Fourteen years after he abruptly called it a career, boarded a plane to London, and very willfully withdrew himself from the white-hot spotlight that a once-a-generation player of his caliber commands, Barry Sanders remains the most electric, elusive running back to have played professional football since the great Jim Brown.
And like the iconoclastic Brown, he retired early -- in 1998, at age 31, in his prime, with his body intact -- and less than 1,500 yards away from the then-all-time rushing record.
Now, at age 44, Detroit Lions Hall-of-Fame running back Barry Sanders still travels the world. His son, Barry Jr., is a freshman on the Stanford football team. And he is the the national spokesman for the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame's Gridiron Glory traveling exhibit, which opens Saturday at the Heinz History Center.
I was able to speak with him for a few minutes by phone earlier this week.
Q. Your retirement was hailed as a bold move -- leaving on your own terms, in your prime. With the benefit of hindsight, you also eliminated your exposure to head injuries, which are a major concern now. Would you encourage players today to get out early?
SANDERS: I don't know if I would encourage it -- I think it depends on how much football they have left in them. Its something you have to plan for. That day certainly has to come for every player … It’s a very individual decision, but I certainly wouldn’t discourage it [either].
Whether its because of injury, or whether its getting out and getting acclimated to what life is going to be like after you play -- that's something you're going to have to deal with the rest of your life. It's something that you can't run from. It’s a difficult question. I wouldn’t encourage it, I wouldn’t discourage it. I would just say that it’s a very individual decision. … But every player has to know -- whether its sooner or later -- its that time, and so you've got to prepare for it.
Q. Watching NFL Films clips of you -- your eyes were like saucers when you hit the hole. Did you think when you ran or was it all instinct and you were on cruise control?
SANDERS: I sort of think it was a lot of both. I spent a lot of time just kind of dreaming and thinking about the game. I spent a lot of time working out. So I think it was really just a combination of the two things. I believe that I was sort of a creative runner in a lot of my runs. I feel like I spent so much time daydreaming about football and doing a lot of those things in my imagination.
The interest for me in football and running the football started way back -- whether I was daydreaming about the game or weather I was drawing pictures of football players as a kid, or whether I was out in my backyard [playing]. But obviously I was gifted and talented with a lot so it was a combination of those things that allowed me to be the kind of player I was.
Q. You only played twice here in Pittsburgh, and one game was infamous locally -- in 1995 at Three Rivers Stadium you put a move on Rod Woodson and he went to the ground with a torn ACL. What do you remember about that play?
SANDERS: I've had a chance to talk to Rod a little bit about that -- I see him on occasion. They had some great teams there -- some great defenses and great defensive players. Rod was right in the middle of that. He is one of those guys that was such a terrific player. I don’t know if his injury was a result of what I did, or the turf -- that hard, beat-up turf they played on over there. But I definitely remember that game.
Q. The Lions' quarterback in your last season was a rookie, Charlie Batch, a hometown favorite here. Do you remember him in the huddle as a rookie or in the locker room?
SANDERS: Charlie is a great guy to be around. At that point he was fresh out of college, he was still learning a lot. But he was a good, solid player. He ended up replacing Scott Mitchell there during the first part of the season and a lot of people were shocked. But he had done enough to prove himself and Scott had probably slipped a little bit in his performance. We loved having Charlie here. To be able to come from Eastern Michigan University and turn his career into what he did says a lot about him.
Q. Your thoughts on the transformation of the NFL into a passing league since you retired?
SANDERS: There certainly has been that sort of a shift with a lot of the teams. There's still some teams that have a pretty good balance, but there are more teams that really drop back and throw the ball -- that's okay. I think if you're a good player you would tend to carve out a niche for yourself. That's certainly the case now with certain players. There's several running backs, and several teams that still realize that's an important part of the game. If you look at last year in the playoffs, most of the teams in that mix did a pretty good job of both.
Q. So you still keep an eye on the game -- and today's running backs?
SANDERS: Oh, yes. Certainly I watch the my old team, the Lions, but as far as running backs, I enjoy watching the Foster kid there with the Texans. I enjoy watching Maurice Jones-Drew, Chris Johnson and Adrian Peterson, Steven Jackson -- some of those guys.
Q. Fans of a certain age remember you as much for being one of the most dominant video game players of all-time in Tecmo Super Bowl as being an actual player. You ever get asked about that by younger fans?
SANDERS: Every now and then. But I wouldn't call them younger fans anymore [ed. note: this means I'm officially old]. But there's a lot of guys that remember the Tecmo Bowl game -- I had a great rating in that. I even played a little bit of that one myself. That was when they really first started coming out with decent graphics for video games. But yes, I do sometimes run into guys who talk about how good the Lions were on Tecmo Bowl.
SANDERS: I think Bo. Bo was unstoppable. And rightfully so.
Q. Why did you lend your name to this traveling Hall-of-Fame exhibition?
SANDERS: There's a lot of great things for the fans. What the Hall is doing is bringing Canton to these cities and to the fans in those cities, so you really get a feel of what you'd see in the Hall of Fame museum in Canton. It tells the story of the Hall of Fame, and ... It tells the story of the NFL and how its evolved over time -- lots of cool hands on things there.
Q. Any particular items or artifacts in this exhibition that even a Hall-of-Famer like yourself finds interesting?
SANDERS: They have one of these early face guards (right) that basically you'd bite onto this little stem and the rest would cover your nose and mouth -- this was before helmets -- just things like that that show you how this game has evolved. There's a lot of neat things like that.