Barry Sanders, in the bloom of health and on the verge of breaking almost every important record a running back could dream of attaining, announced his retirement from football yesterday.
Then, the great Lion flew to London. In a break from his usual Garboesque silence, Sanders explained his sudden desire for things European by saying: "I don't know the right way to retire. This is just my way of doing it."
Next, he's on to Amsterdam and Paris. Say "Hi" to the Mona Lisa for us. What mysterious elegance. What a deft cutback against the grain. The NFL reports to training camp. Sanders reports to the Continent. How totally Barry, worthy of a man who said in his parting statement that he had "searched my heart through and through" and "sorted through my feelings" to make sure that "my feelings were backed with conviction."
Who would be so crass as not to take such a fellow at face value? Actually, there are such people. One of the NFL's wisest senior statesmen summed up his feelings thus: "Retired? He ain't missed a game yet, has he?"
Sanders's apparent retirement was a kind of national Rorschach test to measure our cynicism or, perhaps, our gullibility. Part of us wants to believe him because he sounds so pure in his motives. Is it even possible that he may not want to break Walter Payton's career rushing record at the same time that Payton is painfully withered and waiting for a liver donor?
One Associated Press reporter spotted Sanders in London's Gatwick Airport yesterday.
"Do you have to have a reason to come [to London]?" Sanders asked, after flying all night from Detroit. "I don't say goodbye too well, I guess. I'm not a TV camera-type of person."
The NFL world was stunned, puzzled and almost unequipped to digest the idea of a man retiring just 1,457 yards short of the all-time rushing yardage record, one touchdown shy of 100 and with four years left on a $36 million contract.
"I was astounded," former Bills coach Marv Levy said, "but . . . he's never been a guy who postures. There's nothing phony about him. . . . Maybe he's retired."
There's that word, "maybe." Few could erase it from their thoughts, though every word of Sanders's statement was eloquent and unequivocal.
"Y'all are joking," said Emmitt Smith of the Cowboys. "I don't buy it just yet because the man has many, many, many more years left."
This Sanders Saga has plenty of last acts. But recent sports history, hardly a chronicle of idealism, says that John Elway, Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky probably will not have a fourth on the first tee on a permanent basis. The first retirement of modern superstars -- especially for those, like the 31-year-old Sanders, who are neither hurt nor old -- are usually optical illusions. Even His Airness came back after a season as a White Sox minor leaguer.
"Individual accolades have never been the things that motivated Barry," said David Ware, one of Sanders's agents. "Money has never been something that motivated Barry, either."
We'll soon see, won't we.
Once, long ago, Jim Brown retired at the height of his powers. But Hollywood beckoned and, potentially, with bigger bucks than football offered. Why create redundant highlight films when "The Dirty Dozen" awaits you?
In the thespian arena, however, Sanders seems to have limited appeal, at least since the recent decline of silent films. Last year, Sanders continued the great modern tradition of superstar athletes who decline to comment for months at a time, then call a news conference when they want to blast somebody. Sanders's target at the end of last season was the 5-11 Lions, who don't seem profoundly committed to getting Sanders a Super Bowl ring.
Weighed against the sincerity in Sanders's words yesterday, we must balance the pique of his actions, and the words of those close to him, since last season. He's missed both mandatory and voluntary minicamps. The Lions, especially Coach Bobby Ross, swear that they've sent numerous telephone messages, as well as letters, to Sanders, updating him on the team and trying to get hold of him and find out his thinking.
Answer: total silence for month after month. Then, a retirement, leaving the Lions at a huge disadvantage on the first day for veterans to report.
Two months ago, Sanders's father, William, said of his son, "He's sick of them [the Lions]. He's sick of losing."
Is Sanders a temperamental diva who wants more public displays of love and attention from the Lions brass and Ross? If he is, he might have a long wait. Former players leave the impression that Ross thinks an interpersonal relationship is what happens when you hail a taxi.
Everybody in the NFL wants to know if Sanders wants to be traded to a better team. As one former general manager said: "Is it a ploy? In the NFL, until proven otherwise, everything is a ploy." Nonetheless, salary cap issues -- Sanders would count for $7.3 million -- are a huge obstacle to any trade.
While the Redskins recently asked the Lions about trading for Sanders -- and were rebuffed -- one highly placed team source said yesterday, "We have no interest in Barry Sanders." Is that "no interest" as in, "We can't say we have an interest because it's against the rules."
"No, this is `no interest,' as in we really aren't interested in Sanders," the source said.
The Lions might be interested in such a trade, but why would it interest Sanders? Why raise a stink just to go from a 5-11 team you call "family" to a 6-10 team with an even worse offensive line?
From the Redskins' perspective, Sanders has taken 10 years of hard knocks, has usually run better on turf than grass and isn't the smash-mouth runner they crave. A Sanders trade is not going to happen.
Other NFL teams, however, may still be interested. That raises one last possibility. The Lions yesterday put Sanders on the "reserve-did not report" list, rather than "reserve-retired." That lets them activate Sanders any time this season until Dec. 5. By then, maybe Barry will figure he's fully prepped for "World Capitals for $100" if he ever runs into Alex Trebek.
It's conceivable Sanders sincerely believes he's retiring. John Riggins did, too. But he came back. So did Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard. Retirement is tougher than working for a living. You have to figure out, all by yourself, what to do every day for the rest of your life. After an athletic lifetime of order, goals and difficult (but imaginatively unchallenging) achievements, that can be more terrifying than a full dose of Reggie White.
After London, Amsterdam and Paris, where next?
Some in the NFL were shocked at the definitive tone of Sanders's announcement. To unretire, he'll have to backpedal faster than that other Sanders -- Deion. But it's been done before.
On the list of possibilities, here's the common sense morning line: Will Sanders play for the Lions again if they hug him enough? Maybe. Will he play for another team with a better Super Bowl chance? Probably. Has Barry Sanders played his final game in the NFL, not just this season, but forever? Sadly for us, it's possible. But it's also the longest shot on the board.