Sanders zigs, zags, leaves NFL behind

Lions, game in shock as famed RB retires

July 29, 1999|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Passing up millions of dollars in earnings and an imminent shot at one of the NFL's most prized records, Barry Sanders called a stunning halt yesterday to a career destined for the Hall of Fame.

One day before the Detroit Lions were due to report to Saginaw, Mich., for training camp, the Pro Bowl running back made public what had been rumored for three months -- that he is retiring at the top of his game.

He did it in typical quixotic Sanders fashion. Late on Tuesday night, Sanders' agents informed Bobby Ross, the Lions' coach, and Chuck Schmidt, Detroit's executive vice president, of the decision, along with select media members.

By the time the news hit the Web site of the Wichita Eagle in Wichita, Kan. -- Sanders' hometown -- yesterday morning, he was already jetting to London for an extended European vacation.

"The reason I am retiring is simple," Sanders' carefully crafted statement read. "My desire to exit the game is greater than my desire to remain in it. I have searched my heart through and through and feel comfortable with this decision."

The aftermath will not be so simple, however. Left in the lurch were disbelieving teammates and a reeling Lions management team that had no contact with Sanders during his long summer's vigil. Still, there were clues about Sanders' state of mind.

By Ross' count, the second-year Detroit coach had attempted to contact his star player nearly 15 times since the season ended. Sanders did not respond.

While the running back complimented Ross in his farewell statement, it is well-documented that the two had a strained relationship, and that Sanders had grown tired of the Lions' erratic performances. The Lions went 5-11 last season and have won only one playoff game in Sanders' 10-year career.

At a news conference in Pontiac, Mich., Ross said he was disappointed he received no response. "Oh, yeah, we didn't agree on everything. [But] I highly respected him as a great person, a fine father. Yeah, I was disappointed. You'd have to be," Ross said.

The first indication that Sanders' disenchantment with the Lions ran deep surfaced last May when William Sanders, Barry's father, attacked Ross and his offensive system. The elder Sanders criticized Ross and offensive coordinator Sylvester Croom, saying Barry was better used in a single-back set than the power-I that Ross favored.

William Sanders was still pounding away yesterday. Interviewed on Fox sports news, he said Ross' unwillingness to change his offense was a critical factor in his son's decision.

"I think that was the determining reason because he had promised Barry the last two years he was going to change the offense," Sanders said. "Each year, he'd go back to the same thing."

Not even the lure of breaking Walter Payton's all-time rushing record this season was enough to offset that rocky relationship. With 15,269 yards, Sanders was 1,458 yards from eclipsing Payton. Sanders, 31, has averaged 1,527 rushing yards a season over a career that includes four single-season rushing titles and a 2,053-yard season and co-MVP award in 1997.

Ross, who coached at Maryland and Georgia Tech before going to the NFL in 1992, said he did not feel he was the reason Sanders was leaving Detroit.

"I worked hard to establish communication [with Sanders]," Ross said. "Our communication was good up until the end of this season. Very good. When we went through the quarterback change [replacing Scott Mitchell with rookie Charlie Batch early last season], he was one of the people I consulted on the team."

Whether this actually signals the end of Sanders' illustrious career -- or just the Detroit phase -- is another issue. Schmidt insisted there were no trade demands by Sanders or his representatives. Leaving the door ajar for a return by Sanders this season, Schmidt said the Lions have no plans to trade the 5-foot-9, 203-pound dynamo who breaks down defenses with his stop-and-go running style.

"If he wants to play, we want him back here," Schmidt said. "I don't think we're going to trade Barry Sanders. We want him here and we want to win with him here."

For now, the Lions will place Sanders on the "reserve, did not report" list, not the "reserve, retired" list. That means he can be activated anytime this season until Dec. 5 and still participate in the postseason.

Sanders also discounted the possibility his retirement was a strategy to land a new contact. He signed a five-year, $34.56 million extension on July 20, 1997, with a $12.75 million signing bonus. The contract has four years remaining.

"I am not involved in a salary dispute of any kind," Sanders said. "If I had played this season, I would have earned a more than satisfactory salary."

The bonus remains the most problematic element of Sanders' decision to walk away. The Lions must take a $5.5 million hit on their salary cap for the amortized portion of the signing bonus. Sanders, meanwhile, owes the Lions $7.3 million in unearned bonus.

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