Photo: Jeff Kowalsky/AFP/Getty Images
Barry Sanders’ 1999 NFL retirement is still smart. At least Jim Brown and Michael Jordan moved on to new hobbies (acting and, in MJ’s case, baseball for a while) and their legacies intact. Sanders was 31, ringless and a season or so shy of becoming the NFL’s all-time leader when he went to London to escape the press, faxing a goodbye letter to his hometown newspaper on the eve of Detroit’s training camp Lions. . “Until yesterday,” one supporter said at the time, “IO was my least favorite runner, but he only stabbed two people in the back.”
It’s assumed that Detroit has beaten repeatedly and other star players have left the NFL in their time – Calvin Johnson, most notably – for fans to appreciate Sanders’ rallying cry. It is the motivation behind his early retirement that has been so mysterious for so long. A new Amazon Prime documentary called Bye Bye Barry aims for more clarity, but it comes to light in the end.
Of course, building a film project around Sanders, one of the rarest superstars you’ll ever meet, is bound to present its challenges. He was less wary of the media and embarrassed by his celebrity status and eager to drop out of the spotlight anytime the spotlight got too intense. “Some things are unnecessary,” Sanders said after going on ESPN after being selected third overall in the 1989 NFL draft – between Deion Sanders at No. 5 and the best choice Troy Aikman. “I don’t want to diminish what you do, but you have to respect my judgment and the way I am as a person.”
Since then Sanders, 55, has become a shy, less serious person these days. But Bye Bye doesn’t exactly settle for the kind of deep introspection that Jordan and Brown show in their docs — a real demerit for the NFL Films crew who rarely worry about access. (Disclosure: I was a college intern at NFL Films during the 2001 season.) Over the course of the doc’s 90-minute runtime, Sanders is interrogated by producers under the lights of the Fox Theatre, flying back to London with him and his sons. – but don’t pull too far from him.
Worse, directors Paul Monusky, Micaela Powers and Angela Torma had a winning book in Sanders’ 2003 autobiography Now You See Me – which delves into his regret, loneliness and true feelings about his father, William. “He sometimes asked me if I was ever the son he thought I should be,” he writes. “One of the worst moments came shortly before the NFL draft deadline, when Dad cornered me and talked me out of even thinking about staying at Oklahoma State for my senior year.”
Without much deep introspection from their title material, Bye Bye draws from NFL Films’ familiar bag of tricks of uplifting musical numbers, celebrity interviews (Jeff Daniels, Eminem) and archival reels – the star of the show by default. Poetry in motion It’s a phrase that’s used to being worn out in sports – but in Sanders’ case, it rings true. Even now he’s unlike anything the game has seen – a 5ft 8in Houdini with his own bone to move the chains, an escape artist who has fun with would-be tacklers avoid before it turns on the jets. (Think Lamar Jackson on his best day against the Cincinnati Bengals – only bigger unstoppable on the run.) knock Sanders out of running circles behind the line of scrimmage, legging out 30 yards straight to get through, he made the king of negative carries, too.
Like the genius painter or composer, Sanders was much better at letting the work speak than explaining the strokes. It’s no coincidence that Goodbye falls during Thanksgiving week, Sanders’ football holiday defined by his ritual carving of my accursed Chicago Bears. (“I hope he doesn’t go before we can give him the turkey leg,” Fox’s John Madden, host of Thanksgiving extraordinaire, quipped as the clock ticked on a 1997 three-touchdown masterpiece that moved Sanders is second on the all-time rushing list.) In Sanders’ day – when running backs were the team’s cornerstone, not cannon fodder – he stood head and shoulders above the rest.
At the end of the 1998 season Sanders was just 1,458 yards from breaking the all-time rushing record – light work for a man barely a year removed from becoming the third rushing back for more than 2,000 yards in a season. “You can see the love of the game in Barry’s eyes, the performance and the way he carries himself off the field,” said Walter Payton, the Bears god who beat Brown out of the NFL’s Mount Rush-More. “Even if you laughed against Barry’s team, you always respected him as a player.”
In retrospect, Sanders’ retirement shouldn’t have surprised anyone given how often he’s shunned the spotlight in the past—never minding a high school rushing record or the massive attention he garnered when He claimed the 1988 Heisman Trophy at Oklahoma State. “Finally, a man won the prize [based] to their full potential,” Aikman said after UCLA’s offense failed to overwhelm the quarterback.
“I thought we were going to be competing for a lot more years,” Cowboys tight end Emmitt Smith says in a Fall exclusive, recalling Dallas’ blowout loss to Detroit in the divisional round. 1992 big games. That Smith didn’t sit well with people outside of Dallas. Sanders worked for a decade with some really tough Lions teams to produce his numbers, and Smith and an All-Star team had another five years to help him. In Bye Bye, even Sanders laments how far he could have gone with a stronger supporting cast – but that doesn’t stop him from subjecting the Lions management to another round of scathing criticism from his book. As time passes and emotions cool, Sanders’ retirement looks more like the final chess move, with temporary glory sacrificed for his longer-term well-being.
Regarding the question, What was Sanders thinking?, the film is happy to leave the job of shedding light on that subject to longtime defenders Kevin Glover, Lomas Brown, Herman Moore and legendary Lions coach Wayne Fontes. In their telling, it was them and other key teammates leaving for greener pastures and two other Lions retiring on disability that affected Sanders the most. (The astroturf field inside the dearly decaying Pontiac Silverdome should be justification enough to call time.) But I think Sanders was also worried about the prospect of Payton getting off the year. same Payton announced an irreversible bile duct cancer condition – which killed. for three months after Sanders’ retirement announcement. If only someone had informed Sanders about all this in the document, especially now that he’s not ducking anyone anymore.
Bye Bye is a piece of the NFL’s larger strategy to expand its television dominance into the streaming world and include younger audiences — ironic, since NFL Films practically created the sports documentary behind it. of the present. But to stand out in a new era where documentaries are crafted to be as exciting as scripted plays, however, it will be more than the typical effort that hooked the NFL diehards watching ESPN Classic. This document not only plays like a replica of one of those old PR jobs – the last thing Sanders would want for himself. The whole production feels a little rushed and reheated.
Sanders has never been a ripe target for the tough questions that followed his sudden resignation. Too bad Bylaws lets Houdini slide by the same old life again.