It was the fax message that sent shockwaves throughout the sports world. In July 1999, Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders unexpectedly announced his retirement via a simple facsimile instead of a lavish press conference — which was a decidedly on-brand decision for the humble star.
Still, when Sanders immediately jetted off to London following the announcement — just 1,457 yards shy of Walter Payton’s all-time NFL rushing record — it left many fans in Detroit with a bitter taste in their mouths.
“I guess it certainly could have been handled different,” Sanders exclusively told The Messenger. “That’s just kind of where I was in my life. That’s the way I saw the world.”
Sanders’ shocking retirement is detailed in the new documentary Bye Bye Barry, which is available to stream on Prime Video.
While the process has given Sanders a chance to look at things with a fresh perspective, he still defends his controversial decision.
“Reliving it is very interesting,” Sanders said, “but I don’t know that I would change much about it.”
The documentary attempts to answer the million dollar question that has plagued Lions die-hards and football fans alike for decades: Why exactly did Barry Sanders retire?
All these years later, Sanders still doesn’t really have a definitive answer.
“I reflect on it all the time,” he admitted. “I don’t think I have more insight. Looking back, I was pretty resolute. I don’t really have any regrets.”
Sanders concluded, “I’m just glad I had the courage to make that kind of decision.”
Had he not, Sanders wonders about how his body and mind might be different now.
“I do think about it,” he said. “In ’99 when I retired, there was no real conversation about degenerative brain disease, loss of brain function and that kind of thing. Not just the brain, but the normal injuries that come with the game. It’s a young man’s game in a lot of ways.”
Sanders said the injury concerns “weren’t a factor in my retirement,” but he’s thankful for his mental clarity and the opportunity to share the documentary and that time of his life and career with his entire family — including sons Barry Jr., 29, Nigel, 22, Nick, 19, and Noah, 16.
“The timing was right for me,” he explained. “All of my sons are grown. Before, my oldest boy was here, but my youngest weren’t even born. This allowed me to tell my story in a certain way.”
The tale doesn’t come with a tidy ending, but like most stories involving Barry Sanders, not many of them do.
Bye Bye Barry is available to stream on Prime Video.