Ex-Lions RB admits his leaving was 'clumsy'

Updated: December 17, 2003, 10:51 AM ET
Associated Press

DETROIT -- Barry Sanders, one of football's smoothest backs, admits the way he left the Detroit Lions was awkward.

During his first news conference since his shocking retirement on the eve of training camp in 1999, Sanders said Tuesday, "The way it was done may have been a little clumsy."

Sanders announced his retirement through a written statement released by his hometown newspaper, The Wichita Eagle.

"Even had I retired in a more-graceful way, it still would've been taken the wrong way by a lot of people because I retired after 10 years," Sanders said. "The issue was not how I retired, but when I retired."

Sanders did say he should have returned calls from former Lions coach Bobby Ross, who tried unsuccessfully to contact him before the 1999 season.

"It took a long time to figure out what I wanted to do, and how I wanted to say it," said Sanders, looking as fit as ever in a sport coat, slacks and loafers.

Sanders ran for 15,269 yards during his 10-year career with a crazy-legs style that thrilled fans and frustrated opponents. He walked away from the NFL with Walter Payton's rushing record well within reach.

"At that time, I knew that I just didn't have it in me anymore to continue," said Sanders, who is eligible for election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in January.

Sanders, never comfortable talking to reporters, acknowledged he agreed to have a news conference solely to promote his book, "Barry Sanders: Now You See Him..." which was released this week.

"It was probably good that I did the book, because I'm not sure when or if something like this would've occurred," Sanders said of his talk with reporters. "I know that's not good for me to say, but I can't think of any other scenario where something like this would've happened.

"In a certain sense, it does lift a burden and I think it's significant that it happened."

Sanders said he is interested in working within the Lions' community relations department. Team president Matt Millen, who contacted Sanders to gauge his interest in playing again in 2000, told Sanders he was welcome to be a part of the organization, and repeated the offer again after their initial conversation.

Millen, a former linebacker who won four Super Bowls with three teams, introduced Sanders at his news conference at Ford Field.

"He was the best running back I've ever seen, bar none," Millen said. "It's not even close."

Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press