Monday, December 10, 2012

Barry Sanders: A Life.

I'm not going to do a Monday wrap-up this week. I've tried to think of a new angle to take, or a fresh way to look at things, but it's the same thing every week (or at least the past four weeks). Start with a decent-looking football team, seemingly able to hang with the best of them, mix in one improbable-but-somehow-expected horrific play, sprinkle in a late defensive breakdown, add in some offensive miscommunications, bake at 400 degrees in the fourth quarter, and garnish with horrible special teams. BOOM, you've got yourself a Lions loss. The Lions aren't HORRIBLE. They don't need things blown up. They've been in every game they've played and pretty much proven they should be on the same field with their opponents. But they are far from great. When the inconsistencies become consistent, you have a problem. You have players who can't put together an entire game without making a back-breaking mistake, or you have players who can't even make the field. It's the perfect combination of bad luck and guys who are extremely susceptible to the bad luck. The Lions may be the best 4-9 team, but they are still 4-9. And no one is to blame but themselves.

With that out of the way, I'd like to talk about Barry Sanders. I'm sure many of you watched NFL Network's documentary "Barry Sanders: A Football Life" last week. It was fantastic. It brought back all the wondrous memories of my favorite athlete growing up, and my favorite athlete to this day. He's the reason I fell in love with football. He was the reason I played sports as a child, despite my size and lack of stature. He's the reason I still wear the #20 for my roller hockey team. 

The documentary did a great job of detailing all the amazing runs Sanders had during his career. But that wasn't what drew me to the film. I know about youtube. I probably spend way too much time reliving his decleating of John Lynch or gazing in awe at the way he turned around that Cowboys lineman, whose name I haven't bothered learning out of respect for his family.

No, what really endeared me to Sanders and this documentary was what he represented to a young child like myself. He wasn't just an incredible athlete who dazzled with his agility, vision and balance. He was humble. He was quiet. He was reserved. He was everything I was and wanted to be.

Growing up on the far left of the height bell curve was tough for me. I always had an affinity for sports, and I still have a competitive nature that's hard to match. And while I would consider myself an above-average athlete, during youth, when physical stature is at its most variable, my measurables created a ceiling too low. I can still remember my only basket in my third-grade basketball rec league. Just inside of the three-point arc, I drew the ball next to my right ear (I was still too weak to get it to the basket from there with a standard shot) and heaved it in desperation. SWISH. 

So I drifted to the sports where my physical liabilities would be limited. Soccer became my new favorite sport to play, where agility, creativity and speed reigned supreme. But for as much as I loved soccer, it could never match my love for football. And while I couldn't compete in any Pop Warner leagues and my two-year stint as a middle school safety never progressed beyond a couple fifth and sixth quarter snaps (yes, that's a real thing), I excelled in back yard football. During recess, I can still remember reversing field, shoulder-shaking and contorting my body just out of reach from my opponent's two hands.

And while my visions of taking these backyard skills to the NFL never came close to being a reality. Barry made that dream real for me. And it wasn't just his ability to overcome his size that drew me to him. It was his entire personality, and watching that documentary really highlighted that aspect of his life.

Barry was soft-spoken and never fully comfortable in the spotlight. He was terse in post-game interviews, his off-field life was a mystery, and he never seemed interested in voicing his opinion on just about anything. Just watch him struggle through his Hall of Fame speech. While I'm sure the moment meant a lot to him, he would've much preferred to just receive his statue in the mail. He wanted to show everyone how talented he was, but didn't need to talk about it afterwards. He wanted his play to do the talking.

As an introvert myself, finding athlete role models I could identify with was nearly impossible, especially in the extravagant NFL. People too often confuse competitiveness with arrogance. What follows is an athletic culture that is so obsessive over itself, it can be hard to relate to. But Sanders had all of the former and none of the latter. He fought through being underestimated and undervalued with hard work, determination, and a tough-but-motivating father. It was never about being the absolute best, but trying the best. And while that sounds like cheesy, grade-school coach-speak, it was extremely refreshing to see on the professional level.

The documentary did an excellent job driving this point home with Sanders' juxtoposition with Emmitt Smith. Smith represents everything I hated (and hate) about athlete culture. The obsession with self, the trash-talk, the constant strive for stats. Smith, who apparently still can't appear publicly without an underlying sense of smugness, had everything a running back could ask for: a Pro Bowl offensive line, a national stage in Dallas, and a Hall of Fame quarterback. Smith eventually accumulated three Super Bowl victories, four season rushing titles and the career rushing leader title. And while he certainly had an immense amount of talent and endured an incredible amount of work, next to Sanders, he was the entitled, rich kid who felt the need to shove it in your face to validate himself. Even in the waning moments of the documentary, Smith felt it necessary to take one parting shot at Sanders saying, "No matter what you do, it's never enough [...] Bottom line is, what I've done, I've done." Of course, the subtext there is "I'M the one with the records and trophies, so I'M the best."

But Barry doesn't care about any of that nonsense. He doesn't care if he's the best running back or the fifth best running back. He just cares that he gave it his all on every down, every carry, every game.

Which brings us to his retirement: the most polarizing topic you can bring up for Lions fans. I have never had a problem with Barry's retirement, and Sanders made it clear why no one should. He says clearly and confidently, "The reason I am retiring is simple: My desire to enter the game is greater than my desire to remain in it." And while that may be hard for us to comprehend or understand, it is something that was true for him. And the minute Barry Sanders does not have the desire the play football is the minute that he is no longer Barry on the field. Sanders without the passion is nobody. His greatest athletic quality was his determination and desire on every single play and without it, he would be a player unrecognizable and inefficient.

The one issue I do have with his retirement was the way in which it happened. Leaving the organization out to dry by retiring the day before training camp via fax was a cold way to leave the franchise. I understand that Barry did not want to incur the media storm that was to follow, but this is one of those situations where Barry should have left his comfort zone, albeit for one day, to give the Lions organization and fanbase one final, fair goodbye.

But that minor blunder sullies nothing for me. If anything, it's a reminder that people like Barry -- like me -- don't necessarily owe the Emmitt Smith's of the world anything. You can have all the talent in the world, but you are still free to make unpopular choices and you don't have to rationalize or apologize to anyone for being yourself. Because even on one of the biggest stages in the world, the National Football league, a quiet, withdrawn man like Barry Sanders can still exist and thrive.

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