One of the NFL’s greatest mysteries was figuring out why former legendary running back Barry Sanders decided to call it a career in 1999 at the age of 31. He was arguably in the prime of his career with ten seasons rushing over 1,000 yards and the all-time rushing title locked up. But then, in July of 1999, Sanders sent a fax to his hometown paper, The Wichita Eagle, announcing he was hanging up his cleats for good. It’s unheard of for a generational athlete to suddenly give up the game they mastered (even Michael Jordan returned after what is argued to be the most fantastic sendoff ever).
You can’t pinpoint one reason why Sanders made his sudden exit as the documentary Bye, Bye, Barry investigates. Instead, co-directors Paul Monusky, Micaela Powers, and Angela Torma give the man himself, his family, former teammates, interviews from Sanders’s late father William, as well as many long-time Detroit Lions fans and journalists the chance to not only speak to the history of the franchise, but show their appreciation for the man himself.
One of the best moments of this documentary is when Sanders is sitting at a table with his four sons and explaining what a fax is. If you’re wondering why there was some big ceremony, it is because Sanders was never the guy who craved massive amounts of attention. He was always known as a person who just wanted to blend in – even as his elusiveness would have him run to the NFL Hall of Fame. A few stories reside within Bye Bye, Barry, that displayed his selflessness. During the 1985 season in Wichita North High School, Sanders took himself out of the game before he won the city rushing title to let the backups play. He did this again during his rookie season with the Lions before he could win the NFL running title during his rookie year.
It was never about individual accolades for Sanders (although former teammates did say he got happy on the heels of his 1998 2,000-yard season). The team-oriented demeanor Sanders carried throughout his career radiated inside the Detroit fans who needed something to cheer for. In the late 80s’, the city of Detroit would generally make the news because of crime-related matters. The Lions hadn’t won a championship since 1957, and that drought had hardened a certain hopelessness within the city. Sanders's electric play brought back excitement. His first game against the then-Phoenix Cardinals in 1989 indicated that a new day was coming.
If Barry let his game speak for him, his father, William, was the mouthpiece that proclaimed his greatness to the world. William would always tell Barry that the three greatest running backs of all time were Jim Brown, himself, and Barry (in that order). It comes off as a friendly spark of motivation, but also hints at William wanting Barry always to stay humble. For every touchdown Barry scores, he always gives the ball football back to the referee – no dancing. It contrasts William's conversations where he would speak about how great he thought his son was and, at times, calling out the Lions franchise for various reasons.
A major part of Bye Bye, Barry is not just going through the personal psyche of who Barry Sanders is but displaying in highlights how good he was. It might be hard to believe in an NFL that is mainly predicated on the passing game, but Sanders was the engine that got those 1991 Lions over the hump and nearly to the Super Bowl. Unfortunately, they never got there, and the documentary makes a brief contrast to Emmitt Smith and the Dallas Cowboys. It was thought those teams would be battling for years to come – however, it was not to be for the Lions.
Thus goes the prevailing argument of if Barry Sanders had a complete team around him, the things he could have done. Those questions surround the reasoning for his sudden retirement. You get the sense that it was a little from each column. There was losing players like tackle Lomas Brown and Chris Spielman to free agency and seeing them succeed elsewhere. Witnessing the devastating injuries to Chris Utley and Reggie Brown firsthand, then coming off a 1998 season where the Lions went 5-11. The fact that Sanders made the Pro Bowl for the tenth time and stuff like that didn’t matter to him. Personal accomplishments aired to the more significant factor of winning.
In the end, Sanders contributed to just losing the passion he once had because sometimes there is just no other explanation. Of course, Lions fans were upset and perhaps sad about some unbecoming things at the time. Ultimately, the outstanding character of the man beyond the pads prevailed, as it was always going to do.