There are moments — a lot of moments, really — in the new documentary about Barry Sanders where you can’t quite believe that what you’re seeing is real, an archival video and not a CGI creation. Sanders moves like an acrobat, pivots like a ballerina, hammers like a cannonball, all on the same play. Watching his unique combination of power and grace is as breathtaking today as it was then – perhaps anymore, because those of us who watched it live didn’t really realize at the time how rare and lucky we were to be alive at the same time. time like Barry Sanders.
Despite all the mystery surrounding Sanders… How could he move like that? Why was he so opposed to individual glory? How could the gods be so cruel to put him in Detroit? – the overriding question, then and now, is: why did Barry Sanders leave the NFL? Why leave when he was nearing the pinnacle, not only of his own career, but of NFL history?
“Bye Bye Barry,” a new documentary released this week on Prime Video, attempts to answer that question by asking it – once again – of the mysterious man himself. An NFL Films production, “Bye Bye Barry” was made in conjunction with its subject. But unlike, say, “The Last Dance,” you don’t get the sense that Sanders is shaping a narrative to make himself look better… mainly because Sanders is, and always has been, just fine with whatever the people think of him all the time. time.
“There’s a tradition in NFL Films of showing you who these players are behind the helmets,” says Ken Rodgers, executive producer of the documentary. “You learn their names from watching the games, but you learn who they are from our films. And Barry has the biggest difference between his public performance on the field and his very calm and wise personality off the field.
The documentary, which features everyone from Bill Belichick to Eminem, documents Sanders’ story from his first days on a football field. He was a standout high school running back in Wichita, Kansas, who nonetheless attracted only three scholarship offers: Iowa State, Tulsa and Oklahoma State. He hung on at OSU and would go on to win the Heisman, but even in his early days there were clues to his values and mindset.
Sanders once refused to go back in a high school blowout just to set a distance record. He looked embarrassed when he won the Heisman in 1988 over Rodney Peete and Troy Aikman. And he didn’t throw a fit when he was drafted by Detroit a few months later, even though it effectively doomed him to a career of what-ifs and what-ifs.
The Detroit segment of the documentary is pure nostalgia, from John Madden’s narration to old Nike commercials to the enormous shoulder pads worn throughout the 1990s. You’ll feel the exhilaration of watching Sanders break off run after magnificent run, and you’ll will feel the frustration of seeing Detroit completely unable to match their skill, effort and potential with complementary players.
Along the way, the pieces of the puzzle of why Sanders walked away begin to fall into place, from the devastating injuries suffered by other players to the infuriating championship-winning Cowboys – who surrounded their own running back, Emmitt Smith, with a much higher caliber of talent.
Sanders walked away after his age 30 season. To put that into perspective, it would be like Derrick Henry retiring next year, or Patrick Mahomes in two years. He left the game less than 1,500 yards short of Walter Payton’s career record. (Smith has since passed Payton and Frank Gore has passed Sanders.)
“Nobody understands why he left the year he was about to become the best to ever play the position,” Rodgers said. “That’s because we wouldn’t do that.” As Americans, we want personal gain, even though we try to tell our kids it’s about teamwork and love of the game.”
We often like to speculate about how social media would have affected certain athletes – how, for example, Brett Favre, Deion Sanders or Joe Namath would have fared in an era where the world’s eyes are on the stars 24 hours a day. With some you can guess. (Neon Deion in October 1992 would have been even bigger than Coach Prime in September 2023.)
With Barry Sanders, you already know that. The man wouldn’t have embarrassed himself or his team with ill-advised selfies, he wouldn’t have shown up in a TikTok video of someone getting into a street brawl in Vegas. He was deeply true to himself…and for him, that meant remaining as low-key as possible while remaining a superstar.
But what Sanders did just days before training camp opened for the 1999 season would have melted Twitter into slag. He was spotted boarding a flight to London, then faxed a statement to the Wichita Eagle – a statement that said, in part, that “my desire to be out of the game is greater than my desire to ‘be there’.
The documentary ends with a brilliant conclusion: Sanders returns to London, this time with his four sons accompanying him, to revisit what led him to leave the NFL. His sons ask insightful and knowing questions, but it’s clear that Sanders hasn’t even shared his innermost thoughts with them.
Lions fans get another kick in the gut when Sanders wonders if Detroit’s perpetual futility played a role in his early departure. (It really is.)
“If we were coming off a deep playoff run, a Super Bowl loss,” Sanders says in the documentary, “Those things matter. And looking back on it, I guess all I can say is that It could have made a difference, you know.”
The Lions reached the NFC Championship at the end of the 1991-92 season…which still marks the last time the franchise won a playoff game. In Sanders’ 10 seasons, Detroit posted losing records in five of them and lost in the first round of the playoffs in four. The years of defeat had harmful consequences, both on his body and on his psyche.
“This passion. It just wasn’t there,” Sanders says. “There really was nothing left to play.”
But Detroit forgave Sanders, and Sanders in turn quietly embraced Detroit. He remains a visible figure in the city, and images of the unveiling of his statue in front of Ford Field show the love that remains strong between the city and the star.
“I think he’s recognized not only as one of the greatest players in the NFL, but as the greatest of all athletes,” Rodgers said. “His iconic status continues to grow. He’s going to become more of an elder statesman for the sport.
Watch “Bye Bye Barry,” maybe Wednesday night while everyone is eating pizza, maybe Thursday while the turkey is in the oven. You will miss Sanders again. You will begin to understand why he had to walk away when he did. And you’ll be grateful you had the chance to see it, then as now.
Gn En sports