Wednesday, July 28, 2010

July 28, 1999: Can't catch him

LONDON - Nobody could figure out how to stop Barry Sanders when he was playing football, so it shouldn't have been a surprise that nobody could figure out when or why he was retiring.

In 1998, Sanders ran for more than 1,400 yards, his 10th consecutive 1,000-yard season. Lions fans were uncharacteristically excited about the 1999 season, because if Sanders ran for 1,400 yards again - a number he had reached 7 times in his 10-year career - he'd pass Walter Payton as the NFL's all-time rushing leader.

Instead, though, Sanders shocked everybody. On July 28, he faxed a statement to the Wichita Eagle, his hometown paper, announcing his retirement from the NFL, effective immediately. He then boarded a plane for London, where reporters tracked him down at London Heathrow Airport, where he confirmed he was hanging it up.

Football fans were stunned. Sanders still seemingly had a lot left in the tank, and his performance hadn't taken any noticeable drop. In fact, he had rushed for 2,000 yards just the year before. He had been healthy his entire career, too, so injuries weren't a reason for his retirement.

Some people speculated that the constant losing Sanders endured as a member of the Lions wore on him. He at first denied this, but years later confirmed that was a major reason for wanting to walk away. He said he had lost the love of the game.

What he left behind was a wealth of highlight clips as one of the most exciting runners in NFL history. Neither particularly fast nor strong, Sanders nonetheless struck fear in his opponents with his unmatched agility, bouncing off and spinning around and cutting past helpless defenders for a decade. In his later years, teams would institute a defensive policy where if a defender missed a tackle on Sanders near the line of scrimmage, they should stay put rather than chase after him; Sanders was just as likely to come back to the same spot.

Sanders was a once-in-a-lifetime player, the kind of player fans will remember long after his retirement. Lions fans remember with pride the 10-year stretch where they had the best player in football; video game fans remember the games they had where the Lions were one of the "banned" teams, where a gentleman's agreement said you couldn't pick the Lions because of the unfair advantage Sanders gave you. He was a true one-of-a-kind talent.

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