Barry Sanders retired from the NFL a decade ago. Back then the Lions were one of the worst teams in the league. Ten years later not much has changed. The Lions are 0-8, the last winless team in the league, and haven't won a playoff game since Sanders led them to the NFC Championship game in 1991.
I recently caught up with Sanders, who is promoting the Alltel My Circle Gridiron Getaway where a fan could win a trip on a private jet to watch a football game with the Hall of Fame running back, to find out what he's been doing since he retired abruptly, if he regrets leaving the game and if he would have stuck around to play for a contender.
SI.com: I know that you're letting football fans pick a college or pro football game of their choice to go to this year, and they have until November 8 to do it. If I were to hook up a flux capacitor to this jet and you could see any game at any time, what game would you want to see?
Barry Sanders: [Laughs] That's a good one. Maybe it could take me to 1977 so I could see the Pitt Panthers play against Penn State and watch Tony Dorsett run for four touchdowns. I think it was a regular season game in November. I would go to that one or to 1980 and the Los Angeles Coliseum to watch Billy Sims and Oklahoma play USC.
SI.com: What about one that you played in? So you could finally sit back and watch yourself play like we all did during your career.
Sanders: I wouldn't pick any of my games over those games, I'd rather watch those guys play but I did play in a couple of good games.
SI.com: It was probably more than a couple. Do you not like watching yourself play? I mean do you ever watch any of your old games or even a highlight reel of your best plays?
Sanders: You know what, I don't. If I see something it's normally on ESPN Classic or something like that, but I don't watch a lot of my games. Maybe one day I will. I'm not against it but to this point I just haven't.
SI.com: I never thought you would stay retired when you left the game in 1998. You were still in your prime and on the verge of breaking the all-time rushing record. Did you ever second-guess your decision or consider coming back?
Sanders: No, not really. I was pretty well fixed in the decision that I made. It was something I actually thought about for awhile. It was an individual choice and it was a tough decision to make, but it came down to what my own individual preferences and interests were ... there was never really a point where I was going to return.
SI.com: What was it that made you retire?
Sanders: Well, you kind of understand what it takes to be a player at a certain level and for me, with time and the losses, I think I lost enough interest in playing -- and playing on a daily basis -- that I realized for me it was time to move on. Sure, I could have played for another season or two but I think it was time. To play professional football or be a professional in any profession, really, you want to be totally into it, and I just wasn't. Obviously sports are bigger than other professions and certainly football is in terms of the attention it gets, and you want to be 100 percent into the game and have the desire to be out there. So for me, I had lost enough interest in playing football that I knew that it was time to move on.
SI.com: If Detroit had considered trading you to a contender, a team that was a running back away from possibly winning a Super Bowl, would that have changed your mindset?
Sanders: It might have. Yeah, it definitely might have. I think it's always important to feel like you have a chance. That very well could have changed what happened and it may have delayed my decision a couple years. I think for me personally, looking back to that point, the Lions as a team had gone backwards and I felt like I was winding down my career and you realize that you can't be a winner overnight. So you start adding things up and all those things had something to do with it.
SI.com: Are you surprised that nothing has changed with that the Lions since you left? I mean they're 0-8, haven't won a playoff game since 1991 -- their only playoff win since 1957 -- and haven't made the postseason in nine years.
Sanders: Yeah. [Laughs] That's interesting. It's very interesting how things have played out. I don't know what the answer is. I don't even necessarily know what the problem is, but it is worth mentioning their track record. Obviously, without knowing all the details of their current situation, the teams that really, really want to win, they win. They find a way to win. I really believe that. It may not be year after year, they may have an off year here or there, but eventually they find a way to get back there. So somewhere along the lines in the chain of command there with the Lions, someone may not want to win that bad.
SI.com: Is that one of the reasons that you've been hesitant to go back to the organization in some capacity, even as an ambassador of the team?
Sanders: Well, I don't know what has changed. I know the performance on the field hasn't changed, but I don't know the inner workings of the operation over there. I've been busy with other things, which is really the main reason why I'm not a part of the organization now.
SI.com: Do you ever think what your career would have been like if you played behind the offensive lines that the Cowboys and the Broncos had when they were winning their Super Bowls in the late 1990s?
Sanders: Yeah. You can't help but notice that Dallas had an absolutely fantastic team in the 1990s, especially their offensive line. I had a chance to play with some of those guys at the Pro Bowl and you realize, yeah, that they had assembled a great team with a great offensive line, and that would have been fun. I played with some really good lineman, but I didn't necessarily play with five great linemen like they had assembled in Dallas. I would assume that playing with those guys would have equated into more yards.
SI.com: Speaking of Dallas' offensive line, you and Emmitt Smith went back and forth winning the rushing title from 1990-1997, but since you guys retired there have been eight different rushing champions. What is it about today's tailbacks that make it hard to put together a string of eight great seasons the way you guys did?
Sanders: That's a good question. I don't know why or how a rivalry comes out of nowhere, and I certainly had a contemporary when I played and that's not the case now. Some of that may have to do with teams using a two-running back attack. Then again, there's still some teams that are more traditional where they use a one-back prominent offense like San Diego with LaDainian Tomlinson and Minnesota with Adrian Peterson. It may be a trend, and sometimes these things just go in cycles.
SI.com: You never had a bad season when you played, every season you played you ran for over 1,000 yards and made the Pro Bowl. When you saw at some of your contemporaries like Emmitt Smith and Jerry Rice, who finished their careers as reserves on bad teams, did that in any way justify your decision to retire when you did?
Sanders: Well, each situation is different. When you take a guy like Emmitt Smith or Jerry Rice and look at the success that they've enjoyed and the Super Bowls that they've won, you can understand why they would continue to play. There's really a fine line because in order to be a professional football player, in your mind you have to feel that you're one of the greatest even if that's not the case. Sometimes it's hard to tell when your time is up, and when enough of your skills have faded. You've always tried to prove people wrong and always tried to be one of the best, so when that tipping point comes -- when you start going downhill -- it's not always obvious.
SI.com: You seemed to know before anyone else. Now that you're ten years removed from retiring, are you able to reflect on your place in history and everything you were able to accomplish?
Sanders: I do reflect now. I'm sure I will continue to do so, but there's no real reason why I don't watch my old game films. Maybe [it's] because I already experienced it. I still have a great appreciation for the game. I never saw myself playing until I absolutely could not anymore, just because that was always my approach. I don't know where that comes from, but I always saw myself playing just long enough where I could leave on my own terms. That was always my thought process from early on in my career.
SI.com: When you had that rivalry with Emmitt Smith in the 1990s, did you ever keep up with what he was doing or how many yards he had so you could try to top him?
Sanders: I never really looked at it, but then again I didn't have to because I always aware of it. I was always aware of what Emmitt was doing. I was always made aware of what he was doing and how he was playing.
SI.com: When people talk about the greatest running backs of all-time, they bring up your name alongside Jim Brown and still say you were probably the most exciting. Are you ever surprised by that?
Sanders: Well, no, it's nice that a lot of people still remember and cherish the games that I played in, and to me it's definitely an honor. A good number of seasons have passed since I played, but the fact that a lot of fans still consider me and my games special and remember the details of those games and put me in Jim's company is special.
SI.com: You never celebrated after scoring a touchdown, simply tossing the ball to the official after you scored. What's your take on how far touchdown celebrations have gone?
Sanders: Well, you know for me, I've never been one to try and draw attention to myself, so a lot of what I did comes down to my personality. I think guys doing end zone celebrations now are just having a good time. They don't mean anything by it. Obviously, sometimes a guy is simply trying to say that he did everything on his own which is wrong. A lot of it is almost cultural. It's a fine line because you want to see guys having a good time and enjoy themselves, but at the same time you want to keep it in mind because it's a team game. I don't know what's appropriate or what isn't. It's a fun game and the great plays don't happen all the time, so when it does there's going to be a spontaneous reaction. You just don't want them to get carried away.
SI.com: Your son, Barry, is playing high school football now, what is that like to see your son carry on the football tradition in the Sanders family?
Sanders: Yeah, he's a ninth grader, and he's paying his dues right now playing junior varsity. He's paying special teams and getting in some plays on offense. It's exciting as long as he's enjoying himself and having a good time. I look at it more that I have a kid in high school like a lot of other parents, and I just want the best for him and hopefully he remains safe and has a good time.
SI.com: Finally, you recently turned 40. What was it like to turn the big 4-0?
Sanders: It was a more of a time for reflection. It was certainly a big milestone. Like most people when you're young, you think 40 is old. I'm still trying to figure out, OK, am I as old as those guys who seemed so old to me when I was a kid? I'm still trying to make sense of what it means. For the most part, I enjoy it, but it's certainly a time of reflection.