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Why did Barry Sanders walk away from the NFL in his prime?

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

As everyone knows, football is a game marked by violence. But when you watched Barry Sanders run the ball, you saw beauty. You almost couldn't compare him to other football players. He was Baryshnikov with the Bolshoi. He was Michael Jackson moonwalking. His body flowed in ways that really others could not. In this Nike ad from the mid-1990s, Dennis Hopper summed it up nicely.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DENNIS HOPPER: He does things on the field that just makes your eyes go all crazy. I remember one time, I saw him running right through people like a cannon ball loose inside a pinball machine - bing, bing, bing, bing, bing, bing, bing, bing, bing, bing, bing, bing, bing.

MARTÍNEZ: Barry Sanders quit the NFL in 1999 after just 10 seasons and his fans just couldn't figure out why. A new documentary shed some light on that. It's called "Bye Bye Barry," and I got the chance to talk to Sanders about it yesterday.

Now, Barry, you played for 10 seasons. When you walked away from the game, you were one season removed from one of the most incredible seasons a running back has ever had, a 2000-yard season. That's a pretty rare accomplishment for a running back. From the outside, from all of us looking at you, Barry, it looked like you had plenty left in the tank. So, I mean, from a physical perspective, how many seasons left do you think you could have gone if you just wanted to just play until they dragged you off the field?

BARRY SANDERS: (Laughter) Well, that's the thing about that business, you just never know. I mean, I would guess three to five depending on what else is going on with the team, how many first round draft picks you devoted to great offensive linemen or devoted them to kickers and punters. I mean...

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: I mean, those things matter.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, what the documentary to me makes seem clear is that you left for two reasons. The team did not, at the time, have a reasonable shot at a Super Bowl run. And then the second thing is that a lot of the guys that you had played with for a long time that had contributed to your success were gone. The free agency had stripped a lot of the people that you played with away from the team. When you actually, you know, decided to do it and retired, famously, you told the Lions that you were retiring by fax machine. Then you jumped on a plane and went to London...

(LAUGHTER)

MARTÍNEZ: And you did it right before training camp. Why did you wait so long? I mean, were you just not sure about you retiring? And, I mean, how did that thought process go?

SANDERS: I wasn't sure when I was going to actually do it, you know, and it was just probably procrastination and just trying to figure out what was the best way to send a message. And it ended up just being through fax, which, hey, look, in the late '90s, fax machines were cutting-edge technology, you know? So...

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: So I had a buddy who worked for a local paper. I kind of crafted a statement with him and sent it through fax.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Barry Sanders played his hand today, revealing his desire to retire. The shocking announcement has thousands of fans feeling flustered.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: People are very disgusted with the way Barry handled this and I think rightfully so.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: They're insulted the star running back simply faxed in his retirement.

MARTÍNEZ: When I think about your job, I mean professional athlete, probably one of the - from the outside looking in, Barry, one of the coolest jobs you could possibly have. You have people around you that take a lot of pride in what you do. It's family - I know your dad took a lot of pride in the fact that you were a professional football player. But then, you know, you got all kinds of people like fans and everyone that also take pride in what you do. Does it ever get to a point where at times, maybe, you were playing and working for them more for yourself?

SANDERS: I think there can be that temptation to do that, and I'm sure that that's happened with many, many athletes. I don't know that I can say that it happened in my case. You know, you see some of these guys, you know, like some of the colleagues that I played with, like a Brett Favre, who retired and came back. You know, the bottom line is it's a tough thing to walk away from.

MARTÍNEZ: So you mentioned Brett Favre. And I was going to ask you about him and also Tom Brady, you know, retiring then unretiring. Could you relate to any of that?

SANDERS: I feel like I could. Football is one of those things where you may get a chance to retire on your terms, but you may not. I mean, it's just one of those games. The fact that someone went back on it - even Jordan, you know, when Jordan retired and unretired. You know, hey, it's OK to change your mind. I know I was excited when Jordan unretired.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: I was the most excited, you know? So, yeah, I can relate.

MARTÍNEZ: Did it ever come close for you, to unretire? Did it ever get to the point where you even thought about it for a second?

SANDERS: I wouldn't say it ever came close, but, I mean, did I think about it? I guess you could say yes, I thought about it. I don't know if that's the same as just missing it. I know - I knew I would always miss it.

MARTÍNEZ: You know, you said something earlier about on your own terms, which I think is what everyone strives for. You want to be able to, on your own terms, decide when it's over and not have someone, or like in your case, the team cut you, release you. It's just such a deflating, demoralizing moment to have your boss say - you know what? - we got to let you go. Were you ever worried that that would happen to you and you wanted to just maintain control of that?

SANDERS: I think it was something that I was certainly aware of just because being in the game, you see it happen, you know individuals that it happens to. And it was tough for me to see a aging OJ or a aging Earl Campbell, you know, a aging Walter Payton...

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah.

SANDERS: ...Aging Tony Dorsett. When Tony Dorsett went to Denver, I just - I don't know, that impacted me, you know?

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah.

SANDERS: I couldn't believe that was happening...

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah.

SANDERS: ...You know, that that guy had gotten to the age where Dallas Cowboys had moved on from him.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah.

SANDERS: You know, so I guess I could relate in some way to that.

MARTÍNEZ: And I think that's - yeah, I think that's the difference with you. You gave your fans, you know - you went out on top and that's how they remember you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #1: I think sometimes you just have to look at something and just enjoy it. I mean, there's no one else in football that can make these moves.

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #2: When God created Barry Sanders, even he didn't know what he made.

MARTÍNEZ: Is anyone still mad at you, Barry? Is anyone still upset with you over how you retired, I mean, right before training camp and with very little advance notice? Is anyone still upset at you?

SANDERS: Probably, right? I would think.

MARTÍNEZ: (Laughter).

SANDERS: I mean, I don't know for sure. Plenty of people were then. I'm pretty sure there's still a few out there, until maybe the Lions win the Super Bowl this year, you know, and they forget all about the stuff that happened in the past (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SAM SPENCE'S "THE EQUALIZER")

MARTÍNEZ: That is pro football Hall of Fame Running Back Barry Sanders. The documentary is called "Bye Bye Barry." It's on Amazon Prime Video. Barry, thank you very much.

SANDERS: Thanks for having me, I enjoyed it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAM SPENCE'S "THE EQUALIZER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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