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."