Sanders owes himself a run at the record

It's hard to fathom why Barry Sanders doesn't want to play this year and break Walter Payton's all-time rushing record.

Typically, talk simmers and bubbles and ultimately boils when the retirement of a superstar athlete is in the rumor stage. We see it all the time - John Elway, Michael Jordan, Ted Williams, John McEnroe, Chris Evert, Jack Nicklaus, Wayne Gretzky, Muhammad Ali.

Maybe this is why we're so discombobulated about the retirement of Barry Sanders, who announced his leave-taking the other day even though he's on the cusp of becoming professional football's all-time leading ball carrier.

We had no idea it was even being seriously considered, much less that it was imminent. Gadzooks, it wasn't even on sports talk radio.

Sanders, who toiled for 10 years with the lowly Detroit Lions (just 78-82 while he was there, and exactly one playoff game win), not only is marching to the beat of his own drum, but he is selecting the cadence.

He apparently confided to nobody that he was going to quit. That's safe to say because in a gossipy society, it's a secret if one person knows and it's not if two people know.

Then he announced it via the Web site of the local paper in Wichita, Kan., the town where he grew up. These kind of things are supposed to break on the network news or, at the very least, on ESPN SportsCenter. The Wichita Eagle?

He subsequently didn't lambaste the Lions for failing to put a high-quality team around him. He didn't trash coach Bobby Ross. He didn't complain he wasn't making enough money. He didn't head for drug rehab.

He simply said that since football was "still fun but not as fun," he had concluded that "my desire to exit the game is greater than my desire to remain in it."

And with that, he flew off to London. No muss or fuss.

Now, the case can be made that he should have let the Lions know he had other plans for the fall since Detroit on offense really is nothing but Barry and 10 Average Guys.

But not really.

Teams deal players like meat on the hoof all the time, and they don't call the athlete in to visit about it in advance and soothe his psyche.

The NFL is about a lot of things, but loyalty isn't one of them. Owners aren't loyal. Players aren't loyal.

The most loyal tend to be the fans, who get treated like chumps in return when it comes to ticket prices, concessions, comfort in the stadium, product on the field, effort by the athletes.

Of course, it seems unlikely Sanders really is retired. While he has never seemed as preoccupied with himself as most in the NFL, what's hard to fathom is why he wouldn't hang around and rush for just 1,458 more yards - no more than a good season's work for him - to break Walter Payton's NFL record of 16,726 career rushing yards set in 13 seasons with Chicago.

Sanders has indicated to intimates that it's not a big deal with him because he knows he could easily surpass Payton. He's right. But the flaw in that thinking is that there are plenty of athletes wandering about lamenting, "I coulda been a contender." Saying you can do something and doing something can be separated by a vast canyon.

Too, while Sanders has never been outwardly ego-obsessed, clearly he has been focused on excellence. Again, since talking about excellence means nothing, what one has to do is demonstrate excellence. Sanders has shown us many excellent moves out on the corners as linebackers and defensive backs flounder and crumble.

But if he quits now, he will leave without the proper documentation.

It's like young people who leave college without a degree, lacking, say, 12 credit hours. They always say they should have finished or eventually will or it doesn't matter. The point is they didn't, and they don't, and it does. We all know close doesn't count when excellence is the goal.

Sanders owes neither the Lions nor fans anything more. He has paid both debts in full with his talent and effort. Indeed, Sanders gains an average of 5.0 yards every time he carries the ball, just behind all-time average per carry leader, Jim Brown with 5.2 yards.

But Barry Sanders still owes himself a bit more. He is, in some minds, the best running back ever. However, he must post the numbers in order for his career to be chiseled in rock, validated in the record books, and notarized as authentic.

Without playing on, Sanders will be, forevermore, a contender but not the champ.

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(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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