Barry Sanders’ retirement wasn’t as big of a surprise internally as it was externally

Mike Florio

Twenty years ago, Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders abruptly and shockingly retired from the Lions, with a statement faxed to his hometown newspaper in Wichita. Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press, who looks back at Sanders’ decision to walk away from the game after only 10 NFL seasons, makes it clear that the sense of surprise didn’t extend to some teammates and coaches, who saw it coming for months.

Former Lions defensive end Robert Porcher explained to Birkett that Porcher first caught wind of a Sanders retirement from teammate Tracy Scroggins, while on the plane home from the 1998 regular-season finale, a loss to the Ravens in Baltimore.

“He said, ‘Man, you need to go back there and talk to Barry,'” Porcher told Birkett. “And I was like, ‘Talk to Barry about what?’ And he said, ‘Man, he said he’s going to retire.’ And I was just like, I was like, ‘Hell, everybody wants to retire after tonight.'”

Porcher then saw Sanders a few months later, and it became more clear that Sanders was serious.

“He said, ‘I know there’s been some talks, man, people saying [I‘m going retire],'” Porcher told Birkett. “He said, ‘I don’t know what I want to do.’ I was like, ‘Barry, look, man. You’re my teammate. I understand. You don’t have to explain anything to me. I’m behind you just like everybody else. All the other guys are behind you. Whatever you decide, we’re behind you.’ And that was the last we talked about him possibly retiring. And then when we came to camp, all hell broke loose.”

All hell broke loose because, even though folks connected to the team suspected it, no one had said anything about it to a media that was far less prevalent and pervasive than it now is. Even coach Bobby Ross, who often is blamed for the decision by Sanders to quit football, saw it coming.

“My actual reaction was, ‘Well, so be it,'” Ross told Birkett. “I mean because I was 50 percent expecting it, so it wasn’t like I was surprised. I think [executive V.P.] Chuck [Schmidt] probably felt surprised, but when you’re that close to camp you got to go ahead and go. You can’t mope about it and you can’t get down on it. You got to stay up. And so that was my reaction.”

Birkett’s article has plenty of details regarding the decision, the aftermath, the effort to replace Sanders, and the amazing reality that the Lions made the playoffs in that first season without Sanders. To their credit, the Lions found a way to process the decision and turn the page.

Aiding that effort was now-Steelers G.M. Kevin Colbert, who at the time served as Detroit’s director of pro scouting. Colbert put together clips of some of Barry Sanders’ runs from 1998, showing Sanders going out of bounds prematurely or hitting the deck with limited defensive contact — and contrasting those runs with plays from past years when he didn’t bail out early.

So the Lions moved on, Sanders moved on, and even though there were persistent rumors and speculation over the next year few years that Sanders would come back, the vibe that emanates from Birkett’s story is clear: Once Sanders was done, he was completely and totally done.