Sanders revealed his thoughts in a new Amazon Prime documentary, breaking his quiet almost 25 years later.
In the end, Barry Sanders gave the Detroit Lions a simple explanation for his unexpected retirement: the fax he sent informing them of his intention to hang up his cleats.
Sanders recently shared his thoughts on his choice to retire while still in the peak of his career. Sanders shocked everyone in 1999 by announcing his retirement right before the Lions were heading into training camp.
Sanders stated, “For me, just that thing that drove me to play, which is that passion, just wasn’t there,” in the Hall of Fame running back’s new documentary on Amazon. Really, there was nothing left to contend with. We weren’t even a legitimate Super Bowl contender in my opinion. I thought I was coming to a fairly definitive conclusion. I simply had the impression that this was it.”
Sanders’ remarks on the subject from 2023 are consistent with what he said in the piece he published 24 years prior announcing his retirement.
“The reason I am retiring is simple: My desire to exit the game is greater than my desire to remain in it,” wrote Sanders. “I have searched my heart through and through and feel comfortable with this decision.”
Some factors eventually resulted in Sanders losing the motivation to keep playing, as the documentary discusses. The primary explanation for this was because, in Sanders’ final season, the Lions finished 5-11 and seemed a long way from being a serious contender. It didn’t help that during Sanders’s tenure, the team had parted ways with a number of its key players during Detroit’s more prosperous years.
In Sanders’ third season, the Lions came within one game of winning the Super Bowl; but, in his final seven seasons, he did not win a postseason game. Sanders stayed put and saw some of the best players the team had in those years go out of town. For instance, Sanders was greatly impacted by Pro Bowl centre Kevin Glover’s departure following the 1997 season; he would retire the following offseason.
“You go to war and go to battle with those guys, you form a bond, obviously,” Sanders stated. You had to take the pitch with the men you practise with, even though some of the guys they may have come in to replace those guys were just not the same. We might have performed much better and undoubtedly would have won some playoff games if that bunch had managed to hold together.”
Despite being just 1,458 yards short of shattering the legendary career rushing record held by Walter Payton, Sanders decided to retire. Considering that Payton had only run for 1,491 yards in 1998—what was seen as a “down” year for him—he most certainly would have beaten Payton’s record that season. During his MVP season in 1997, Sanders amassed 2,053 yards of total rushing yards, exceeding the 1,500 yard mark in each of the preceding four seasons.
Barry Sanders runs look like a video game
— Woodward Sports Network (@woodwardsports) November 21, 2023
In the end, Emmitt Smith surpassed Payton’s record in 2002. However, many believe—including Smith—that Sanders would have become the first running back to rush for 20,000 yards if he had chosen to continue playing.
Sanders’ legacy is safe even though he didn’t surpass Payton’s record. Whenever the topic of the best running backs in league history is brought up, he is always included, along with Payton and Jim Brown, the NFL’s career rushing leader until Payton overtook him in 1984. He is regarded as one of the greatest players in NFL history.
In 2004, Sanders became the second-youngest player to ever be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, solidifying his legacy as an all-time great.
Putting numbers aside, what made Sanders truly exceptional was his running style. Sanders had unmatched vision, cutback ability, and cat-like reflexes, making him arguably the most elusive running back in history. He frequently produced breathtaking runs that no one had ever seen before or since.