Barry Sanders’ retirement has always been a point of contention for Detroit Lions fans. While everyone was obviously upset over the news, some turned to anger, while others self-loathed. Some felt Barry was being selfish. Others sympathized for his lost love of the game.
But if there was one thing that nearly everyone agreed upon, it was the way in which Sanders retired seemed cold and poorly-timed. Without a press conference or even a phone call, Sanders retired on the eve of training camp via a faxed statement to a Witcheta reporter and then flew to London to avoid any follow-ups from the media.
The Lions were stunned. Fans were outraged. The Lions were a few weeks from their first preseason game and suddenly their star running back was gone without a trace. Most assumed this was Barry’s way to stick it to the franchise that never got him a ring and to head coach Bobby Ross, whom Sanders’ father blamed for the early retirement. But this weekend, another theory emerged.
On Sunday, Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press listed “20 tales about No. 20 you might not know” in honor of Barry Sanders’ 50th birthday (Monday). In it, a former teammate gives another reason as to why Sanders waited so late in the offseason to announce his retirement.
During the 1998 season, Sanders apparently told some teammates he was considering retirement. Fellow tailback Ron Rivers asked Sanders of a favor if he were to retire.
“I said, ‘If you retire, do me a favor. Wait till the last minute cause that means they have to give me a chance to start, And they won’t go out and get somebody else,’” Rivers told Birkett.
Rivers admitted that he’s not sure if this is what prompted Sanders to wait until training camp.
“I don’t know (if he waited as a favor to me). I would like to think he did.”
Even if this was the reason Sanders waited so long to tell the team, it’s clear there was some animosity between the Lions and the star running back. In another one of Birkett’s stories, former Lions safety Ron Rice detailed the time Sanders first told him about his retirement plans.
“So we’re sitting there talking and he says I’m not as into it as he once was, and he alluded to (head coach) Bobby Ross was one of the issues as to why. And so he’s like, ‘Well, you know I’m not feeling your boy.’ I’m like, ‘Who are you talking about?’ He’s like, ‘Bobby.’ ‘Coach Ross?’ ‘Yeah.’ And so we go onto the restaurant, and I’m thinking to myself, ‘I guess this is it.’”
And while Sanders refused to throw Ross under the bus when explaining why he retired in his book, it’s clear the direction of the franchise aided his decision to quit so abruptly.
As for Rivers’ plan to earn the starting job, that didn’t quite go as planned. Though Rivers did start five of Detroit’s first six games in 1999, he split carries with Greg Hill, whom the Lions traded for shortly after Sanders’ retirement. Rivers would go on to break his ankle in Week 7, Hill then took over as the starter, and both were off the team by the next season.