From 1989-98, running back Barry Sanders was the face of the Detroit Lions. He was the golden boy of the NFL. Basketball players wanted to be like Mike. Sanders lacked the branding, but it was clear that during the ’90s, everyone wanted to be like Barry.
For all the 10-time Pro Bowler offered the game, he didn’t feel like he got enough back from it. The Lions didn’t build up the team to get Detroit to the Super Bowl. So Sanders left the game earlier than he needed to, not without a little bitterness. Clearly, he was ready to move on. So what has Sanders been up to since the NFL?
The life of an NFL great: award ceremonies
Sanders may have been fed up with the Lions front office, but he seemed to hold no ill will towards the game itself. The Pro Football Hall of Fame inducted the fan-favorite RB in 2004. He happily participated in the proceedings.
In 2013, he received an honor near and dear to a certain type of NFL fan. For the 25th anniversary of Electronic Arts’ Madden NFL series, the game received a rebranding. Instead of listing the usual year, it was titled “Madden 25,” as the 25th game in the yearly releasing series. EA decided to give the cover player honors to an all-time great player, as voted on by the fans. Sanders got the honors, appearing on a football video game box art a decade and a half after his retirement.
The NFL gave him a particular special honor to celebrate their 100th anniversary. The NFL All-Time Team had a spot for Sanders, recognizing him alongside greats at his position. It officially put him in the company of fellow RBs Jim Brown, Walter Payton, Earl Campbell, and Emmitt Smith.
In 2020, the honors continue to roll in. Most recently, Sanders got the nod as number nine on the list of college football’s 150 best players of all time. At halftime of the CFP National Championship Game, he participated in ceremonies honoring the top 11 players on the list.
Barry Sanders’ reconciliation with the Lions
Sanders’ amazing career in Detroit ended with an uncharacteristic whimper. His body wasn’t done, he’d simply had enough. That acrimony never spilled over to the fans, but it kept him away from the usual team-related events that retired stars participate in.
By 2017, the frigidity between the two camps had warmed considerably. Sanders took on a role as a Brand Ambassador with the Lions. The team made efforts to recruit Sanders since the moment he retired. He only appeared sporadically for particularly meaningful events. These days, he’s associated with the team in an official capacity, with a regular itinerary of events and meetings with new players to attend.
Raising money for Draft-A-Thon
RSanders, like many of the most affable NFL stars, dedicates a considerable portion of his time in retirement to charity. Most recently, he appeared on a stream for Draft-A-Thon alongside celebrities, comedians, and other NFL all-time greats.
Draft-A-Thon is an official NFL program to raise money for relief related to the COVID-19 pandemic. With just short of $7 million raised as of this writing, it’s clear that Sanders and others putting their charisma to good use is paying off.
Sanders still impacts the playing side of the game today. Players like Saquon Barkley regularly cite him as the blueprint to follow. But for Sanders, who famously donated 10% of his paychecks to charity during his playing days, his work unrelated to the game is likely just as fulfilling to him.