So you play football?" says the girl, while the ink of his
autograph is still drying. Barry Sanders looks up to see if she
is serious; decides she is.
"Used to," he says. "A little bit."
It has been a long Saturday. First, Sanders' flight in from
Detroit was delayed. Then he scribbled his way through a Chicago
hotel conference room full of Detroit Lions and Oklahoma State
helmets, signing 345 of them in two hours, occasionally adding 97
MVP 2053 or 89 ROY 97 MVP or 10 X Pro Bowl or, just a few times,
Heisman 88 37 TD 2628. Then he and his three companions--the
woman assigned to keep track of his every signature; Brian
Schwartz, the 22-year-old president of Schwartz Sports; and
Brian's 20-year-old brother, Kevin--piled into a dented compact
gray Malibu, Sanders in the back, and rushed toward the Northbrook
Court mall, rushing even more after Kevin realized halfway there
that he'd left the special silver, gold and blue pens back at the
Still, being 20 minutes late for an autograph signing has its
benefits. It gave the crowd of 200 fans snaking outside the
Schwartz Sports memorabilia store just enough time to imagine the
worst--He's not coming!--so that when Sanders finally arrived,
there was as much relief as joy in the cries of, "We want Barry!"
Then the parade of supplicants, who paid $89 to $200 apiece for
Sanders' autograph, began: a boy with a football signed by Walter
Payton (maybe), a man named Dave who asked Sanders if he might
play for the Miami Dolphins next year, a guy and his wife who had
driven down from Detroit. Now a man walks up with his son.
Sanders asks the boy's name, says that he looks like a ballplayer
and asks him if he plays. But the father cuts in.
"You coming back?" he asks.
"Yeah, sure," Sanders says, looking away. "Why not?"
This, of course, is the question people have been asking ever
since July 28, 1999, when Sanders announced at age 31 that he was
retiring from professional football. Not since Cleveland's Jim
Brown left for Hollywood at 29 had a great athlete clearly in his
prime made a departure so startling and so perplexing. Uninjured,
poised to break football's most coveted record--Payton's career
rushing mark of 16,726--and to make at least $7 million from Run
for the Record promotional tie-ins, Sanders sent out a fax
stating that "my desire to exit the game is greater than my
desire to remain in it" and flew to London. Cornered by reporters
at Gatwick Airport, he said that football was "not as fun" as
before and added cryptically, "I've been battling for the last
few years; as I've gotten older, the game has changed in my
mind." Then he went silent. For the past 3 1/2 years Sanders has
turned down every opportunity to explain himself.
To this day neither his closest friends nor his parents nor
former teammates understand his decision. His father, William, a
roofer in Wichita, Kans., calls Barry's explanation about
diminished desire "the lie he told" and says he's still
flabbergasted. "I don't know what's up with Barry," William says
by cellphone on his way home from a job. "I think he's probably
confused. This is what I tell my wife, Shirley: He goes off to do
autograph shows--it's work. I don't know what they pay him,
$50,000, $100,000, whatever. He's still working. You would think
a guy would make as much money as he possibly could as long as he
could. When Barry quit football, he was making $6 million a year.
Personally, I think he's crazy."
Yet here Sanders is, two weeks before Super Bowl Sunday, looking
fresh and fit and quite able, at 34, to break off one of those
astounding runs that altered one's sense of the possible. Here he
is, with everyone else talking about the big game in San Diego
and the Playboy party and the limousines that will carry around
all the famous faces, signing autographs in a mall. Here he is,
the greatest running back of his or maybe any time--the man who,
if he hadn't retired, would've carried the rushing record well
beyond the reach of the Dallas Cowboys' Emmitt Smith and anyone
else for generations to come ("He would've had 20,000 yards, no
question," says Denver Broncos tight end Shannon Sharpe)--seeming
anything but confused or insane.
Still, it's a surreal sight, and not only because Sanders' world
has been reduced from stadiums filled with 80,000 voices to a
prime corner near the Food Court. It's also because, for many who
know Sanders, this is the last place they thought he'd end up. No
one belittles the $250,000 deal he has with Schwartz, but Sanders
certainly doesn't need the money, and he never wanted the
attention. Indeed, during his 10-year career, Sanders did all he
could to diminish the magnitude of Barry Sanders, Superstar,
setting new standards for dull humility in interviews, embracing
every chance for anonymity. When the Lions traveled to London for
the 1993 American Bowl, they were given passes that would allow
them to avoid the lines at the Hard Rock Cafe, but sportswriters
noted a familiar face waiting calmly in the queue. They told him
about his pass, but Sanders refused to budge. He liked being part
of the crowd.
"Fame and fortune?" says Dale Burkholder, Sanders' coach at
Wichita North High in the early '80s. "I don't think Barry ever
felt comfortable with that--in fact, he was sick of it. He told
me one time, 'One of the worst things I have to do is a four-hour
When he won the Heisman Trophy as an Oklahoma State junior in
1988, Sanders skipped the award ceremony to be with his team.
Autograph shows? "That's not him," says Oklahoma State sports
information director Steve Buzzard. "That's not the Barry I think
"Even now I get him to sign a ball for me, and he's just not
comfortable," says Lomas Brown, Sanders' longtime Detroit
teammate. Told of Sanders' autograph sessions in Chicago, Brown
says, "Are you serious? That is unbelievable."
But now Sanders is nothing if not accommodating. In fact he is a
prince. Few superstars offer autograph hounds much more than a
grunt and a glance. Sanders greets each fan with a handshake,
asks for a name, scans jerseys and hats for tip-offs to their
owners' loyalties, converses easily about games and hometowns. A
man tells him that he named his dog Sanders, and Barry nods
politely. When someone brings up Smith and how he broke Payton's
record this season, Sanders doesn't even blink.
"It should've been your record!" a man shouts, throwing an arm
around Sanders' shoulders. "I want a picture with the real
rushing leader." Sanders freezes, both men stare, a camera flash
pops. Who is he to disagree?
Kevin Glover wanted to be there. The former Lions center, who had
left the Lions as a free agent in the spring of 1998, had tracked
Sanders' progress throughout the '98 season, and he knew that
now, with one game left, Sanders had positioned himself to break
Payton's career rushing record sometime late the following year.
Glover, an All-Pro warhorse, had hammered open holes for Sanders
for nine years in Detroit. Glover knew that no back had ever
gained more yards with less help but still felt that he'd played
a part in some of those 15,000-plus yards. So the night before
the Lions' final game of the '98 regular season, when Glover
visited Sanders in his Baltimore hotel room, he told Sanders that
he planned to fly in for the great day the following year and
soak up Sanders' crowning moment as the alltime king of running
backs. Sanders grinned. The room was crowded with visitors, so he
leaned in close to Glover.
"You know what?" Sanders said softly. "There might be a whole
different ending to this story."
Different? Who in pro football, or any sport for that matter,
would want anything different? To get the biggest numbers, the
most money, more than all the other boys in the room--isn't that
the point? Careers, reputations, salaries, fame are all decided
by the black-on-white bluntness of statistics on a page, and no
one pursued them in more spectacular fashion than Barry Sanders.
He never seemed plagued by ambivalence about his profession; each
time his contract came due, he refused to come to training camp
until he got his just reward. He trained as hard as anyone else
for those Sunday clashes, and when he got the ball he ran as if
chased by the hounds of hell. You watched him pile up all those
yards, all those years, and the one thing you knew about Barry
Sanders was that he cared about being a running back, cared about
200-yard games, a 2,000-yard season, a 20,000-yard career,
because no one would move like that if he didn't care. Yet in the
end, when it should have mattered most, he didn't care at all.
Glover knew. He had seen Sanders' idea of a different ending long
before they became close. On Christmas Eve 1989 Sanders entered
the Lions' final game of the year, against the Atlanta Falcons,
in a neck-and-neck race with the Kansas City Chiefs' Christian
Okoye for the NFL season rushing title. CBS officials were ready
for a dramatic holiday showdown. Lions officials had arranged for
an extra phone line so they could get instant updates on Okoye's
performance in Miami and relay them to the sideline. The
Chiefs-Dolphins game ended early, with Okoye just 10 yards ahead
of Sanders and with nine minutes still to play in the
Detroit-Atlanta game. Just two more rushes and Sanders, the
rookie superstar, would have the title--not to mention a $250,000
bonus. The Lions had the game in hand, with every starter but
Sanders and Glover sitting out.
"Ten more yards and you've got it," Glover told Sanders in the
"Oh, really?" Sanders said. "You know what? It's not even that
Glover stared, speechless, as Sanders turned and ran off the
field. Then Sanders sat down, tugged off his shoes and refused to
take another snap with the offense. When Detroit's kick returner
got injured, a coach yelled at Sanders to substitute at the last
second; he made it onto the field just as the ball was being
kicked. Laces untied, he caught the ball, ran to midfield,
stepped out of bounds and again sat down. CBS demanded a postgame
interview, pulling Sanders out of the shower to make sure Detroit
officials hadn't stopped him short to avoid paying the bonus.
"They wouldn't believe me," says Bill Keenist, then the Lions'
public relations director, "because Barry's behavior was so
atypical for an NFL player."
Retire 1,458 yards shy of Payton's record, surrender $24 million
in salary, blow off the media bigs and announce it first not to
the Lions or the league, but to The Wichita Eagle? That was just
the end of it. Sanders was "atypical" from the beginning. As a
17-year-old senior at Wichita North High, he had gone into the
final eight minutes of the season knowing he needed 34 yards to
win the city rushing title. He had already run for 252 yards that
day; the game was long won. He told his coach, "Let the young
guys play," and left the field.
Sanders never spiked the ball, danced in the end zone or taunted
an opponent. He drove a basic Acura for years while his Lions
teammates laughed, and just last month he sold the $175,000 house
in Rochester Hills, Mich., that he had lived in since his rookie
year. In the locker room before games Sanders would nap while his
teammates paced, roared and pounded the walls. Often, while the
game raged around him and thousands screamed, Sanders had to be
awakened on the sideline as the Lions' offense prepared to take
the field. "One of the first games I played with Barry," says
former Lions receiver Brett Perriman, "I was screaming, 'Barry's
asleep!' and everybody was laughing at me. I hit him and woke him
up, and his eyes were blood red--I mean, from a deep sleep. He
went in, and the play was a toss to him. He went 71 yards. I
said, Get out of here. This is God's gift. It just ain't fair."
Not long after, Perriman and teammates Bennie Blades and Ray
Crockett shanghaied Sanders, piled into a car with him and
insisted on going to a club. Sanders looked up from his Bible and
said, "I'm not going to the club." When they pulled into the
parking lot, he again refused. His friends went in. Sanders sat
in the cold car for two hours, waiting. His youthful reputation
for piety took a hit, however, when he admitted having fathered a
son, Barry James Sanders, out of wedlock in 1994. "Once upon a
time he really was practicing what he preached," says William
Sanders. "I know it's changed a little bit. I don't think he's a
devout Christian like he used to be."
Still, Sanders never gave anyone reason to doubt his character.
The seventh of 11 children, he paid for college for nearly every
one of his siblings, and nursing school for his mom. Although
Barry James lives with his mother in Oklahoma City, Sanders has
been a devoted father to the boy; friends know that the best way
to stir up a conversation with Sanders is to mention Barry James.
Since Sanders retired, he has shunned all interview requests but
one: He phoned an Oklahoma City newspaper reporter a month after
quitting to talk about Barry James's interest in computers.
Two years ago Sanders quietly married Detroit television reporter
Lauren Campbell. For the moment, as they mull moving to Miami,
they are living in Lauren's mother's house with their
one-year-old son, Nigel.
It's not often you get a superstar as humble as Barry is," says
Lomas Brown, who now plays for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "He
never got on the offensive linemen, even when it was our fault he
was getting hit in the backfield. In seven, eight years of
blocking for him, I don't remember him getting mad at somebody on
the field even once. Once he retired, I knew he wasn't coming
back. Barry was never into the individual honors and accolades;
he always wanted to be a quiet superstar. But because of his
talent, he was thrust into all the things a superstar gets."
That talent, of course, was almost otherworldly--the kind of
physical gift that could transform a two-yard loss into a
frenetic ballet. At 5'8" Sanders didn't so much run as vibrate
through the swarms of bigger men intent on crushing him; blessed
with titanium ankles and massive thighs, his joints swiveling
beyond normal human range, Sanders slipped, spun, juked and
twisted through the tiniest holes. He suffered remarkably few
solid hits over the course of his career, so he was rarely
injured. The defenders who thought they had him but came up empty
were legion. He once hit the hole at full speed, emerged still
flying but backward, planted a foot, turned the corner and raced
40 yards for the score.
In the Lions' 1995 season opener, in Pittsburgh, the Steelers'
future Hall of Fame cornerback Rod Woodson squared up to tackle
Sanders. The two men were 18 inches apart. Sanders juked. Woodson
planted his feet, turned and then collapsed, flailing, when an
ACL snapped under the strain. "I've seen him do a lot of things
that were better than that," Woodson says.
"Had more talent than me," says Emmitt Smith. "Oh, yeah! To this
day I tell any cat on that football field, you don't want to see
Barry Sanders. B. Sanders would tear your kneecaps off. B.
Sanders is one of the most creative, innovative runners who's
ever played the game."
It was almost a relief that Sanders had no nickname and nothing
to say, that his personal life brewed no juicy scandal, because
you needed a dose of boredom to counterbalance the routine
astonishment he doled out every game. Anything more would have
produced charisma overload and blown out TV screens nationwide.
The look on Sanders' face each time he touched the ball showed
that he understood exactly what he was pulling off. Eyes as wide
as quarters, mouth agape, he looked like a man dropped for the
first time on the back of a wild stallion--a caricature of
terror. Asked once what he felt when he scored, Sanders said,
"Relief." His father taught him to run like a cornered rabbit.
"Barry was not a kid to run over anybody," says Burkholder. "He
All the while, the Lions were being run into the ground. Sanders'
friends and former teammates note all the talent the Lions let
slip away during Sanders' tenure, and the team's 78--82 record
with only one win in five playoff appearances. They also note
that Sanders didn't like the way coach Bobby Ross handled
players. It's been speculated that Sanders retired in order to
force Detroit to deal him to a contender--and the fact that he
cut off all contact with the Lions after the '98 season and
ignored 10 letters from Ross seemed to confirm that he'd lost all
patience with the franchise. But in truth, by '97 Sanders had
begun to feel like he was running on a treadmill. He had his
greatest individual season, breaking the 2,000-yard barrier, yet
he talked seriously with his family about retiring. Friends such
as Perriman, Blades and Brown were gone; Sanders didn't know the
new guys. He was tired of going nowhere faster, more
breathtakingly, than anyone in football history.
"Losing has a way of taking something from you," says Smith.
"Barry wanted a chance to win a Super Bowl ring. Things might've
been promised--'We're going to build around you'--and then they
bring in some [poor players], and he's like, 'This is your way of
trying to win?' Then certain things get said to a player that cut
at his soul, and he feels like he has nothing else left. He has
no energy to fight. I think Barry said, 'Enough is enough.'"
The final three games of Detroit's '98 season were a dispiriting
slog, and only those closest to Sanders knew they were watching
greatness slowly depart. In San Francisco he gained 28 yards on
14 carries, the Lions lost to the 49ers, and Sanders sprinted off
the field before the clock ticked to zero. Against Atlanta he
carried 25 times for 95 yards in another loss. He asked
Burkholder to come to Baltimore for the last game, and his father
was there too, and Glover. Sanders needed 50 yards to get to
1,500 for the season, and in the fourth quarter he stood just a
couple of yards short. But it wasn't like his rookie year
anymore; he didn't pull himself out. He lost yards on his next
carry, and then the coaches looked elsewhere. For the rest of the
game Ross insisted on throwing the ball. Sanders finished with 41
It was over. Sanders knew that day that he was going to quit,
knew it as he peeled off the jersey and shoulder pads and knee
pads and soaked socks. He'd had enough: of losing, of the media,
of the franchise, of the young guys who seemed so much younger,
of the fear that he couldn't keep beating the odds and avoiding
injury. And somewhere in the minutes that he spent changing and
showering and dressing, as the locker room emptied around him,
something in Sanders broke, and he cried. He was 30 years old and
the only one in the world who understood that he had to stop.
The line keeps moving, the pen keeps scratching, the question
keeps being asked: You coming back, Barry? At first he tried
brushing it off, but now Sanders doesn't bother. "I played
enough," he tells one man. "No," he tells another. "I'm too old."
He admits to being frustrated by how often people ask. "How long
do you think I'll be hearing it?" he says. "Until I'm 45?" But
the question simply reflects what the fans read and hear. The
members of the media who cover football have reported only what
they've heard whispered over the last four years by the people
closest to Sanders, and those closest to him have heard him ask
himself whether he should come back. The upshot is that everyone
who cares about pro football is sure that, at some point, a
window opened, and they all want to know if it slammed shut. A
year ago Sanders told Burkholder that if the Lions would release
his rights, he'd be interested in talking to another team. His
old high school coach hung up the phone and told his wife, "He's
going to make a comeback."
Nothing came of it. Who knows how serious Sanders was? There are
those, like Lomas Brown, who think he never had any intention of
playing again. There are others, like Perriman, who say that one
year into his retirement Sanders was ready to play for the Miami
Dolphins. "I know that he would've gone to Miami," Perriman says.
Some say Sanders never wanted to break Payton's rushing record
because he respected Payton too much; some say he loved the game
too much not to want to break it. Then there's the smallest
group, probably those most honest with themselves, who say they
haven't a clue what's inside Barry Sanders' head.
"He's a mystery man," says William Sanders. "He's a mystery to
his dad. I don't think nobody in my family understands him. They
all love him, but he puzzles everybody."
Much of this stems from the fact that in conversation Barry
usually gives a sweet smile and just enough encouraging words to
make a person go away. "Barry talks in riddles," says his agent,
Peter Schaffer. Two years ago Lions president Matt Millen learned
this firsthand, after a conversation with Sanders led him to
think Barry might play for the Lions again. They lunched and
spoke on the phone repeatedly, yet, Millen says, "if you tried to
boil it down to yes or no, you came away with a maybe." Finally,
Millen and then coach Marty Mornhinweg drove to Sanders' house,
and when Lauren answered the door, Millen pushed in before she
could invite him, and both men plopped down in the living room.
Sanders laughed when he saw them. Millen asked him straight-out,
and Sanders said, no, he didn't want to play. Then Millen told
Sanders that if he ever changed his mind or even thought about
it, to let him know: "Whatever the Lions can do, we'll do."
Barry smiled and said, politely, "You're sitting on my couch,
The only thing clear is Sanders' distaste for the Lions
organization. Asked by one boy at the mall which team he wants to
win the Super Bowl, Sanders says he grew up an Oakland Raiders
fan. "If the Lions were in it, would you want them to win too?"
the boy asks. "Sure," Sanders says, his voice and face going
When Sanders retired, he and the Lions clashed over part of his
$11 million signing bonus; the team wanted him to pay back a
prorated portion of it for the remaining four years of his
contract, and he offered to do so in exchange for his
unconditional release. The Lions refused, the case went to
arbitration, and Sanders lost. He has never been back to a Lions
game, though the club is making noise about having a day for him
next season, prior to his certain induction into the NFL Hall of
Fame in 2004. Meanwhile, Millen says, no team has ever contacted
him about Sanders' rights, but he'd be willing to listen.
"Why don't they just let him go?" Schaffer says. "If [Washington
Redskins owner] Daniel Snyder can do it with Deion Sanders, why
didn't the Lions do it years ago for Barry? That's the classy
thing to do. All you've done is create goodwill with him, and you
might get him back in the future. If he does play, he's going to
play only one or two years; then he retires and goes into the
Hall of Fame as a Lion. Right now I think it's 50-50 whether he
remembers to show up at the Hall of Fame enshrinement, and he
might go in with a blank hat. That's the biggest shame."
Sanders will soon sever his final tie to Detroit by moving
somewhere else. He spends his days golfing, traveling, tending to
Nigel, puttering in his various businesses, including a bank he
partially owns in Tulsa. Once in a while he goes home to Wichita
and joins his father hauling shingles and pounding nails. He
watches football every weekend on TV, just like any other
American male. Most days he lives what some would call a normal
"He thought he could be an ordinary person," says William
Sanders. "He can't."
Maybe William is right. Maybe there's a part of his son that
can't be normal anymore--not all the time, anyway. Maybe Barry
needed what he got in November, when, for the first time since he
left Oklahoma State in 1989, he returned to Stillwater for a
football game. Yes, he did it his way, going to the Oklahoma-OSU
showdown without anyone expecting it, just appearing on the
sideline with Barry James. But then Sanders walked onto the
field, and his name was announced, and a great surprised roar
went up and his face was suddenly huge and beaming on the
scoreboard. He enjoyed that.
And now, with the line of autograph seekers dwindling and his
hand weary, he's feeling it again, a small dose of being Barry
Sanders. A boy pops in and declares, "My father thinks you're the
greatest running back in football history," and Sanders says,
"That's very nice of him," and signs a little helmet for the kid
for free. A cluster of children accosts him as he leaves the
memorabilia store, and he signs for them for free too. Then he
and the Schwartzes ride back to the hotel, and after polishing
off the last of the day's work, some 950 signatures in all, he
says, "Come on, is that all you got?"
Everyone gives him tired and dumbfounded looks, because now
Sanders is helping pack some of the signed footballs, though it's
hardly his job--he's the name, he's supposed to just sit there
and be. But they don't understand. This is the game now. There's
the hole, and he's hitting it, hitting it 950 times or more if
you need him to, the guy who would lift weights and do sprints
after games, when all his teammates were gone. Anything else to
sign? Anybody want to take a picture? The pleasure is all his.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY ANITA KUNZ
COLOR PHOTO: TODD ROSENBERG GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN Young admirers eagerly awaited Sanders' arrival at the autograph session in a Chicago mall.
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER JUKE JOINTS With dazzling cuts that left defenders grasping at air, Sanders avoided big hits--and injuries--during 10 NFL seasons.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER DOWNTIME On the bench Sanders (here in 1994) maintained a preternatural calm, sometimes napping in mid-game.
COLOR PHOTO: ANTHONY NESTE CLUELESS William (with Shirley in '88) says that although everyone in the family loves Barry, no one really understands him.
COLOR PHOTO: TODD ROSENBERG SIGNATURE MOVES The superstar who once treasured his anonymity now indulges autograph hunters without complaint.
"He had MORE TALENT than me," says Emmitt Smith. "Oh, yeah! B.
Sanders would tear your kneecaps off."
"FAME AND FORTUNE? I don't think Barry ever felt comfortable
with that," says Burkholder. "In fact he was sick of it."
In conversation Sanders usually gives A SWEET SMILE and just
enough encouraging words to make a person go away.
Sanders GREETS EACH FAN with a handshake, asks for a name and
converses easily about games and hometowns.