'Bye Bye Barry' Evades the Only Question Worth Asking

'Bye Bye Barry' Evades the Only Question Worth Asking

6 min read

Bye Bye Barry, a new documentary about NFL running back Barry Sanders, poses the question fans have been asking since he abruptly vanished from our lives.


Why did he retire at the apex of his career, when he was one season from breaking the NFL's all-time rushing record?

There are other questions. Accusatory ones, like, "How could you?" You remember on The Office when Michael Scott conducted Toby's exit interview? Those are the sorts of questions football-loving Michiganders have been living with ever since. It's not pretty to admit, but it's true. We loved him and he just walked away.

It was actually worse than that.

Barry literally phoned his retirement in, faxing the announcement on the eve of training camp in 1999 and then taking off for London. It felt like he couldn't wait to be out of here. Sayonara, suckers. And, to borrow a Michael Jordan quote, Lions fans "took that personally."

"Until yesterday, O.J. was my least favorite NFL runner, but he only stabbed two people in the back." ~ a fan quote from Bye Bye Barry

The city of Cleveland felt betrayed when LeBron James took his talents to South Beach. Imagine if LeBron decided his time in Cleveland had broken him so badly that he couldn't even look at a basketball again. It's deeper than betrayal—it's outright rejection and condemnation. "It's not me, it's definitely you."

You know how in horror movies, a psychic residue imbues places where unspeakable things have occurred? That's sort of what being a Lions fan feels like. There's a deep-seated systematic trauma. You just expect the worst to happen and are not surprised when it does. It still hurts though, because hope stupidly endures.

Barry Sanders has always been my favorite NFL player, but my affection for him never quite recovered its pre-retirement highs. Watching Bye Bye Barry healed wounds I didn't realize I still carried.

If nothing else, Bye Bye Barry makes it clear Sanders' decision to retire and the avenue through which he articulated that intent was in no way vindictive. He doesn't even seem to bear any ill will toward the Lions, the team that squandered him for most of his 10-year career by surrounding him with a rotating circus of nobodies. The documentary helps us remember that Barry has always been soft-spoken, a bit camera shy, and completely uninterested in fame. He's a really nice, genuine guy who happens to be one of the greatest football players of all-time.

This attitude infected his play. Barry famously had the most humdrum touchdown celebration. He'd just hand the ball to the referee and jog back to the bench.

"I've never seen somebody be that good at something and be so humble." ~ Eminem, Bye Bye Barry

Oh, right—Bye Bye Barry trots out a handful of Michigan-based celebs to reminisce about Barry's career, gush about his otherworldly ability, ponder what it all meant, and pose The Question on behalf of everyone in the Mitten state.

Why did Barry Sanders retire suddenly and a bit prematurely?

Bye Bye Barry immediately tees up the question and then waits until the end to actually pose it to Barry. In addressing it, he demonstrates all the shifty elusiveness for which he was famous. Which is to say, he never actually answers it. He's not being dishonest—it's something not even he can truly answer. Befuddlement and confusion is just part of the Lions experience.

I won't spoil it, but let's just say he had plenty of reasons, all of which the documentary explores.

And while it's disappointing not to get a definitive answer, watching Barry try and ultimately fail to articulate why leads to a greater appreciation for the man himself. The stuff he did on the field defied logic and explanation. Watching him struggle with his own motivations is humanizing. It's very easy to lionize athletes and other celebrities, but most of them are not so different than you or me. (Yes, that was obviously a pun.)

The one thing the documentary makes abundantly clear is that Barry has always blazed his own path. Sometimes that means running side-to-side for 40 yards in order to gain 3. Sometimes that means benching yourself when you're 9 yards from winning the rushing title as a rookie. Sometimes that means faxing in your retirement and flying to London.

Mixed up with all the questions about how and why Barry retired is something more profound and interesting.

A large portion of Bye Bye Barry involves Barry's father, William Sanders. William was everything his son was not—boisterous, spotlight-seeking, concerned about personal records. He self-identified as Barry's greatest fan, but would often cut out his legs from under him.

"Now I want to introduce you to the third-best running back who ever lived. Barry Sanders." ~ William introducing Barry at his Hall of Fame induction ceremony

Who are those two other running backs? Jim Brown and William Sanders, aka Barry's dad. William wasn't joking.

Much of Barry's demeanor can be attributed to growing up with a tough love father. The rules in the Sanders household were simple: "Rule No. 1: Never disobey Dad. Rule No. 2: Never forget rule No. 1... You did not complain in the Sanders family. Not unless you wanted a good whupping."

In fact, Barry's penchant for not celebrating touchdowns is due to his father.

"There was a time when I scored... and I may have done something that was other than just giving the ball to the ref, and he just said, 'No, you don't gotta do that. I don't want you doing that. I don't want you doing anything extra'." ~ Barry Sanders, Bye Bye Barry

William put Barry in the corner and wouldn't let him dance.

Would Barry have become Barry Sanders—the greatest running back of all-time—if not for William's domineering ways? It's impossible to say. Maybe he just would've danced after scoring. Maybe he would've been a good, not great, running back. Or maybe he would've ended up a Wichita businessman you've never heard of.

Sons are hard-wired to want their father's approval. The harder it is to come by, the harder we strive. Chasing ghosts—nostalgia for Jim Brown, William's childhood hero, as well as William's own long-lost glory days—was a race Barry could never win. But his effort in pursuit of the unattainable is ultimately what made him Barry Sanders.

That, plus loads of God-given talent.

A demanding father with impossible standards can be a great motivator. But eventually the son gets tired of trying. He starts wondering why. Am I doing this for me, or for him?

The question haunting Lions fans all these years wasn't so much, "why did you retire," as it was, "why did you retire like that?" Suddenly, on the eve of a new season, and then completely bail. If breaking up with someone via a letter—or text, these days—is the height of cowardice, what do you call a fax?

But it wasn't about us. Barry doesn't hate Detroit. He still lives here.

It was about his father.

I'm speculating here, and playing armchair psychologist with no credentials at all. But I know what it is to beat yourself up trying to win your father's approval, and then having the epiphany that you don't actually need it. That your father is just another man, as human and messed up as the rest of us.

I think Barry procrastinated announcing his retirement out of fear.

Waiting until the very last minute screwed the Lions. But it also meant there couldn't be a lot of back-and-forth. The clock on the season was literally ticking. The Lions were forced to move on.

Which also meant William wouldn't have the time or opportunity to lodge his complaints. I believe Barry fled the country as much to avoid his father as to evade the media and the Lions.

This is probably sounding a bit far-fetched. But consider this: Barry called his mother to let her know he was retiring. His mother supported him, but she didn't attend all his games. She didn't hangout on the sideline. She didn't talk to the media on Barry's behalf.

Barry never told William. He just flew away.

I've pulled that move before. Wait till the last minute to tell dad something that's gonna piss him off, then hide until the storm blows over.

You rarely see Barry smile in pre-retirement footage. He's stoic to a fault. His smile comes easy now. William loved football. I'm not so sure Barry did.

Of all the scenarios Bye Bye Barry offers for Barry's sudden retirement, it never speculates on the one that seems most obvious in hindsight.

Bye Bye Barry is available exclusively on Prime Video. Sign-up for a free 30-day trial today.