Barry Sanders dashed away from professional football yesterday, announcing his retirement while still in the prime of his career. He left the Detroit Lions grasping for answers the way defenders often grasped for the elusive running back with the breathtaking moves, only to catch air instead.
"The reason I am retiring is very simple," Sanders said in a statement released yesterday. "My desire to exit the game is greater than my desire to remain in it."
Sanders, 31, leaves football just 1,457 yards short of former Chicago Bear Walter Payton's NFL career rushing record of 16,726. Immediate speculation was that Sanders, bitterly disappointed about the Lions' inability to field a title contender, was trying to force a trade.
Washington Redskins officials contacted the Lions recently to inquire about trading for Sanders, one of only four players in league history to gain more than 2,000 yards in a season. That seems unlikely now.
"Nothing's impossible, but it's a mathematical long shot," Vinny Cerrato, the Redskins' director of player personnel, said at training camp in Frostburg, Md.
Apparently, the Redskins' view of Sanders has changed. "We have no interest in Barry Sanders," said a highly placed team source.
David Ware, one of Sanders's representatives, indicated that Sanders's retirement is not a ploy. "He never once said to us, nor did we indicate to the Lions, he wanted to be traded," Ware told ESPN.
Lions Coach Bobby Ross reiterated yesterday that the team does not intend to trade Sanders, and said he believes Sanders would not be willing to play for another club.
But some people around the league seem convinced that Sanders's problem is with the Lions and that he'd be willing to play this season if he's traded.
Redskins sources said they believe there's an outside chance that the Lions could decide to get something in return for Sanders. The Redskins have three first-round choices in next year's college draft, and they apparently are prepared to offer at least one of them for Sanders.
Sanders has four seasons remaining on a six-year, $36 million contract that included an $11 million signing bonus. Under normal circumstances, one-sixth of the signing bonus -- about $1.8 million -- would count against Detroit's salary cap each season. If the Lions trade Sanders, the remaining $7.3 million of the signing bonus would count against Detroit's salary cap this season.
By placing Sanders on the "reserve-did not report" list, the signing bonus would continue to count $1.8 million per season against Detroit's salary cap, according to NFL executives. If the Lions were to place him on the "reserve-retired" list, their salary-cap hit this season would be $7.3 million.
Sanders did not attend the Lions' mandatory minicamp in May and hadn't spoken with management since the end of the 1998 season. He also reportedly was not happy with Ross, the former University of Maryland head coach, though Sanders denied that was a factor.
"I have enjoyed playing for two great head coaches, Wayne Fontes and Bobby Ross, who are good coaches and leaders," Sanders said in his statement. "I am not involved in a salary dispute of any kind. If I had played this season, I would have earned a more than satisfactory salary. . . . I have searched my heart through and through and feel comfortable with this decision."
Ross said he made at least 10 telephone calls to Sanders and wrote three or four letters to him.
"My personal feeling is that we're looking at a situation where the man got tired of playing the game," Ross said at a news conference in Detroit. "Do I feel that Barry left because of me? No, I don't feel that."
Sanders turned up yesterday in London, where he was met at Gatwick Airport by a reporter and photographer.
"Ten years is a lot of football," he told the Associated Press. "I'm just really not feeling like playing. It's just getting to that point. It's not the same game. Really, I've been battling for the last few years. As I've gotten older, the game has changed in my mind. I'm thinking about doing other things. It's still fun, but not as much fun. It just felt like it was time."
Asked if he might change his mind, he shook his head.
"I don't think that's going to happen. I'm not really thinking about that," adding that he was retiring before he became "old and gray and can't run" and got "kicked out." He also said he didn't feel "unfulfilled" about not playing in the Super Bowl.
"It didn't happen . . . but I can still sleep at night. I'm just going to enjoy life. I have enough things to keep me busy. I'll do something productive, but I don't know exactly what it will be."
During Sanders's 10 seasons in Detroit, the Lions had a 78-82 regular season record and made the playoffs five times, winning one playoff game. Detroit had two 5-11 seasons sandwiched around a 9-7 record in 1997 that earned a wild-card spot.
Barry, Barry Good
After 10 seasons in Detroit and 15,269 yards -- 1,457 yards short of the NFL rushing record -- Barry Sanders retired yesterday.