Former Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders’ career has largely been defined by his record-setting performances on the football field. Whether it was breaking tackles or rushing in touchdowns under seemingly impossible circumstances, Sanders has arguably solidified himself as the greatest running back in NFL history never to win a Super Bowl.
But what may surprise people is that buried beneath the media headlines and glamorous titles is a man who loved the game far more than the celebrity that came with it.
In Prime Video’s “Bye Bye Barry,” viewers are shown a humble Sanders whose excitement for football is generated not by setting personal records or winning individual awards but by playing to the best of his ability for his teammates. During the last game of his high school career, for example, Sanders was less than 100 yards shy of the state rushing title and was offered the chance to keep playing to break it. With his team leading by a comfortable margin, Sanders declined and instead allowed the team’s younger members to get playing time.
Sanders would carry this level of humility with him into his respective careers at Oklahoma State (1986-1988) and Detroit (1989-1998). Following a historic 1988 college season, the Kansas native was designated as a finalist for — and ultimately won — the Heisman Trophy, the accolade given to college football’s most outstanding player. While Sanders was grateful for the recognition, those closest to him noted how he “didn’t want” the award because he “never really cared about accolades.”
When he became the third professional player to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a single season in 1997, he continued to play the game with the same “business as usual” mentality he’d always played with. Instead of celebrating after running a big play or scoring a touchdown, he’d just hand the ball off to the referee and jog back to his team, ready for the next play.
For Sanders, the game was never about him. It was about the team and finding ways he could help bring them to victory. Everything else — fame, awards, media coverage — was irrelevant, so his decision to announce his retirement from the NFL via fax isn’t all that surprising.
Contrast such humility with the behavior displayed by many of today’s professional athletes. Whether it’s making a first down or scoring a touchdown, the average, modern-day NFL player gets up and immediately starts dancing or engaging in some bizarre celebration — even if his team is losing. All that matters is being commended for what he — not the team — accomplished.
And sure, sometimes players engage in team celebrations in the endzone after scoring a touchdown — but they’re no less childish than if a single player did them.
It’s perfectly fine for players to experience joy while playing a sport they love. In fact, we should encourage more of that. But when that happiness transforms into clownish behavior and self-centeredness, the respectability of the game suffers. After all, there isn’t an “I” in “team.”
“Bye Bye Barry” does a terrific job at showcasing Sanders’ legendary career and providing an in-depth look at the man inside the helmet. But above all, it documents a bygone era in which modesty and humility were prioritized over the narcissistic individualism that frequents today’s professional sports.