Sanders, Johnson splits from Lions differ

Mike O'Hara
Special to The Detroit News

The common thread that binds Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson — a generation apart — is they were iconic players who retired from the Lions and the NFL at a time when both could have continued playing at an All-Pro level.

Aside from that, the way they chose to walk away and the reaction their retirements sparked had little in common.

It’s like comparing a piano recital to an AC/DC concert.

Johnson made his retirement announcement Tuesday, with little fanfare, in keeping with his style and personality. He succeeded.

Sanders tried to do it quietly in 1999 — also in keeping with his style and personality. His bid was unsuccessful, adding to the firestorm that had been building throughout the offseason.

As a beat writer for The News when Sanders retired and now a columnist for, I’ve covered the careers of both players from start to finish.

Johnson gave fair warning when he issued a statement on the Lions website Jan. 6, three days after the end of the season, that he was “evaluating options” for his future.

He ended all speculation Tuesday by announcing he has filed his retirement papers and is finished after nine seasons as one of the greatest receivers in history.

While Johnson’s retirement leaves giant shoes to fill, the timing gives the Lions an opportunity to make up for his absence by using the free-agent signing period that begins Wednesday and the draft to get the right players — or players.

It was far different when Sanders called it quits.

Despite ominous signs throughout the 1999 offseason that Sanders was unhappy with the team and franchise, he gave no warning regarding his plans.

Although Sanders had skipped a mandatory offseason minicamp, the first evidence of the depth of his dissatisfaction came during an interview with his father, the late William Sanders, late that spring.

“He’s sick of them; he’s sick of losing,” he told The News.

From that point on, the firestorm of speculation began burning hotter by the day, with reports ranging from a possible holdout from camp to Sanders demanding he would retire if the Lions did not trade him.

On July 27, Sanders announced his retirement — on the eve of camp. And he did so by faxing a letter to his hometown newspaper, the Wichita (Kansas) Eagle. He had his agents notify the Lions.

And the next day, when the Lions held a news conference, Sanders did not attend.

In fact, he had fled the country (a photographer in London took a picture of a solitary figure pulling his suitcase).

There was an obvious split between Sanders and Lions management, but the sides finally came together a few years later. Unknown to fans or media, Sanders visited the Lions at Allen Park the week of a home game.

The late William Clay Ford, owner of the Lions, broke the ice.

“Are you doing anything Sunday?” Mr. Ford cracked.

Mike O’Hara is a former News staff writer.