Barry Sanders is arguably the greatest running back to ever play in the NFL.
He’s one of eight players to have rushed for at least 2,000 yards in a season. He’s one of 10 players to have won the Heisman Trophy in college at Oklahoma State and have a bronze bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. He’s third on the NFL’s all-time rushing list with 15,269 yards.
Sanders was the perfect blend of quickness, speed, power and elusiveness. He left trails of would-be tacklers lying stunned on the turf. On a famous Nike TV commercial featuring Dennis Hopper, he was described as a “cannonball loose inside a pinball machine.”
As a player, Sanders generally eschewed the spotlight. He was not particularly interested in statistical milestones or setting individual records. His focus was on winning a Super Bowl championship for the Lions and the city of Detroit.
In Sanders’ third season, the Lions reached the 1991 NFC Championship Game, but were convincingly beaten by the eventual champion Washington Redskins. Sanders figured the Lions would be back in this position to play for a Super Bowl berth in the years to come.
But season after season, as the Lions continued to let talented players slip away, Sanders realized the ultimate goal was no longer in sight.
Right before training camp in July 1999, he faxed — yes, faxed — a letter to his hometown newspaper, The Wichita Eagle, announcing that he was retiring from football. He then caught a flight to London, where he hoped for some anonymity and an escape from the fans and media’s reaction to his abrupt decision.
Why did Sanders retire at age 31 after only 10 seasons, still healthy and in his prime as a player, with Walter Payton’s all-time rushing record well within reach?
Prime Video’s documentary Bye Bye Barry (available Tuesday, November 21) looks to answer those questions 24 years later, as Sanders himself looks back on his life and football career, and the decision he made to leave the field for good. Joined by his four sons, he returns to London and takes a walk down memory lane to address the lingering mystery.
Sanders talked with us about Bye Bye Barry, his decision to retire, the end of Bedlam and more:
After you reached the 2,000 yards mark, your dad tells a reporter: “It might not mean anything to [Barry] now. It probably won’t mean anything to him until 10 or 15 years down the road when he’s through playing, he looks back through the history books and sees the things he accomplished on the football field.” Has that realization happened in the 24 years since you left football?
Barry Sanders: I certainly have a greater appreciation for it. I feel like I always had some appreciation for it. I remember when O.J. [Simpson] did it and when Eric Dickerson did it. I remember when I was within 100 yards or so of doing it myself. I knew that it was something that was not going to come easy, it was not a given. It’s hard when you’re in the middle of it to really understand it in a certain way. It’s funny, because in the last year or two, I remember Derrick Henry coming up to me. He knew that I ran for 2,000 yards, but he didn’t realize it was in my ninth season. He was very surprised at that. He was like, “Hold on. You did that in your ninth year?” It is interesting being on this side of it, and seeing other young running backs understand what that is — realizing that in this game, it’s one of the toughest things that one can do.
Your dad played such a big role in your life and career, and he’s in the documentary quite a lot. It’s very much a love letter to him. What would he have thought about this film?
I think he would’ve enjoyed it. He understood that he was a big part of my success. He loved being able to talk about his family. He loved the game of football. He was my biggest fan and maybe even sometimes my biggest critic. He loved that kind of attention. Anytime he could be on camera, then he took full advantage of it. I think he would enjoy the light he’s cast in. He’s always been a part of all of our lives, my brothers and sisters, and he was there all through little league and no matter what sport or activity I was doing. It’s only right that he gets to share some camera time with us.
There are a lot of really touching moments in Bye Bye Barry, such as your reunion with coach Wayne Fontes and your sisters gathering to watch your Heisman Trophy presentation. Is this movie also a thank you to those people who supported you?
I’m fortunate and glad that actually comes across in it. There are a lot of people like Coach Fontes, who for me, was just a very easy person to be around. Maybe it was just because he had spent time at USC with all those running backs that I’d grown up admiring. He’d been around the game. His personality. He always had a cigar for my dad.
Do you think the timing of your decision, right before training camp, is what angered fans? That the team wasn’t prepared for your leaving?
It depends on who you ask, but I think that has a lot to do with it. But even had it been in the middle of the offseason with a press conference, it think it still would’ve been a challenge. There still would’ve been questions. It sure could’ve been smoother in some ways, and that was certainly a very, very unpleasant surprise for the team at that time. So I’m sure that had something to do with the fans’ reaction.
The Oklahoma Sooners/Oklahoma State Cowboys rivalry was such a big part of your life in football. What do you think about the end of Bedlam?
It’s hard to come to grips with. In this new world of college football where you have this realignment with conferences and what have you, and you realize that’s kind of the new normal. It feels nice that the Cowboys came out on top this year, being that for the foreseeable future it’s the last one. It definitely feels like the end of an era. But I’ve seen this happen before with other rivals. Growing up watching the OU-Nebraska game, I would’ve never imagined that a time would come when that didn’t happen. It’s just the reality of today’s sports world. Hopefully we can go and create a new rivalry with someone else. It’s definitely sad to see it happen. But teams and schools have to do what’s in their interest in this new day and age.
Have you ever played as yourself in Tecmo Super Bowl or Madden or any other video game?
Absolutely. I used to play Tecmo Bowl back in the day. I haven’t played myself in Madden that much, if at all, as I got older. But Tecmo Bowl happened while I was still playing in the league. I think there were a lot of players excited about that game, and a lot of the players like myself, or Bo Jackson or Lawrence Taylor were almost impossible to stop.
Bye Bye Barry, Tuesday, November 21, Prime Video