July 27, 1999. Surely it would be a typical day at the editorial desk of the Wichita Eagle.
The midwest daily newspaper would provide coverage of a meeting at city hall, perhaps, and op-ed commentary on the issues of the day. Important stuff, but normal stuff. Daily stuff.
Then at some point, a fax machine hummed to life. What it spit out wasn’t normal at all: Barry Sanders was retiring.
Sanders left abruptly, and left us wanting. He did it quietly with that fax to his hometown newspaper. That was Sanders: quiet.
Quiet is how Sanders did most things, even on the field. His feet were light, and his vision sharp as he danced and weaved laterally to find holes others would never discover. But the totality of his performance -- the numbers, and elusiveness that left defenders flailing -- was deafening.
When you recall the NFL in the ‘90s, first to mind often are the Buffalo Bills, and their triumphs that ended in tears. Then the Dallas Cowboys dynasty, and those great 49ers teams. When you remember individual plays, there’s John Elway’s helicopter, or Leon Lett’s brain cramp. Sanders is there too, certainly, but not among those memories of the game at its highest stage.
Losing does that, as although the Detroit Lions advanced to the playoffs during five of his 10 seasons, only one of those Januarys ended in a playoff win. Eventually that contributed to Sanders feeling his passion fade, and retiring early.
But before that he was an NFL legend, and a ‘90s sports icon. And before that his career started where it ended: in Wichita, on a high school field.
The beginning looks grainy now, the natural state of most video from the late ‘80s. You can see Sanders plainly though, juking, cutting, and generally doing amazing things for Wichita North High School. That’s where he developed what would later become his signature style, running low to the ground to minimize the target available for tacklers.
Some of the wide eyes in the stands were from Oklahoma State, where Sanders would later play his collegiate football. What he did there doesn’t seem possible. Or real.
He won the Heisman Trophy in 1988, a season when he rushed for 2,628 yards, which still stands as a single-season college football record. It was Sanders’ first season as the starting running back at Oklahoma State after he replaced Thurman Thomas, and it started with a 100-yard kickoff return touchdown.
On the opening kickoff, in the opening game.
He needed only 11 games to reach that unfathomable rushing total, leading to a per game average of 239 rushing yards. Really absorb that for a second, and then once you’re able to properly compute the volume of yardage Sanders was compiling each week, brace for more. He averaged 7.6 yards per carry, and scored 37 rushing touchdowns in 1988, which also still stands as a single-season record (he scored 39 times in total including his kick and punt returns).
Greatness at the next level and throughout the next decade was easy to project. But setting expectations was useless with Sanders. All barriers were shattered quickly.
There was no adjustment for Sanders, and no learning period. The shining numbers came immediately in his rookie year after the Detroit Lions made him the third overall pick in 1989. Later that fall in the final year to close out the decade he rushed for 1,470 yards (accumulating 1,752 yards when his work as a receiver out of the backfield is included).
It was the first of nine seasons when Sanders passed the 1,300 yard mark, and the only season when he finished lower than that plateau came in an injury-shortened year (1993, when he missed five games but still rushed for 1,115 yards).
Sanders averaged 1,525 rushing yards per season over his 10 years, a rate pushed by 1994 and his 1,883 yards then, but especially by his historic 1997 year, when he rushed for 2,053 yards at a pace of 128.3 per week. That ranks fourth all-time on the single-season list, and he’s still one of only seven backs in league history to rush for over 2,000 yards. He needed only 335 carries to get there, while the three ahead of him required 387 carries (Jamal Lewis), 348 (Adrian Peterson), and 379 (Eric Dickerson) to reach their totals.
Remember that Sanders did that during his age 29 year, a time when he had already absorbed the punishment of 2,384 carries. Or maybe it wasn’t punishment for Sanders, because hard, violent collisions weren’t part of his world. He ducked, spun, and bounced, rarely getting rattled.
That’s why he seemed poised to be one of those running backs who would easily keep going into his 30s and remain productive, like Emmitt Smith after him, who still rushed for 937 yards at the age of 35.
That fax came just before training camp in 1999. At first it was difficult to comprehend. Why would Sanders leave when he’s still producing at a high level? When he had eight +100 yard rushing games the season before? When he had been named to 10 Pro Bowl teams? When he still hadn’t won a Super Bowl?
For Sanders, the answer wasn’t difficult at all.
"The reason I am retiring is simple: My desire to exit the game is greater than my desire to remain in it."
That was the cold truth from his fax. When featured as part of the NFL Network series “A Football Life” last year, Sanders elaborated, saying he had lost the “drive, determination, and enjoyment for the game”. It was also clear the Lions would be rebuilding for several seasons, something he didn’t have the patience or energy to go through.
He was only 1,457 yards short of Walter Payton’s career rushing record at the time, but it didn’t matter. He was done.
There are more Sanders numbers and history that make the eyes grow wide. Sanders was the first running back to have five +1500 yard rushing seasons, and was also the first to do that in four consecutive years.
But when we reflect on it now and look back his fax sent almost exactly 15 years ago, Sanders’ legacy is defined equally by his dominance, and his willingness to walk away from it.