Barry Sanders’ retirement wasn’t as big of a surprise internally as it was externally

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Twenty years ago, Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders abruptly and shockingly retired from the Lions, with a statement faxed to his hometown newspaper in Wichita. Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press, who looks back at Sanders’ decision to walk away from the game after only 10 NFL seasons, makes it clear that the sense of surprise didn’t extend to some teammates and coaches, who saw it coming for months.

Former Lions defensive end Robert Porcher explained to Birkett that Porcher first caught wind of a Sanders retirement from teammate Tracy Scroggins, while on the plane home from the 1998 regular-season finale, a loss to the Ravens in Baltimore.

“He said, ‘Man, you need to go back there and talk to Barry,'” Porcher told Birkett. “And I was like, ‘Talk to Barry about what?’ And he said, ‘Man, he said he’s going to retire.’ And I was just like, I was like, ‘Hell, everybody wants to retire after tonight.'”

Porcher then saw Sanders a few months later, and it became more clear that Sanders was serious.

“He said, ‘I know there’s been some talks, man, people saying [I‘m going retire],'” Porcher told Birkett. “He said, ‘I don’t know what I want to do.’ I was like, ‘Barry, look, man. You’re my teammate. I understand. You don’t have to explain anything to me. I’m behind you just like everybody else. All the other guys are behind you. Whatever you decide, we’re behind you.’ And that was the last we talked about him possibly retiring. And then when we came to camp, all hell broke loose.”

All hell broke loose because, even though folks connected to the team suspected it, no one had said anything about it to a media that was far less prevalent and pervasive than it now is. Even coach Bobby Ross, who often is blamed for the decision by Sanders to quit football, saw it coming.

“My actual reaction was, ‘Well, so be it,'” Ross told Birkett. “I mean because I was 50 percent expecting it, so it wasn’t like I was surprised. I think [executive V.P.] Chuck [Schmidt] probably felt surprised, but when you’re that close to camp you got to go ahead and go. You can’t mope about it and you can’t get down on it. You got to stay up. And so that was my reaction.”

Birkett’s article has plenty of details regarding the decision, the aftermath, the effort to replace Sanders, and the amazing reality that the Lions made the playoffs in that first season without Sanders. To their credit, the Lions found a way to process the decision and turn the page.

Aiding that effort was now-Steelers G.M. Kevin Colbert, who at the time served as Detroit’s director of pro scouting. Colbert put together clips of some of Barry Sanders’ runs from 1998, showing Sanders going out of bounds prematurely or hitting the deck with limited defensive contact — and contrasting those runs with plays from past years when he didn’t bail out early.

So the Lions moved on, Sanders moved on, and even though there were persistent rumors and speculation over the next year few years that Sanders would come back, the vibe that emanates from Birkett’s story is clear: Once Sanders was done, he was completely and totally done.

29 responses to “Barry Sanders’ retirement wasn’t as big of a surprise internally as it was externally

  1. Two of the most talented guys in Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson that where broken by constant losing.

  2. If Barry had even HALF the talent around him that Emmitt did, there wouldn’t be a question about who the greatest running back was, at least of the 1990s.

    Give Barry either Aikman/Irvin/Novachek/Johnston, or the Cowboys offensive line. Either one, and he would have rewritten every rushing record. To be quite honest, given the supporting cast, coaching, and defense that Emmitt Smith had, he was fairly underachieving.

    Barry was one player who could make Pro Bowl defenders laugh and cry on the same play.

  3. I saw Sanders play many games and noticed that he avoided contact and fell down a lot. I think he led the NFL is losses from line of scrimmage. Detroit also took him out on goal line plays.

    Contrast that to Walter Payton who never ran out of bounds on purpose once in his carrer and dealt out punishment when he ran

    The great Jim Brown said Payton was the RB he admired most. He wasnt a big fan of Sanders

  4. It’s funny that Sanders gave 10 seasons as runningback and his retirement is seen as premature while today if a running back gives you ten seasons that’s usually seen as a full and goid length career. I get it. Sanders left with more than enough left in the tank and probably had 3 more pro bowl/all pro caliber seasons left in him. But for an NFL runningback it seems 10 years is the right amount to make a mark on the game and leave healthy enough to enjoy retirement. Besides 10 years puts most backs on the wring side of 30.

  5. Everything said here could also be said about Sweetness and The Gale from Kansas. Great great players each one, different circumstances for each created different legacys, but super stars of our (that) generation no doubt. Go Packers

  6. tylawspick6 says:
    July 21, 2019 at 12:29 pm
    Sanders or Payton..tough call

    Either way, Sanders to the Pats.

    ==========

    Funny, everytime I think of Barry and the Patriots, I only see poor Harlon Barnett spinning in circles trying to find Sanders.

  7. Yea the Lions definitely destroy and waste careers. They have a deep history of failure and it drives the players to early retirement.

  8. The Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith debate is a complete joke. Emmitt was a decent RB on a loaded team. Barry is the greatest RB since Walter Payton and had no talent around him. Emmitt wishes he was half as good as Barry was. I think all rational people can see that Emmit was a product of having a great team. Barry was hands down the greatest RB of that time and through today.

  9. Barry Sanders was a great player, who’s career was cut short by an awful franchise that did nothing for him. To say he is better than Emmitt because of that fact, however, is completely misguided. Just ask every one of Emmitt’s former Olinemen.

  10. Everyone talks of emmitts o-line like it was full of guys with gold jackets.fact is there was only 1 hof player on that line.and he arrived after 3 rushing titles,an mvp,and a few 1st team all pro seasons for emmitt.and for the guy who said emmitt underachieved for how good the team was,he couldn’t do much better than 1st all time in yardage and rushing tds.lets not forget his 3 rings to go along with his stats.emmitt had the heart of a lion.barry the lion,ironically,had no heart

  11. Even us packers fans loved and respected Barry, and enjoyed watching him play. Classy guy too, never saw him do a stupid dance after a first down run or touchdown.

  12. that rare randy moss and adrian peterson type player where an 80 yrd TD could happen on any play.

  13. Frazier28/7 says:
    July 21, 2019 at 3:30 pm
    that rare randy moss and adrian peterson type player where an 80 yrd TD could happen on any play.

    ————–

    Moss or Peterson can’t hold a candle to Barry Sanders. Jim Brown and Walter Payton are the only two who could, and pound for pound, Sanders was as good if not better than even they were! G.O.A.T.!!!!!!!!!!!

    ROAR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! #ONEPRIDE

  14. murphyslaw40 says:
    July 21, 2019 at 11:51 am
    If Barry had even HALF the talent around him that Emmitt did, there wouldn’t be a question about who the greatest running back was, at least of the 1990s.

    Give Barry either Aikman/Irvin/Novachek/Johnston, or the Cowboys offensive line. Either one, and he would have rewritten every rushing record. To be quite honest, given the supporting cast, coaching, and defense that Emmitt Smith had, he was fairly underachieving.

    Barry was one player who could make Pro Bowl defenders laugh and cry on the same play.

    ____

    Give Walter Payton the Cowboys line and the record and he would have had 20,000 yards. No one would ever touch his records.

    Walter NEVER took the negative plays like Sanders did. And he could run short yardage, catch, block and even throw. Sanders couldnt block, couldnt catch and sucked in short yardage.

  15. Despite the fact that Emmitt holds every statistical advantage over Barry Sanders and has 3 more SB rings people love to talk about how much better Sanders was. This is mostly due to a hatred of anything Cowboys. But the truth is Dallas’ roster didn’t make Emmitt. Emmitt made that roster. Emmitt Smith opened up everything on that team.
    The truth about Barry is that he would make 5 or 6 spectacular runs a season and would frequently follow that up with subpar games. He was terrible in the red zone and in short yardage. He wasn’t half the receiver or blocker Emmitt was and he didn’t play through pain like Emmitt did or lead his team to postseason success like Emmitt did.
    Barry also had a really good offensive line with Lomas Brown and Kevin Glover for years. It wasn’t as good as Emmitts but Emmitts was only dominant for about 4 seasons. During their prime years 91-98 Emmitt and Barry split the rushing title 4 times a piece. So this mythology that Barry was way better during there hay day is also garbage.
    Let’s dispell the Barry was better nonsense. Their is no factual argument that supports it.

  16. Barry Sanders is the greatest RB in the history of the NFL. No exceptions. I saw every run/game by Sweetness. He was spectacular, perhaps equal to Jim Brown. Neither possessed the incredible elusiveness of Barry Sanders. This mess about him avoiding contact is ludicrous revisionism.

  17. All of the Emmitt Smith bashers never saw the Dallas Cowboys play without him. The team and the fans wanted to get rid of all the offensive linemen before Smith showed up. Smith could run, block, and catch and opened everything up for the Cowboys. All you have to do is check their record when Smith wasn’t in the game.

  18. I’m not a Vikings fanboy by any means, but I think Adrian was probably the closest to Emmitt and Barry of the past twenty seasons. He had it all, burst, vision, mean streak, top speed, elusiveness.

    If he didnt lose two seasons in Minnesota (injury and suspension) and the terrible decision to sign with New Orleans’ loaded backfield, I think he would be in the conversation.

    We may not see the career rushing yard record break in the next 20 years. I mean, Frank Gore started playing soon as he came back from Vietnam, and he’s still 3500 yards away.

  19. All you clowns ripping Emmitt, give me a reason why Barry Saunders was better than Emmitt Smith, i don’t care if Barry was faster and had better moves, i want stats to show that he was better than Emmitt…………good luck with that!

  20. jkb0162 says:
    July 21, 2019 at 4:17 pm
    Despite the fact that Emmitt holds every statistical advantage over Barry Sanders and has 3 more SB rings people love to talk about how much better Sanders was. This is mostly due to a hatred of anything Cowboys. But the truth is Dallas’ roster didn’t make Emmitt. Emmitt made that roster. Emmitt Smith opened up everything on that team.
    The truth about Barry is that he would make 5 or 6 spectacular runs a season and would frequently follow that up with subpar games. He was terrible in the red zone and in short yardage. He wasn’t half the receiver or blocker Emmitt was and he didn’t play through pain like Emmitt did or lead his team to postseason success like Emmitt did.
    Barry also had a really good offensive line with Lomas Brown and Kevin Glover for years. It wasn’t as good as Emmitts but Emmitts was only dominant for about 4 seasons. During their prime years 91-98 Emmitt and Barry split the rushing title 4 times a piece. So this mythology that Barry was way better during there hay day is also garbage.
    Let’s dispell the Barry was better nonsense. Their is no factual argument that supports it.
    ***********************************************************************
    Amen brother!

  21. ucam1 says:
    July 21, 2019 at 2:26 pm
    The Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith debate is a complete joke. Emmitt was a decent RB on a loaded team. Barry is the greatest RB since Walter Payton and had no talent around him. Emmitt wishes he was half as good as Barry was. I think all rational people can see that Emmit was a product of having a great team. Barry was hands down the greatest RB of that time and through today.
    ***********************************************************************************
    “Emmitt was a decent RB on a loaded team”….decent running back?, that is the biggest joke i have read on this site in years, Emmitt was the pure definition of an “every down” great back, he could run, catch & block, Barry was just a runner, i have never seen Barry hammer a blitzing safety or linebacker like Emmitt used to do & “decent” running backs don’t become the NFL all time leading rusher and sure as hell do not go into the Hall of Fame as a first ballot selection….SMH!

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