Why did Sanders retire? Lewand shares Jaguar story
Lions president, on Hall of Fame running back: 'He knew that football, it wasn't his identity'
Barry Sanders had one of the best seasons in NFL history in 1997, when he ran for 2,053 yards and led the Detroit Lions to the playoffs.
The Hall-of-Fame running back signed his final NFL contract just before training camp that year, and celebrated by splurging on a new car. Kind of.
Lions president Tom Lewand was asked during a question-and-answer session at a "Man Up" event for Kensington Church what the real reason was Sanders retired abruptly in the summer of 1999, and he shared this interesting story about Sanders.
"Great, great story on Barry and what a humble guy he is," Lewand said. "He had a holdout in 1997, we got him signed, we were out at the Silverdome, we both go up to training camp which at the time was at Saginaw Valley, and he signed literally the richest contract in the NFL at that point.
"At Saginaw, we both end up pulling into the parking lot at the same time. He says, 'Tom, come over and check my new ride. I rewarded myself with a new car.' I go over, it's a black Jaguar, and I look in, I peek in the window, I go, 'Barry, this car has 38,000 miles on it.' He said, 'I know, I got a great deal.'"
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Sanders signed a six-year, $36-million deal in July of 1997, but played just two more seasons and eventually had to repay a portion of his signing bonus.
He retired as the second leading rusher in NFL history, less than 1,500 yards behind Walter Payton, and currently ranks third on the rushing list behind Emmitt Smith and Payton.
"A little bit of that (story) reveals I think his decision," Lewand said. "He knew that football, it wasn't his identity. It was more than just football, it was being a father, it was being a man of the community, he is a man of faith as well. But for him it was more than just football, and I think for him, that combined with some of the things that were happening with the offense and things that were happening football wise, and then I think his own body, he knew his body better than anybody.
"Those who have a better football eye than I do would pick up on some subtle things his last year that would suggest he might be slowing down just a tick as he was hitting his 30s and maybe the combination of those things. But he's a guy who's been a part of the program with us now. We have a great relationship with him and he's definitely at peace with the decision."
Contact Dave Birkett at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.