never again compete on the gridiron.
In his 2003 autobiography, Sanders, who the Lions chose with the third pick out of Oklahoma State University in the 1989 draft, admitted Detroit’s losing culture and decision to release Pro Bowl center Kevin Glover for salary cap reasons at the end of 1997 fueled his exit from the game.
“When they got rid of Kevin Glover, they convinced me that their goal wasn’t anywhere close to being about winning games, “ wrote Sanders, a 10-time All-Pro and four-time rushing champion. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but part of me left with him.”
The Lions, who have never made the Super Bowl and established the benchmark for futility in 2008 by becoming the only squad to go winless in a 16-game schedule, finally appear to be ascending.
Regrettably, Detroit’s improvements have come more than a decade after the #17 Player of all-time by NFL.com bolted from “The D.”
In retrospect, Barry Sanders, in a quick and unassuming manner, perfectly departed the collision sport known as football.