NFL Legend Barry Sanders’s Reason for Retiring Won’t Satisfy Everyone

For nearly 25 years, whenever someone would invoke the name of NFL Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders, the conversation would eventually lead to one question: Why? Sanders racked up the second-most rushing yards ever and could probably walk into any home in Detroit and get a homecooked meal when he retired in 1999. Yet, all anyone cares about when it comes to the career of the best player in Detroit Lions history is why he retired in his prime. For the first time, the habitually reclusive Sanders sat down for his Amazon Prime Video documentary Bye Bye Barry to explain his decision. But not before you understood the man first.

Most of the 92-minute documentary has nothing to do with his retirement. Instead, it’s an intimate crash course on his on-field feats, off-field family bond, and Sanders’s immense cultural impact. Even if you’ve never seen a single Detroit Lions game Sanders played in, watching celebrity Lions fans Eminem, Jeff Daniels, and Tim Allen emotionally gush about what his football excellence meant to their lives is enough to get invested in the reasoning behind Sanders leaving all of that adulation and success behind. By the time the doc is over, you’ll likely come to the same answer as millions of sports fans who watched his career unfold.

barry sanders stars in bye bye barry amazon content services llc

Amazon Prime

You’ll see the Lions never make it out of the first round of the playoffs in Sanders’s last seven seasons. You’ll see Sanders lose his closest teammates season after season. You’ll see the dejection on Sanders’s face as he recounts all those moments and the utter bewilderment his late father, William Sanders, felt towards the Lions organization, which he felt was wasting his son’s best years. After watching all that, you wouldn’t be wrong to believe arguably the greatest running back ever retired in his prime because he was tired of losing. And you’d be mostly wrong.

Why Did Barry Sanders Retire?

On July 27, 1999, Sanders announced his retirement from the NFL via an impersonal fax sent to the Lions organization. In the statement, he revealed he knew at the end of the 1998-1999 season that he wouldn’t return to football. He dedicated only one sentence to explaining why he’s retiring, simply stating, “My desire to exit the game is greater than my desire to remain in it.” No one believed it then, but they should’ve.

barry sanders stars in bye bye barry

Amazon Prime

When his son Nick Sanders asks him why he retired in the doc, the NFL legend admits it’s hard to explain. He echoes what he said in his 1999 retirement statement, saying in his heart and mind he was ready to leave. He doesn’t blame the Lions’ losing seasons on his decision to retire but does say the team coming off a deep playoff run or a loss in the Super Bowl in his last season could’ve changed his decision to retire. His loss of motivation and drive to be the best is at the heart of his decision to retire.

According to the doc, Sanders may have considered retirement as early as 1997. By that point, he had watched two of his teammates—Mike Utley and Reggie Brown—suffer career-ending, crippling spinal injuries as a result of routine plays he’s seen hundreds of times every game of his career. The latter injury occurred in the game when Sanders became the first running back to rush for over 2,000 yards in one season. Sanders’s close friend and sports reporter Mark McCormick recalls a conversation he had with Sanders on vacation about the impact seeing those injuries had on him.

“He said, ‘You know, I’ve thought about hanging it up,'” McCormick remembers. “He said, ‘I’m really wrestling with continuing to do this. It’s kind of a grind.”

barry sanders stars in bye bye barry

Amazon Prime

In the end, Sanders spent roughly 10 minutes in the doc explaining his retirement only to reiterate his explanation from 24 years ago. We can psychoanalyze his reasoning until we turn as blue in the face as the Lions’ jersey colors, but the fact is that Sanders lost the love for the sport. Whether it was seeing a grim prophecy of his body post-football in his teammates’ injuries or his loyalty to a losing franchise, he had his reasons, and he’s sticking to them.

Headshot of Keith Nelson

Keith Nelson

Senior Editor

Keith Nelson is a writer by fate and journalist by passion, who has connected dots to form the bigger picture for Men’s Health, Vibe Magazine, LEVEL MAG, REVOLT TV, Complex,, Red Bull, Okayplayer, and Mic, to name a few.  


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