Barry Sanders returns to Lions as fan liaison

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Detroit — Nearly two decades after his sudden departure from the team, Barry Sanders is back on the Detroit Lions’ payroll.

Instead of taking handoffs, he’ll be a brand ambassador, team president Rod Wood told The Detroit News.

“We’ve thankfully, the last couple years, had an unofficial relationship with him,” Wood said. “This year, we formalized it. You described it well, it’s kind of a brand ambassador. He’ll be going on road trips, showing up for suite visits, he’ll be at the Taste of the Lions event, and just interacting with our fans on behalf of the team.

“It’s a formal agreement. I worked with Barry and his agent to put something together that works for both of us. It’s not a football role. It’s more of a marketing, business role.”

The Lions have an open-door policy with their alumni. Former players are encouraged to maintain ties with the organization — to drop by practice or be on the sidelines before games, to interact with the current roster and coaching staff.

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According to Sanders’ agent, J.B. Bernstein, Detroit has long been pursuing an increased post-career role for Sanders. With his children grown, including his oldest graduating college, the time was right to accept the invitation.

“The Lions have always made an effort, every single season since Barry retired,” Bernstein told The News. “Granted, the first couple seasons were to get him to come back and play. But once those first couple seasons passed, there hasn’t been a year they haven’t reached out to Barry to make sure they include him in everything from alumni games to events in the community.

“The opportunity to have this relationship with the team has always been there for him,” Bernstein said. “The Fords, everybody from the top on down, they’ve always wanted to have Barry involved as much as possible. Now, we’re getting to the point where he has some significant time to allocate to the team and we’re excited about it.”

At the Super Bowl in February, Sanders noted he had met with Wood and general manager Bob Quinn shortly after they were hired by the organization.

“I had good meetings with both of them, joked with Quinn about how similar Detroit is to Boston,” Sanders said. “Pretty early on, I had a chance to talk with them and they said the door is always open. They definitely made me welcome and at home.”

The agreement between Sanders and the Lions includes an agreed-upon itinerary of fan- and community-focused events, including at least one appearance at the team’s training camp. The agreement will be re-evaluated at the end of the season and Bernstein said he could see it eventually expanding to the point where Sanders worked in the office.

The record-breaking back is the franchise’s most iconic player. Drafted third overall in 1989 out of Oklahoma State, Sanders found immediate success in the NFL, rushing for 1,470 yards and 14 touchdowns on his way to earning Rookie of the Year honors.

Sanders would top 1,000 yards each of his 10 seasons, including 2,053 yards during the 1997 campaign. He led the league in rushing four times, was named to the Pro Bowl every season, earned All-Pro honors six times and shared the MVP award with Packers quarterback Brett Favre in 1997.

Sanders’ 15,269 yards are the most in franchise history and third all-time behind Emmitt Smith and Walter Payton. Sanders’ 99.8 rushing yards per game is second to only Jim Brown.

Still producing at an elite level in 1998, Sanders stunned the organization by retiring shortly before the start of training camp the following season. He walked away just 1,457 yards short of Payton’s all-time rushing mark. The Lions running back was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2004, his first year of eligibility.

In response to the retirement announcement, the Lions demanded Sanders return a $5.5 million bonus tied to a contract signed in 1997. An arbitrator ultimately ruled Sanders give back $1.83 million to the team.

It was years before Sanders was regularly around the team again, but Bernstein said the relationship was never strained.

“He was just looking to distance himself from the game, not the team, and that somehow gets misinterpreted,” Bernstein said. “He just needed time way from the game, space, perspective and, ultimately, it was the right decision for him even though it was tough for fans and the team.

“Barry was a Lion, is a Lion and will always be a Lion. I don’t think he ever saw himself as not being part of the team.”

The Lions are currently going through a similar situation with former wide receiver Calvin Johnson, who in recent months has been critical of the way his time with the team ended. He was also asked to pay back part of his bonus money, and noted doubts about the team’s ability to win a Super Bowl were a factor in his decision to retire after the 2015 season.

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Like he did with Sanders, Wood is taking a proactive approach with Johnson, inviting the disgruntled former player to attend training camp next month.

“I’m not going to try and draw comparisons to the two,” Wood said. “I wasn’t here when Barry left, but I’ve been really involved bringing him back into the fold. Like I’ve said, I’m confident the Calvin situation will work itself out.”