The contract squabble between Barry Sanders and the Detroit
Lions has come to this: The two agents representing the All-Pro
running back seemed to be plucking petals off a daisy last week
when they were asked why their client was absent from the Lions'
voluntary minicamp. "It is about money," said Lamont Smith. "It
isn't the money," said David Ware.
Detroit's new coach, Bobby Ross, who hasn't spoken to Sanders
since mid-April, said last Thursday that he has left four
messages on the player's answering machine and has taken the
extraordinary step of sending him a registered letter "just to
update Barry on what's going on and to tell him that I've tried
to reach him and to ask him to give me a buzz."
Sanders surfaced most recently on rocker Ted Nugent's
Detroit-based radio show on June 3 when he did a phone interview
during which he rapped about his recent vacation to Rio de
Janiero and endured some ridicule from Nugent and his two guest
cohosts, a Denver radio duo named Lewis and Floorwax. One on-air
exchange went like this:
Floorwax: "Barry really likes watches, don't you, Barry? He's
got one where you turn it upside down and the bikini disappears
off the chick."
Sanders: "Oh, maaaaan."
Nugent's show will never be confused with Nightline. During the
course of the seven-minute interview Sanders was asked only one
football question: What's the prognosis for the '97 Lions? ("I
think things are going to work out well," he replied. "I think
we have the ingredients for a successful year.") There was no
mention of the contract dispute. Not a word about Ross's
displeasure after Sanders skipped a mandatory minicamp in late
April. ("Barry should be here," Ross said at the time. "He's
under contract.") Nothing about whether Sanders planned to
attend the three-day voluntary minicamp, which ended on Sunday.
But in a telephone interview with SI last Saturday from Atlanta,
Sanders reiterated that his decision to remain incommunicado
with the Lions is "nothing against Coach Ross. I do feel bad
about the strain it's maybe putting on Coach. I really like him.
I think he's going to be great for our team. But there's this
other issue that has to be settled first."
Sanders has one year left on a four-year, $17.2 million
contract. If he waits until after the 1997 season to work out a
new deal and talks reach a stalemate, the Lions could slap him
with their franchise-player designation and force him to play in
'98 for the average salary of the five highest-paid running
backs in the league or 120% of his 1997 salary, whichever is
greater. "To maintain optimal leverage, I think it's probably
best to wait this out, get it done now," he says.
The 5'8", 203-pound Sanders, who has led the NFL in rushing
three times and has finished second three times in his eight pro
seasons, is scheduled to earn $4.23 million this season. The
Lions, who entered into contract talks in February, have agreed
to sweeten his next contract with an $11 million signing bonus,
but one of Sanders's stipulations is that he become Detroit's
highest-paid player. That means he would have to earn more than
quarterback Scott Mitchell, who in February signed a deal that
pays an average salary of $5.25 million over four years. Sanders
wants an average of $5.5 million over the same term.
A snag developed in April when the Lions offered Sanders an
average of about $5.2 million per year. Then, last month,
Detroit executive vice president Chuck Schmidt and cap
specialist Tom Lewand offered Sanders a package that would
effectively pay him $250 a year more than Mitchell, telling
Smith and Ware, "There, are you satisfied? Now he's the
highest-paid player on the team." At that point feelings became
frayed, and the public posturing began anew.
"That was insulting," Smith says.
"We want to do what's appropriate for Barry, but we also have to
make it fit with the salary cap so we can remain competitive,"
"They're talking out both sides of their mouths," Smith
counters. "In our last written proposal we met their salary cap
number exactly; then they said it wasn't a cap issue, it was a
cash problem. Give me a break. They're just not ready to write
So when the Lions took the practice field last Friday, a fellow
named Ron Rivers, a 1994 free-agent pickup, was the starting
halfback. Sixth-year reserve back Eric Lynch sat next to
Sanders's locker after the first workout, laughing as a
photographer snapped pictures of the unused stall. Later,
jocular wide receiver Herman Moore walked down a stadium hallway
saying, "You know, I've seen Barry around town--at Caribou
Coffee, at Dunkin' Donuts." Moore's eyebrows jerked upward in
mock horror, and he deadpanned, "Those are eating places. For
whatever that's worth." Then he laughed one more time at the
Where's Barry? hand-wringing. "Let's face it," Moore said,
"Barry's going to be back here at some point, even if they have
to mortgage the Silverdome to get it done."
Even Sanders, who has held out twice before, says, "This deal
will get done. Just like the others always have before."
In the interim Ross stews. "This may be a part of the game," he
says, "but I don't have to like it." The 60-year-old Ross is a
no-nonsense coach, which is to say he's the opposite of Wayne
Fontes, his loosey-goosey predecessor, who with a wink and a
bemused sigh indulged Sanders's careerlong habit of skipping
minicamps. Mitchell, who came to Detroit by way of the Miami
Dolphins, says that in some ways Ross reminds him of Don Shula.
Like Shula, Ross is short on hyperbole and fond of aphorisms
about the virtue of hard work. Precision enthralls Ross, and
boneheaded mistakes appall him. "Barry has a contract, and he
should be here," Ross repeated last week. "There's less to be
said about missing this camp because it is voluntary. But he's
as far behind as you can be. This is his team. I think he should
be here. Every minute he's missing is valuable time."
Though Ross's fretting comes as no surprise, particularly since
he is trying to jump-start a team that lost nine of its last 10
games in '96, the fact remains that Sanders came through his
previous holdouts--in 1989 and '91--without a hitch. Training
camp is still a month away, and as Sanders said last Saturday,
"Competence has, um, never been a real problem for me."
As a rookie in '89 Sanders joined the Lions two days before
their opener against the Phoenix Cardinals. Running variations
of the one play he knew, Sanders juked for 71 yards on nine
carries. He ran for 18 yards on his first attempt and scored on
his fourth, prompting Fontes to rush onto the field, swallow his
rookie in a bear hug and gush, "I love you!" into Sanders's ear.
(Told that story last week, Ross allowed himself a small smile
and drawled, "Well, Barry's good all right. He's good.")
Voted to the Pro Bowl after each of his eight seasons, Sanders
ranks seventh on the NFL career rushing list with 11,725 yards
and has a gaudy 4.9-yard average per carry. Even in '93, when he
missed the last five games with a sprained left knee, Sanders
rushed for 1,115 yards--his lowest output for a single season.
If he stays healthy and plays in all 16 games this year, Sanders
could pass boyhood hero Marcus Allen (11,738 yards), Franco
Harris (12,120), Jim Brown (12,312) and Tony Dorsett (12,739)
and vault into the third spot on the alltime rushing list. If he
averages 1,251 yards over the next four seasons, Sanders will
surpass Walter Payton (16,726) as the NFL's career rushing leader.
Yet mention overtaking Payton and Sanders demurs. "Right now
it's not that significant to me," he says. "It's way out there.
It doesn't really seem totally out of my reach, but I don't know
how good I'll be in three or four years. I'm in my last career
stage, most definitely. I would be surprised to see me play five
seasons. I'm kind of on the straightaway of my career. Whenever
I do quit, it'll be 'See you guys later. Had enough.'" He has
shown no signs of slowing. Last season Sanders, who turns 29 on
July 16, became the first NFL player to rush for 1,500 yards in
three consecutive years.
Sanders insists that, more than money or records, he wants a
Super Bowl championship. Teammates who watched him thrash and
fight for yards as the Lions death-spiraled to a 5-11 record in
'96 say they don't doubt Sanders's commitment to the team one
bit, even if he has been an off-season no-show.
In many ways Sanders remains the preternaturally calm individual
he was when he hit the NFL as a 21-year-old, fresh off a Heisman
Trophy-winning season at Oklahoma State. His teammates laugh
about how he nods off during film sessions or even during a game
if the defense is on the field for a long stretch. Linebacker
George Jamison quips, "You think he's got a sleeping disorder or
Sanders is needled mercilessly for being tightfisted too. Though
the tales of his largesse are legion--he bought his parents a
7,000-square-foot house, helped several of his 10 siblings and
friends through college and still tithes to his Baptist
church--Sanders spends little on himself. He lives in the same
$185,000 house in Rochester Hills that he bought as a rookie.
When asked recently if he planned to buy a new house with his
next windfall contract, Sanders, who has never married, told a
friend, "Maybe I'll renovate the kitchen."
Former Lions wide receiver Brett Perriman says, "I remember him
telling me after practice one day, 'Hey, Brett, come outside and
see my new car.' I said, 'O.K., what'd you get?' Barry said, 'A
Jaguar, man.' And I was thinking, All right, B!" The two stepped
"It was a Jaguar all right," Perriman recalls. "A 1987! I said,
'Man, that ain't no new car. You've got to be the dirt-cheapest
rich man in America!'"
At times like that Sanders still seems like a curiosity. More
and more, though, teammates say, Sanders is not the inscrutable
guy he was when he entered the league. His desire to win is more
apparent than ever, and if there's a knock against him, it's
that he hasn't lifted his team to an NFL title in the same way
Emmitt Smith has goaded the Dallas Cowboys to three Super Bowl
victories. (Of course, Sanders hasn't been surrounded by
comparable talent.) Last season might have been his most
disappointing. "We didn't play up to our potential, and we
thought we were better than we were," Sanders says. "That's a
At times Detroit's offensive players seemed on the verge of
revolting. Mitchell questioned the game plans. The receivers
sulked and demanded the ball. Through the first 10 games, 10 NFL
backs--including Adrian Murrell of the god-awful New York
Jets--had more carries than Sanders. Mitchell lampooned Fontes
at a team Halloween party, coming dressed with a pillow stuffed
up his shirt, wearing Mickey Mouse ears and holding a stogie. A
film crew caught him reciting some of the coach's vintage lines.
Near the end of the season Moore told the Detroit News he was so
despondent that he had to fight the impulse to skip practice.
But now? "Now it's like a weight has lifted," he says.
"With Coach Ross," adds Mitchell, "we have a game plan, and it's
not going to flip-flop from week to week."
Even Sanders says he's excited about Ross's commitment to the
running game, and the coach says he wants Sanders to touch the
ball 20 to 25 times a game, including pass plays. In addition to
the one-back, double-tight-end scheme that Ross's San Diego
Chargers rode to the Super Bowl in the 1994 season, the Lions
will use a two-back, two-wideout set for added versatility. Ross
promises, "If we're behind 14-0 or 17-0 at halftime, we're not
going to come out in the second half and throw every play. Barry
is that kind of weapon. Me, I'm always looking for ways to run."
"Hey, I like to hear that," says Sanders. "I like the run too."
It could be a match made in heaven, whenever the parties get
hooked up. Even Ross can't suppress a smile when he discusses
the possibilities. Last week, as they watched the Lions' 1996
highlight film for the first time, Ross and his wife, Alice,
gasped at one of Sanders's runs against the Green Bay Packers.
On third-and-15 from the Green Bay 18, Sanders took a handoff,
bounced off a head-on hit by safety Eugene Robinson, cut across
the field and left seven more defenders clutching air as he
dashed into the end zone.
Laughing now, Ross says, "When we turned the tape off, the first
thing my wife said was 'How close are we to signing that guy?'"
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Before Sanders no one had rushed for 1,000 yards in each of his first eight NFL seasons. [Barry Sanders carrying football in game]
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER At last weekend's minicamp Ross (left) made it clear that he is all business. [Bobby Ross watching players practice]
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Mitchell passed Sanders on the Lions' payroll when he signed a $21 million deal in February. [Scott Mitchell]
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Unheralded backs Lynch (left), Allen Williams and Rivers benefited from Sanders's absence. [Eric Lynch, Allen Williams and Ron Rivers in locker room]