Ailing Sanders misses outing but close to Lions in their thoughts

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News
Charlie Sanders is pictured at Lions rookie mini-camp in May 2013 in Allen Park.

West Bloomfield — For the past three years, Charlie Sanders and his foundation have hosted a golf outing as an opportunity to raise awareness and funds for heart checks in high school students.

This year's event was a bit more personal as Sanders, the Lions' Hall of Fame tight end, couldn't attend as he continues to battle cancer.

"It's a noticeable absence, obviously," Lions coach Jim Caldwell said, "because Charlie is one of those guys, he's got an unbelievable infectious sort of an attitude, real positive in every single aspect. And you always would hear him laughing as he's approaching your office or coming down the hall because most folks found a lot of joy in talking with him."

About 40 members of the Lions — players, coaches and scouts — as well as a few other local celebrities participated in the "Have a Heart Save a Life" outing at Knollwood Country Club Monday, which cost a minimum of $3,500 per foursome. Sanders recorded a message to air during the post-golf dinner.

Sanders, 68, has been battling cancer since October, though a couple of his friends declined to be specific about his condition. The past couple weeks have been encouraging, and former Detroit mayor and Pistons Hall of Famer Dave Bing said he is in good spirits.

Bing, who played for the Pistons from 1966-75, has known Sanders since the Lions drafted him in 1968, and said he, Mel Farr and Lem Barney — the Lions' top draft picks in 1967 — planned to visit Sanders in the hospital this week.

"When I heard the news, just like anybody else who was close to Charlie, you were taken aback," Bing said. "You had no idea of the condition, and when you found out all you could do is hope for the best."

Sanders, who played until 1977, has worked with the Lions' scouting department since 1998. He was also an assistant coach with the team from 1989-96, moving from tight ends to wide receivers in 1991 when the Lions drafted Herman Moore 10th overall.

"When I came in, I looked at him as a father figure — and even to this day still do — and he's treated me as a son," Moore said. "And it's been special for me to just have that association with him at any level, at any capacity with his family."

Moore said he's been talking to Sanders on the phone and visited him over the holidays with fellow former receivers Brett Perriman and Johnnie Morton. With Sanders so active in the community, Moore said it's easy to support his foundation.

Though Sanders hasn't been around the Lions' facility recently, some players said they developed a relationship with him before he fell ill.

"It's been a little more business than personal, but it's been respectful as well," cornerback Rashean Mathis said. "He's always on the go. It's hard to see Charlie sit still, but getting to know him and knowing the history he's provided for this organization, it's impressive. And just to see what type of guy he still is, I don't know when it clicked, but you can see he goes about business and people the right way."

Wide receiver Golden Tate said Sanders was always smiling when he saw him. Offensive guard Larry Warford said he likes Sanders' barbecue sauce, which he sells for his foundation.

Caldwell joined the Lions in 2014 and said he's seen Sanders take on a mentoring role for some of the team's pass catchers and said players and coaches use him as a resource. But one of his first interactions with Sanders focused on his annual golf outing.

"I remember when I first got here he walked into my office and rather than talk about football, he was actually talking about this event," he said. "It just shows you what kind of a place it has in his heart."