Popular documentary ‘Bye Bye Barry’ sheds new light on Sanders’ decision to retire from Lions

The Associated Press - December 9, 2023 8:01 am

FILE - Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders acknowledges the crowd after receiving a Pro Football Hall of Fame ring during a ceremony at halftime of an NFL football game between the Lions and the Chicago Bears, Oct. 18, 2015, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Jose Juarez, File)

By JOE REEDY AP Sports Writer

(AP) — Coach Dan Campbell and quarterback Jared Goff aren’t the only popular Detroit Lions these days.

A movie about the franchise’s greatest running back and his sudden retirement is Amazon Prime Video’s most-viewed documentary.

“Bye Bye Barry” looks back at Barry Sanders’ 10-year career with the Detroit Lions and his decision to retire in 1999 despite being on the cusp of becoming the NFL’s all-time leading rusher. It surpassed “Kelce,” a documentary about Philadelphia Eagles center Jason Kelce, less than two weeks after its premiere.

“I think the timing is just right,” Sanders said during an interview with The Associated Press. “Amazon felt like it was a story that a lot of people wanted to hear and that they wanted to tell. They felt like it was a good story for them to be able to tell a certain way. And I think people also like documentaries like ‘The Last Dance’ where people get an in-depth look.”

While the 90-minute documentary looks at Sanders’ entire 10-year career in Detroit, as well as being recruited to Oklahoma State University and winning the Heisman Trophy in 1988, a major focus is his decision to retire and head to London on the eve of the Lions opening training camp in 1999.

Sanders was 31 when he walked away with 15,269 career rushing yards and 109 touchdowns. He was 1,457 yards from passing Walter Payton to become the NFL’s rushing king, a mark that Emmitt Smith ended up breaking three years later.

Sanders’ retirement drew comparisons to Jim Brown, who retired in 1966 at 29 after nine seasons in Cleveland. Brown announced his retirement in England while filming a movie.

“I’ve never thought of myself as having sort of mystique or being mysterious. But for people that don’t know me, I can see how maybe they can see it that way,” Sanders said. “Hopefully, the documentary will answer a lot of questions. There is sort of a new group of fans. We hope we can reach a lot of them with the story. I think it’s something they’ll appreciate.”

One detail throughout the documentary notes Sanders was never concerned about statistics or the limelight. Sanders’ father, Williams Sanders, discussed in a taped interview before his death in 2011 how his son didn’t go back into the final regular-season game his senior year of high school because his team was up by five touchdowns, even though he could have finished as the top rusher in Wichita, Kansas.

Sanders finished eight yards shy of overtaking Kansas City’s Christian Okoye for the rushing title in his rookie season in 1989 because the Lions were well ahead of the Atlanta Falcons and he wanted other backs to get carries in the fourth quarter.

Noted Detroit Lions fans Jeff Daniels, Tim Allen, and Eminem make appearances to discuss their memories of Sanders.

The best part though might be Sanders and his four sons going to London. In a scene filmed at a restaurant near London Bridge, they ask him about the decision and why he did it with a statement faxed to his local paper in Wichita instead of a press conference.

In talking to his sons, Barry Sanders recalled toward the middle of the 1998 season feeling it might be his last.

Nigel Sanders, the second-oldest at 22, asked his dad if he thought about going to another team, but that never was a consideration. Barry Sanders acknowledged to his oldest son, Barry Sanders Jr., that losing played a role in leaving the Lions, who were coached by Bobby Ross.

“That’s a game you could probably play all day,” he said. “Like if we were coming off a deep playoff run, a Super Bowl loss. You know, those things do matter. And thinking back, I guess all I can say is it could have made the difference.”

Sanders has been a part of Nissan’s “Heisman House” campaign and a new generation of fans get to play him on the Madden video games. Any ill will from the Lions toward Sanders is a thing of the past. A statue of Sanders was dedicated in front of Ford Field this season.

Sanders is hopeful the Lions can host and win a playoff game for the first time since the 1991 season, which is the longest current drought in the NFL. Sanders’ only postseason victory came in an NFC divisional round game against the Dallas Cowboys.

Detroit goes into Sunday’s game at Chicago with a 9-3 record and a three-game lead over Minnesota in the NFC North.

“Leaving that stadium that day, I would have assumed that I would have won several more playoff games and even a Super Bowl. So it just shows you that there’s no guarantees in the game,” he said. “Coach Campbell has a personality and you can feel like guys play for him. When things go south, he takes the blame. With leading the division this year, it’s really a combination of what Dan and (general manager) Brad Holmes have done since they got there. They deserve all the credit in the world.”

 

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