Humble Sanders enters HOF today
He has a nice-guy reputation, but some didn't like how he left the Lions.
THE HARTFORD COURANT
Barry Sanders will enter the Hall of Fame today in likely the same manner he exited the NFL in 1999 -- with a humility that makes it practically impossible for him to fully realize his true impact.
"The thing I'll always remember about him is how humble he was as a player," former Lions offensive tackle Lomas Brown said. "It's well documented by now how he would never spike the ball.
"He was very quiet off the field until he got to know you. He was just a very good person. It'll be interesting to see how he accepts his Hall of Fame trophy. I want to see how long the speech is and what it's going to be all about."
Sanders was always atypical, an island of civility and serious-mindedness. He didn't make friends easily, but those he came to know were rewarded with loyalty and kindness. Former NFL executive Gil Brandt, who now writes for the league's Internet site, has a picture of himself and his wife with Sanders taken at the Walter Camp All-America dinner in New Haven, Conn., in 1989.
On the Web site this week, Brandt recalled Sanders' disarming congeniality.
"He's the most polite, appreciative person you'll ever be around," Brandt wrote. "He's so nice and unaffected, you'd never know he was a former NFL superstar. He's quiet, unassuming. I consider Barry a friend, but Barry always calls me Mr. Brandt. One day I said, 'Barry, darn it, I am Gil. Call me Gil.' His response? 'Yes sir, Mr. Brandt.' "
Yet Sanders final move in the NFL, the one he used to leave the Lions on the eve of training camp, continues to place him in a less flattering light. Although Sanders claimed there was no ill will, the team felt a betrayal that continued until Sanders' attempt at reconciliation last December.
"It was a monumental decision," Sanders said. "At times, I wasn't sure if I was willing to go through with it, honestly. I knew that is what I felt I needed to do. It took me a while to come to terms with exactly how I was going to do it. I wasn't going to try to put the Lions in a bad situation. I think that shows where my mind was at the time. I was only thinking about me and it was sort of selfish it that way.
"In a lot of ways, I feel that once you leave the stadium and step outside the white lines, you have a right to be selfish as long as you are not committing a crime. In a lot of ways, it just really had to do with me really trying to come to terms with how it was going to happen. It wasn't strategic in trying to wreck the Lions' season."
What bothered many in the organization was the way Sanders ignored calls from Coach Bobby Ross, who naturally was interested in discussing the situation.
"Barry was a great guy, a hard worker, one of the greatest football players you'll ever see," said Mike Priefer, the Giants assistant special teams coach, whose father, Chuck, has been a Lions assistant since 1997.
"But what hurt the Lions franchise so much in the long-term was that he quit the team, retired -- whatever -- the night before camp started. That put the team into such a bind. Had it happened in February, they might have had the chance to sign a free agent or draft a replacement. The Lions had no idea. To me, that was very, very selfish.
"I understand it's a hard game, that it's tough on the body, but do it during a time that gives your team a chance to recover. I know he's a good person, a good man. It's unfortunate how it all turned out, especially for the Lions."
Said Sanders: "I could have returned Coach Ross' phone call, that would have been courteous and respectful, but I don't know that it would have changed anything. My mind was pretty much made up. I grappled with the decision and whether I was going to really do it. It's done.
"At the time, people didn't know whether or not I was serious. I think now people appreciate what I did because they realize that it wasn't some kind of a ploy. I should have told them that earlier though there's no guarantee that they could have gotten somebody else -- that's basically speculation."
Sanders and the Lions have pledged to continue to heal their relationship, something Giants linebacker Barrett Green, who played for the Lions from 2000-03, believes is just.
"When you lose a player like Barry Sanders, it's natural for any franchise to struggle," Green said. "He was a tremendous player on and off the field. He electrified the Lions. You lose a player like that and it's a very large gap.
"But there wasn't a lot of animosity among the players, I think we understood where he was coming from. They missed him, however. He's done far too much for the city of Detroit and too much for the Lions for them to treat him in a bad manner. I sense there will be a reconciliation."
And once that's complete, then so will Sanders legend in the NFL. He ran for 15,269 yards in 10 seasons. Few may approach that.
"He was like Michael Jordan," said David Meggett, the former Giant and Patriot running back. "Everyone wanted to see what he would do next. Then we'd see what he'd do in games and we couldn't wait to talk about it the next day in the locker room.
"You have to understand something, these are guys who under other circumstances felt they were the best at what they did. And to talk about another player in those terms was the highest compliment."