Why did Detroit Lions’ superstar running back Barry Sanders suddenly retire in the prime of his NFL career 24 years ago? No one knows for sure, with the exception of Sanders, who has not spoken much about his reasons for leaving the team and the NFL. Sanders retiring at 31 years old at the top of his game and never returning as a player has been called “The greatest mystery in sports history.”
However, the new documentary Bye Bye Barry, an NFL Films production, is slated to stream on Prime Video beginning Tuesday, Nov. 21. The documentary, which will premiere in 240 countries and territories worldwide, is being touted as the most definitive story ever told about Barry Sanders’ Hall of Fame career. And in his own words and mindset at the time, No. 20 explains why he left the game abruptly with a coveted NFL record in clear sight.
“Barry Sanders is the best running back to ever play,” Matt Newman, head of Prime Video Original sports content, said in a statement. “We’ve all watched his highlights and wished he had played longer in the NFL and wondered why he really retired so abruptly. We are thrilled to look back at his extraordinary career and get to better understand one of the biggest icons of the sport.”
Newman’s statement about Sanders is far from hyperbole. When Sanders, now 55, left the game, he had amassed 15,269 rushing yards and was on track to catch and pass Walter Payton’s all-time rushing record of 16,726 yards. Sanders, who played for 10 seasons with the Lions, was a 10-time Pro Bowler, a six-time All-Pro, and a four-time rushing leader. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2004.
“Over the last year, I have been filming the definitive movie on my life with @PrimeVideo & AmazonStudios,” Sanders posted on X (formerly Twitter). “The great mystery of why I walked away will be answered once and for all.”
The film features interviews with Jeff Daniels, Eminem, Emmitt Smith, Calvin Johnson, Herman Moore, Jalen Rose, and many others.
While athletes retiring from any sport is common, Sanders’ departure was uniquely different. Instead of holding a press conference that would have garnered national and international attention, Sanders announced his retirement via fax to his hometown newspaper, The Wichita Eagle on Wednesday, July 28, 1999. The fax was received on the eve of the Lions opening their training camp. It has been reported that the Lions learned of Sanders’ retirement when the fax hit national and international news wires and outlets.
Sanders’ faxed statement, in part, read: Shortly after the end of the season, I felt that I probably would not return for the 1999 -2000 season. I also felt that I should take as much time as possible to sort through my feelings and make sure that my feelings were backed with conviction…Today, I officially declare my departure from the NFL…The reason I am retiring is simple: My desire to exit the game is greater than my desire to remain in it. I have searched my heart through and through and feel comfortable with this decision.
While the faxed statement was being published and circulating the globe, Sanders was spotted by Associated Press journalists at London, England’s Gatwick Airport. With nowhere to run, Sanders reportedly was cordial and answered a few questions about his sudden retirement and the faxed statement that announced it.
“I don’t say good-bye too well, I guess,” the AP reported Sanders saying at the airport. “I’m not a TV camera type of person.”
Sanders’ upcoming Bye Bye Barry on Prime Video is not the first media platform to shed light on his retirement. In his 2003 book, Barry Sanders: Now You See Him… . the legend writes about his frustrations with the team letting quality players slip away, the losing that ensued, and the Lions remaining basically stuck in the same place since his arrival as a rookie in 1989.
Yet, aside from the book penned 20 years ago and the 24 years of opinions and speculations about his surprising departure from the Lions, the truth will be told, according to Barry the Great, like it or not, beginning on Nov. 21. And the documentary will highlight many of Sander’s most breathtaking and magical runs.
“When NFL superstar Barry Sanders vanished at the height of his career, he left the NFL world in shock,” said an Amazon Prime producer in a statement. “He was still in his prime, chasing the all-time NFL rushing record when he boarded a flight to England and never stepped foot on the field again. Now, 24 years later, Barry retraces his steps through the streets of London to finally confront the mystery.“
With Bye Bye Barry streaming on Prime Video and the 8-foot statue of Sanders unveiled outside of Ford Field’s Gate B on Sept. 17, 2023, maybe, just maybe, it’s high time to restore the 14-story Nike iconic mural of Sanders running the football that once adorned the exterior wall of Detroit’s downtown Cadillac Towers overlooking Campus Martius. According to a 2019 local news story, Sanders’ mural, a few years after his retirement, was completely scraped off the Cadillac Towers wall in 2002 after Nike’s six-year deal expired.