Why Barry Sanders Walked Away From the NFL in His Prime

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Sports fans tend to feel proprietary about their heroes, as if stars owed us more than the heroics and physical sacrifice they provide on the field or court. The better the athlete, the more we expect and demand. So, when all-world Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders announced his retirement in 1998, after ten exemplary seasons with a largely losing team, fans were angry. How dare he? Doesn’t he know we love watching him? Some of the aggrievement was due to the way Sanders walked away, with a fax (remember those?) to team management and a quick get-away to clear his head in London. But the loudest Lions fans were appalled that Sanders would even consider walking away while he could still walk.

The new documentary Bye Bye Barry takes us back to the Age of Barry, when once a week a 5’8” blur made hulking lineman look stupid as they tried to tackle air. It enlists a number of Michiganders, including Eminem, Jeff Daniels, Jemele Hill, Jalen Rose, and Tim Allen, to describe the agony of being a Lions fan, the ecstasy of watching Sanders play, and the confusion of seeing him begin a life after . It follows Sanders himself through a return trip to London, this time with his four sons.

There are no revelatory gotcha moments here. If anything, Bye Bye Barry reaffirms a bit of common sense: When a ten-year NFL veteran who has spent a career carrying a mediocre franchise and seeing teammates suffer serious injuries decides to retire, it’s not strange or outrageous. It’s sane. Or, as sportscaster Dan Patrick puts it in the doc, “The real mystery might be why we were surprised in the first place.”

A collaboration between NFL Films and Amazon, Bye Bye Barry works primarily as a profile of a superstar who was unusual as an elite athlete because he was so normal as a person. He didn’t dance or spike the ball when he found the endzone (which he did 109 times in his career). Instead, he casually flipped the ball to the ref. He didn’t care much about piling up records or accolades; as a rookie he could have easily won the NFL rushing title but didn’t ask to reenter the game when he was just five yards short (he would go on to win the crown four times). He let his dad, William, talk big to the press, preferring to recede into the background. Like most athletes, however, he hated losing, an activity the Lions were unfortunately used to. As Daniels, a longtime fan of the team, says, “You grow up in darkness.”


Barry Sanders in ‘Bye Bye Barry.’

Amazon Studios

From 1989 to 1998, Sanders carried the light. Even if Bye Bye Barry were thoughtless and bland – and it definitely isn’t – the doc would still offer the unmitigated pleasure of all that NFL Films footage featuring Sanders doing work. He was a lightning-like Houdini, juking out of certain backfield tackles with moves that bordered on criminal. Some backs run with power, others with speed; Sanders always had both, his legs moving like furious pistons until he exploded into the open field. But what made Sanders my favorite running back, and perhaps the athlete who gave me the most pleasure to watch, was his sense of balance. He looked like he was running on ball bearings, dipping a shoulder halfway to the ground, swiveling this way and that, defying human physics. To quote an awestruck announcer calling a game in the doc, “Normal joints don’t move the way Barry Sanders’ joints move.” Patrick compares him to Rembrandt and Picasso, and the idea seems perfectly reasonable.

In both present-day and archival interviews, Sanders, now 55, comes across as a serious human being who decided he had enough and didn’t look back. Free agents were leaving the Lions in droves. The team was losing. He didn’t really want to play anywhere else. The inner fire was gone. The average career of an NFL running back is less than three years. Sanders more than tripled that. Might he have stuck around if he had the quarterback and offensive line enjoyed by his nearest peer, Emmitt Smith of the Cowboys? Maybe. But he didn’t. So, he sent his fax and ambled into the sunset. Bye Bye Barry forgoes sensationalism and squawking beads for an implicit statement of the obvious: Barry Sanders owes you nothing.          

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