Jerry Rice and Barry Sanders did as much to define the modern game of football as anyone, but neither man wanted to be defined by the game after leaving it.
For Sanders, the great Detroit Lions running back who retired after the 1998 NFL season with 15,269 yards on the ground and a lot left in the tank, the journey after the journey included a trip to England, experience in other business endeavors, and the current Gridiron Glory traveling exhibit. When I talked to Sanders recently, he seemed equally in and out of the game.
"We're starting things off in Pittsburgh," Sanders said of the exhibit. "We're just bringing the Hall of Fame to those fans in the respective cities, because a lot of people haven't been able to make it out to Canton. So, there are a lot of great features -- they'll have replay booths, old NFL uniforms so you can look at the equipment these guys used to wear, and things like that. We think it's going to be a lot of fun, and it's going to be tailored to each city it comes to."
One wonders, though, why a man who brought so much to football didn't want to take the draw many ex-stars so, by going into broadcasting or analysis. "Oh, yeah -- that's just kind of the way things have evolved," he said. "It's not something I have sought out, so that's pretty much why. There are actually a couple of things -- I never really saw myself as someone who would do that, as a commentator or what have you. It's just not something I have pursued."
Which lines up with the question he's most asked -- why did he retire when he still had so much left to offer? Any regrets there? "No, not really -- I don't regret it. It was the right time for me, and I knew that it was time to move on. I had lost some of that drive to compete and play."
The exploits of his son brought Sanders back to the game from the perspective of pure love. Currently a redshirt freshman at Stanford, Barry Sanders, Jr. ended his high school career in 2011 as one of the most highly-sought running back prospects in recent years. The Heritage Hall High alum tore up the Oklahoma fields and chose the Cardinal after a whirlwind recruiting trip around the country, and a game-changing lunch with Andrew Luck.
The elder Sanders told me that he took a step back and helped his son more as a father than as a football player when he made his choice -- "It's one of the first really big decisions he'll make in his life," Sanders said -- but the effect on Barry Sanders, Sr. has been obvious.
"For me, it's just very rewarding and very fulfilling -- something that a lot of parents can relate to -- seeing your child do something like that. All the things you wished and hoped for them come together, and it makes a lot of things worthwhile."
Most specifically, watching his son has helped Sanders love the game of football in a new way. "I think so. I've always been a fan of the game, and it probably forces me to pay more attention to it, and have more involvement in it."
Growing up, though, the younger Sanders only got advice if he asked for it -- the Hall-of-Famer wasn't going to be a Little-League dad. "I pretty much stayed away from that," Sanders told me "He was in a great program, and they had a lot of success. I wasn't going to second-guess any of that. He's done very well; he's a natural runner, so I was there more for support and to cheer him on."
In fact, Sanders was as stealth at his son's high-school games as he ever was on the field. "No, not really," he said when I asked if he ever got bombarded with autograph requests when he showed up for those games. "You'll have some people who want to talk to you, but it wasn't that bad at his games. A lot of the time, I'd sneak in, and I did a pretty good job of staying under the radar.
"I never got bugged too much."
Sanders' name always involved in the debate over who might be the NFL's all-time greatest running back, but when it comes to receivers, there's no doubt who's at the top of the list. Like Sanders, Jerry Rice looked to find a life outside the game after he retired after the 2004 season with every possible record under his control.
Recently in Seattle to tout XBox's Kinect (I actually talked to him at Seattle's CenturyLink Field just before the crazy Seahawks-Packers game kicked off), Rice wanted to make a statement about fitness. This is what you would expect from a man who will turn 50 on October 13, and still runs three-mile hills all the time.
"XBox Kinect 360 and NFL PLAY 60 have teamed up for the 60 Million Minute Challenge," he said. "What this is all about is a nationwide tour, and we want to recruit a million kids from across the United States, and we want those kids to pledge that they will be active for 60 minutes a day. I'm trying to bring awareness to those kids who are obese and overweight."
But after the NFL, Rice went in different directions. He tried "Dancing With the Stars," has appeared in several commercials, does some football breakdowns in the Bay Area, and appeared with his dog, Nitus, in the Wii video game "Jerry Rice & Nitus' Dog Football." All impressive feats (especially the last one), but as with Sanders, I wondered why Rice hadn't parlayed his name into more marquee post-football exposure.
"I think it's just that I devoted myself to football for over 20 years, and the thing about me is ... if I do something, I'm all in," he said. "And I have to be good at it. And I really have to expend a lot of energy, and get the coaching and all that. I do some commentary with ESPN, but it's just kind of a side thing -- I go there maybe once a month, and they put me on every show they can put me on. And you just learn. Not saying that I want to be like Cris Carter or Keyshawn Johnson or Jon Gruden and all those guys, but that's the connection that keeps me with football."
The real connection that keeps him with football is a walk-on receiver at UCLA by the name of Jerry Rice, Jr. it's also got him jet-setting as much as he did during his NFL career.
"Well, listen to this," Rice recalled. "Last week, I go from Bristol, Ct. on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and few home Friday. Jumped right back on the plane Saturday to watch my son play, and now, I'm here in Seattle.
Rice's son, who committed to UCLA for the 2009 season, has seen his role increase over time, but he's still catching up and catching on. Perhaps his biggest struggle was convincing his dad that football was the right path for him, as well.
"I really didn't want my son to play football, to be honest with you," Rice told me of his son. "Because I knew the pressure that would be put on him. But it was something that he wanted to do, so I'm supporting him 100 percent. And I'm just going to the games to be a parent. If he asks me something -- 'Dad, what should I have done against this defensive back?' -- I'll lend my opinion. But I'm more just a parent."
Rice hasn't been as successful as Sanders when it comes to evading awareness when watching his son, and that's certainly been the case at UCLA.
"I tried the stands, and it didn't work," Rice said. "But I was fortunate to find someone to let me in his box. So, whenever I go, I give him the heads-up, and I support my son."
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