Blogs > From The Bleacher Seats

A roundup of news on sporting events, people and places in Southeast Michigan by columnist Jim Evans.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Keeping track of the elusive Barry Sanders

Ever see one of those Where’s Waldo books?
They are filled with all sorts of graphics of folks who slightly resemble that dude with the glasses and striped stocking hat.
Forget Waldo. The question that resonated in the late summer of 1999 was “Where’s Barry?”
That is when Barry Sanders shocked all by abruptly retiring from both the Detroit Lions and professional football.
There were sightings, but certainly not around the Motor City. He was allegedly seen at an airport. He supposedly went to Europe. He was working at the same Burger King in Kalamazoo as Elvis.
Barry Sanders was seemingly everywhere but where fans of the Lions wanted him – at training camp with the rest of the players.
Anybody catch the Pepsi advertisement featuring Barry Sanders that just came out?
Barry is at a barber shop getting a shave. There’s talk about his abrupt disappearance from football. The obvious question is why.
Just as Barry is about to reveal the real reason he retired, Poof! He vanishes in a puff of smoke and reappears in the living room of some guy playing the Madden NFL 25 video game.
Now you see him. Now you don’t. Where’s Waldo and was he hanging with Barry Sanders?
When he abruptly left the game, Sanders was just 1,457 yards short of the NFL rushing record.
I have been in this business a long time. It’s been a long time since I have been wide eyed. They started to narrow some probably the first time I walked into a professional locker room. Guys I had previously only read about or watched on television were suddenly lounging all around. They were not posters. They were real life. Some were great guys. Others weren’t so great. Mostly, they were just like you and me.
Only their job descriptions were different. They did not sell cars. They did not make cars. They played football. Or baseball. Or basketball. Or hockey.
Sanders, well, he was never like you and I. He got my eyes wide open again. His greatness superseded all comparisons. His running style was unique. He would charge into the line, be enveloped by guys a foot taller and 100 pounds heavier, and jam the transmission into reverse. He would re-emerge and change directions and skitter 25 yards downfield. He could pivot on a dime and leave seven cents change. He had a sense of balance that even the Flying Wallendas marveled at.
But, on the eve of training camp in 1999, Sander had enough. He left the team and the game in the rearview mirror. He’d gotten tired of the organization’s ineptitude. The Lions had finished 5-11 in two of his final three seasons.
In a documentary by the NFL Network and NFL films, Sanders said that he struggled with the decision to retire all offseason, but in the end, had lost the “drive, determination and enjoyment” for the game.
"Over the next few years it looked like we would probably be rebuilding and we had gotten rid of some good players,” Sanders said. “I just felt like it was time to make a change.”

Over the years, my kids have never really paid much attention to what I do for a living; even in the earlier days when I was covering teams like the Tigers, Lions, Pistons and Red Wings. To them, it was just dad going to work at night. I might as well have been flipping pancakes at IHOP or worked in the pit at some oil change place.
But one Sunday, that magically changed. We were at Great Lakes Crossing in Auburn Hills in the food court eating bourbon chicken or corn dogs or something like that. All of a sudden, Barry Sanders appears and walks to one of the nearby food counters. Since the mall was going to close in a few minutes, there weren’t many people around.
Barry glanced our way and waved to me. I gave him a quick wave in return.
“Dad, do you know Barry Sanders?” asked Breanna, our youngest daughter. “I can’t believe he just waved to you.”
He picked up his food and then he was gone. Poof he went. Just like in the Pepsi commercial. Just like in his career.


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