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Photographs: Getty Images; Collage: Gabe Conte
Barry Sanders has just piped a 3 wood maybe 220 yards, splitting the fairway of the 10th hole at the La Cañada Flintridge Country Club, nestled in the foothills northeast of Los Angeles. It’s about as good a first shot as you can hope for. That much is clear to me, at least, and to Sanders’ agent, and to the husband-and-wife member couple hosting us this morning, and quite possibly to the birds chirping and the rabbits hopping and the coyotes lurking around the golf course. It’s not at all clear, though, to Sanders, who is convinced he’s lost his ball in the scrub running down the righthand side of the hole, and who is quietly criticizing his tee shot.
It’s a charming display of modesty from perhaps the greatest running back in NFL history. How many other Hall of Famers would assume that their sorta perfect tee shot had sliced out of bounds? But that was always the thing about Sanders: the way this almost defiantly quiet character was the same guy capable of turning defenders into smoke on the field. Pure sizzle married to lunchpail humility. He was famous for separating would-be tacklers from their jockstraps, and then quietly flipping the ball to the ref after scoring a touchdown. Act like you’ve been there before, the logic went. My dad told me to follow his example when I was a kid, and I’m certain he wasn’t the only ‘90s father to impart that knowledge to his son.
This quality made Sanders a hero in Detroit, where he starred for the sad-sack Lions from 1989 to 1998. That career—and the abrupt, almost mysterious manner in which it came to an end—is the subject of Bye Bye Barry, a new Amazon documentary that borrows the retrospective, star-studded treatment pioneered by Michael Jordan in The Last Dance. (Talking heads include Lions superfans like Eminem, Jeff Daniels, and Tim Allen.)
Sanders is in LA for a few days to promote his documentary, and he’d like to get a round of golf in before his appearance with LeBron James on The Shop. So here we are, the sun soaring high into the California sky as he pilots our cart around a distressingly hilly and difficult golf course until we arrive at his ball, sitting up nicely a hundred yards from the flag. He’s nonplussed. Act like you’ve been there before, I guess.
In this regard, Sanders stands more or less alone in the modern sports landscape. It is these days common for athletes—especially ones who might not deserve it—to serve as documentary subjects. More than that, it’s common for athletes, both during and after their playing days, to insist that they’re multihyphenates: movie producers, and fashion designers, and influencers. Sanders doesn’t really do all that. He is quiet, modest, deeply Midwestern.
And so he went back and forth on whether he wanted to do the movie at all. He has grown more comfortable with being the center of attention, he explains, if not totally so. “I'm certainly more comfortable with it now than I would've been starting out my career,” he says. He decided to go ahead with it. “Felt like there was a good demand for the story," he says, characteristically underplaying it. “And felt like it was unique in a lot of ways.”
He’s not wrong, though, about his career being unique—because Sanders’ career is one of the most striking in the history of modern sports. He went from little-known Oklahoma State running back to, his junior year, author of perhaps the most spectacular individual season in college football history, setting a still-standing record for rushing yards and picking up the Heisman Trophy. (The movie reminds viewers that Sanders, charmingly, accepted the trophy while in Japan to play Texas Tech in the so-’80s-it-hurts Coca-Cola Classic, contested in Tokyo from 1977 to 1993.)
The Lions drafted him third overall, and the only thing that stopped him from winning the regular-season rushing title his rookie year was the fact that he chose not to lock it up by returning to a game the Lions already had in hand. Sanders would win Rookie of the Year; the Lions finished 7-9.
And so a pattern was set. Sanders routinely did the unthinkable on the field, dancing away from defenders or reversing from one sideline to the other or dishing out the odd bone-shaking broken tackle, and the Lions regularly failed to capitalize on his contributions. In 10 seasons, he racked up the fourth-most career rushing yards of all time. (Numbers one through three required 15, 13, and 16 years, respectively.) His Lions played in six playoff games, and won one of them.
And then, in 1999, the day before Sanders would have begun his 11th season, he abruptly announced his retirement in a fax to the Wichita Eagle, his hometown newspaper. At the time, it was close to a sports scandal: how could such a remarkable talent, still healthy and operating at the peak of his powers, hang it up so early? Indeed, Bye Bye Barry is framed as Sanders’ chance to definitively answer the question that has dogged him since 1999. Why did he retire?
The film gives Sanders a venue to provide the answer to what Amazon marketing bills as “the greatest mystery in sports history.” But when I ask why he thinks his story has resonated with fans all these years, Sanders is typically self-effacing. “I think maybe just because of how I played the game and bursting onto the scene in college,” he says. “I mean, just maybe being a professional athlete and not seeking attention. Maybe because I played for the lovable loser type team, the Lions. I don't know. Just being the guy like that, being one of the top players from that era. I mean, I think there's a lot of reasons why people will gravitate towards my story.”
“And obviously, the way I left. That was a surprise—when I left, at the time of my career, that kind of thing. I'm sure there's an aspect of, I guess, people wanting to know what happened.”
The “why,” ultimately, is not all that complicated—or at least not as complicated as the media found it in 1999. It wasn’t one thing, exactly. The Lions kept losing, and kept letting cornerstone teammates join other teams. It’s suggested, too, that seeing two different teammates suffer serious spinal cord injuries might have shaped his thinking. In any case, Sanders says in the film, “Somewhere along the line I felt that drive, and that passion to play the game, it was different.” He knew that the 1998 week 17 game against the Ravens would be his last, even if nobody else did.
Watching the movie, I mostly found myself embarrassed that we had spent so much time hounding Sanders for an explanation in the first place. Lots, of course, has changed since Sanders retired. We are generally speaking far more sympathetic to athletes than we were back then, and far more comfortable with the idea that they ought to have a meaningful say in how their careers proceed. In his playing days, Sanders told me, he and his teammates would look at their peers in the NBA and envy the degree of control they seemed to have. “It was always a part of the players thinking that one day we'd like to have more this or that or the other, more control over what happens,” he says. (NBA players, of course, had plenty of respect for Sanders, too: he tells me about meeting a young Kobe Bryant, who explained that he’d patterned his spin move after Sanders’.)
Seen in this context, Sanders’ decision makes a little more sense. (And, in recent years, has been echoed by NFL players like Andrew Luck and Rob Gronkowski.) The idea that Sanders owed us something besides his brilliant play—and to a franchise as negligent as his, at that—has aged poorly. A few nights before my morning with Sanders, I had dinner with an old friend of mine—a Michigan native, and a Lions fan. I asked him why he thought Sanders had retired when he did. I thought it was obvious, he said. Wasn’t he just sick of the bullshit?
In any case, the “why” of Sanders’ retirement isn’t quite as interesting as the “how.” The last bit of Bye Bye Barry is set, somewhat surprisingly, in London. There’s a reason for this: I’d forgotten, or maybe was too young to have noticed, that the same day he announced his retirement, Sanders was spotted at Gatwick Airport in London. He’d left Detroit to get away for a few days, and of course ran into paparazzi.
The film gives him a second chance at the trip—this time with his four sons, who range in age from 16 to 29 and are appropriately baffled by the circumstances of their dad’s retirement. “It was a little strange,” Sanders says of their time in London, “because I felt like I had to answer the question instead of just brushing them off—giving a parent answer, like Leave me alone, I'm busy right now, or Go to your room.”None of his sons seem to know exactly why their dad hung it up. (They’re also not totally clear on how fax machines work.) He makes it as clear as he can: he just didn’t feel like doing it anymore.
Back on the golf course, we finish our leisurely nine holes, thankful nobody’s been keeping score. At one point, Sanders’ ball winds up in a sprinkler head just off the green. He asks if he can take a drop; of course you can, Barry Sanders, we all say. He moves his ball to the fringe, and sinks a 30-foot putt. He doesn’t really celebrate. He’s been there before.
Originally Appeared on GQ