It hit me like a punch in the gut. I was shaking with the helpless, adrenalin-fueled palsy of someone who’s just been in a car accident. I wanted to claw the radio out of my car, rip the words out of the wires, tear them up and make it not true. It couldn’t be true—could it? He couldn’t do that to us—could he? He wouldn’t do that to us—would he?
He would, he could—and he did. In the wee small hours of the first day of training camp, Barry faxed a letter to his hometown paper, the Wichita Eagle, that said:
"Shortly after the end of last season, I felt that I probably would not return for the 1999-2000 season. I also felt that I should take as much time as possible to sort through my feelings and make sure that my feelings were backed with conviction."
" . . . Today, I officially declare my departure from the NFL. It was a wonderful experience to play in the NFL, and I have no regrets. I truly will miss playing for the Lions. I consider the Lions' players, coaches, staff, management and fans, my family."
. . . and just like that, he was gone.
Barry was spotted later that day in London, and told reporters, "I don't know the right way to retire. This is just my way of doing it." Well, Barry, you decided you were going to retire at the end of the season, felt sad about it for months but didn’t tell anyone, then on the morning of training camp, you faxed a letter to your local rag and hopped the pond for a European vacation before your coaches or teammates even knew you’d gone. It was pretty damned obvious that you didn’t know the right way to do it. You couldn’t have done it more wrong if you tried.
Barry said in his statement that he considers the players, coaches, and fans his family. It’s a funny thing about family . . . there’s no greater love—but only a beloved member of your family can really, truly hurt you. No Lion has ever been more universally beloved than Barry Sanders. No Lion has ever meant more to the franchise or fans (apologies to Dutch Clark). To leave when he did, how he did, ducking and running without any real explanation—and with no chance for the Lions’ leadership to make a legitimate move at running back? It repaid a decade of boundless adoration with a knife in the back. He screwed over his coaches, his teammates, and his fans. Many of us swore we’d never forgive him. Indeed, some still haven’t.
Is there any more degrading insult for an athlete? From elementary-school youth leagues to the highest levels of professional sports, the only unforgivable sin is giving less than your best. It is the very essence of sport: if every athlete is not giving everything they have, it’s not true competition. Worse yet, when an athlete gives up—surrenders without seeing it through—they not only invalidate themselves as a competitor, they strip their opponent of the win they deserve! There’s no point in playing against someone who’ll take the ball and go home if they don’t get their way.
Unfortunately, that word, and that decision, will always stain Barry’s legacy. He’ll always be just a little bit short of Walter Payton. He’ll always be a little less great—or a lot less great—in the history books than he was on the field. He’ll never be able to claim, without dispute, the crown that rightfully belongs to him: The Greatest of All Time. That forever will be his punishment for refusing to play the game on anyone’s terms but his own.
[Ed.—I wrote this one myself. Don’t worry, I still love Barry and think he’s awesome and everything.]