Barry The Quitter

>> 10.28.2010

NFL FILE: Barry Sanders of the Detroit Lions.

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.]

Technorati Tags: nfl,detroit lions,barry sanders,barry week


Anonymous,  October 29, 2010 at 4:04 AM  

wow, who wrote this?
you should put your name on such brash opinions.

Ty,  October 29, 2010 at 7:34 AM  

. . . that would be me. Updating to reflect this.


Andrew,  October 29, 2010 at 9:37 AM  

I don't fault Barry for retiring, but I do agree he should have faxed that letter at the end of the season rather than the 1st day of training camp to give the team time to react. So many players stick around too long, people continue working jobs they don't like, he had the guts to do what he had to do, and I respect that.

I always found Barry's retirement very much in character, as some of the articles described this week. He was always thinking a step ahead of everyone and no one knew where he was going.

I don't know how to express it exactly, but I found his retirement fitting, almost poetic. A fax to the Wichita Eagle. He did it the only way he knew how. It resonates even more in this Favre era when everyone's retirement is a drawn out farewell tour. We all know that's not Barry. He certainly didn't know "how to retire" that way, but he did it in his own way and I think it adds to the mystique of his legacy, more than it retracts.

The fax to Wichita reminds me that as a pro sports fans, you don't get to choose your icons and legends. They're gifts and short-term and rarely yours to keep. I think growing up with so many Red Wings playing out their careers there that sometimes I forget the fleeting nature of the professional game. Barry reminds me of that.

As for its impact on his records and his place in history, it's hard to see that as his "punishment." It seemed a part of his plan all along.

Kris,  October 29, 2010 at 9:50 AM  

Given how much punishment running backs take (though Barry's dancing caused him to take less than others), I don't blame any running back if they want to retire early. I know the last few years had to be frustrating for him, the oline was pretty terrible. My last memories of Barry are of him working his ass off just to get to the line of scrimmage and maybe a bit beyond.

The way Barry retired was kinda shitty though... if he had these feelings, he needed to retire a lot earlier so the team he left behind could address his departure through the draft or free agency. That's really the only think I fault him for.

I would have loved a few more seasons of Barry but I would have hated for it to end like it did for LT in San Diego, Shaun Alexander in Seattle, etc. Going out while still great might have been good for his legacy even if crushing for Lions fans.

TimT,  October 29, 2010 at 2:16 PM  

LeBron topped Barry. As ticked as I was and still am with Barry, especially after only showing his face again when he was trying to sell a book... At least he didn't do what James did. That man is certifiable. Barry was finished, LeBron James is touched.

Anonymous,  October 31, 2010 at 4:41 AM was 11 years ago...

he didn't kill anyone.

get over it :)


TonyM,  November 25, 2012 at 3:22 PM  

Put yourself in the shoes of his team mates. They got in shape all summer and were ready to show up and give it their all and this guy quits on them. Barry Sanders is a quitter and always will be in my eyes.

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