When Barry Sanders retired following the 1998 season, the NFL was in shock. Sanders was just 31 years old, coming off a season where he rushed for 1,491 yards, and was only 1,457 yards away from breaking Walter Payton’s all-time rushing record. The question was, how could he leave the game? The answer to that question lies with Barry Sanders, but there are many who believe that it was due to a strained relationship between Barry Sanders and head coach Bobby Ross, and Barry’s father William will be the first to tell you that side of the story.
Before I get to the nastiness of this situation, let’s visit with Barry Sanders on the high road. Here is what Barry said publicly after announcing his retirement.
"The reason I am retiring is very simple, my desire to exit the game is greater than my desire to remain in it…I have enjoyed playing for two great head coaches, Wayne Fontes and Bobby Ross, who are good coaches and leaders," Sanders said in his statement. "I am not involved in a salary dispute of any kind. If I had played this season, I would have earned a more than satisfactory salary. . . . I have searched my heart through and through and feel comfortable with this decision."
There was a lot of speculation the reason Sanders decided not to come back was due to a rift with Bobby Ross and management. The thought was that Barry was not happy with the front office for not surrounding him with good enough talent to help him compete, and that he was unhappy with Ross and his offensive scheme. When Bobby Ross was questioned about why Sanders had left the game, he had this to say.
"My personal feeling is that we're looking at a situation where the man got tired of playing the game," Ross said at a news conference in Detroit. "Do I feel that Barry left because of me? No, I don't feel that."
How this came to the forefront, most likely, came from Barry’s father William. William and his son had an on again off again relationship, and while Barry is a very soft spoken person the same cannot be said for his father. Barry attended Oklahoma State, yet his father continued to be a vigilant supporter of Oklahoma…nice. William Sanders didn’t stop there. When asked who was the greatest running back, he would respond, “Jim Brown, followed by me, and Barry third”. When Barry retired, it was his father who let loose every conspiracy theory, but he really had it out for Bobby Ross.
In 2004 William Sanders was interviewed by Lansing radio station WQTX. The interview was just over 17 minutes in length, with most of the conversation centering on Barry and his upbringing, as well as general football talk. However, just over 13 minutes into the interview, the conversation turned to the topic of why William Sanders personally, had a problem with Bobby Ross.
Heuman: "What about him (Bobby Ross) didn’t you care for?
Sanders: "I didn’t like his attitude."
Heuman: "Bobby Ross’s?"
Heuman: "In what way, William?"
Sanders: "When Detroit signed Barry, one of the first things coach told Barry was that he wanted to meet his father."
Heuman: "Wayne Fontes?" (Wayne Fontes was Barry’s original Lions coach)
Sanders: "Yeah. Not to kiss my butt. (Pause) But to have a courtesy, out of respect."
Heuman: "And Bobby Ross never did that?"
Sanders: (In agreement) "And Bobby Ross never did that."
Heuman: "Why do you suppose he didn’t want to meet you? I’d a bought you dinner and buttered you up and bought you a condo to keep that guy (Barry) in the game."
Sanders: "Because Bobby Ross came out of Georgia and I think Bobby Ross got a mindset about black people and their place."
Heuman: "You think it was a racist thing?"
Sanders: (In agreement) "I think it was a racist thing. He never spoke to me. He never wanted to meet me. If he did, he didn’t."
Heuman: "Wait a minute now. You think Bobby Ross, with his southern background, his aversion to you and possibly Barry was based on race?"
Sanders: "I think so. (Pause) And I’ll debate him."
Heuman: (Pausing in contemplation) "Hmm."
Heuman: "Have you ever said that? I haven’t heard that."
Sanders: "Well, nobody’s really ever asked me."
Heuman: "Well I am now, and you’re saying that you think he was a racist?"
Sanders: "Yeah, I do. (Pause)Yeah. (Long pause) Because he never (Pause) Why would he not want to meet Barry’s father?"
Heuman: "I can’t answer that, but in fairness William Sanders, most of the players on Bobby Ross’s team were black."
Sanders: "That might be true too."
Heuman: "So how could you be a football coach in the NFL and be a racist? (William Laughs)You’d be out of work."
Sanders: "He’s out of work too isn’t he?"
Heuman: "Well, he’s got a job now. He’s coaching Army."
Sanders: "Yeah, well that’s probably the best place for him."
Heuman: (Laughs) "I see you don’t feel strongly about Bobby Ross?"
Sanders: "No I don’t because . . ."
Heuman: (Interrupting Sanders) "You never had a conversation with him?"
Sanders: "I walked the sideline many a day, and the man never said anything to me and I never said anything to him."
Heuman: "Did you ever think of walking up and saying ‘Hi, I’m Barry’s dad’?"
Sanders: "I thought about it, but then I did not want to intrude on his space. ‘Cause if he wanted to meet me (Pause) he was the head of the team. He could’ve did that easily."
Heuman: "He knew where to find you?"
Sanders: (In Agreement) "He knew where to find me."
Heuman: "And you insist that part of his problem with you (Pause) and maybe Barry was that he (Barry) was black?"
Sanders: "Yes. (Pause) Yes. (Long Pause-Then Voice Trailing Off) Yes."
Heuman: (With Emphasis and Amazement) "Wow."
Barry Sanders would never substantiate this account. While Barry wanted nothing to do with the spotlight, it seems his father could not stand being in the shadows. Therefore, William Sanders felt it necessary to continue to perpetuate this belief that Bobby Ross was a racist. Bobby Ross may not have been the best match as a coach for Barry Sanders, but the simple statements made by Barry explaining why he retired still make the most sense. Meanwhile, the overblown reactions of his father made awesome theater.