Bye Bye Barry is a 2023 documentary that focuses on the circumstances and mystery surrounding Barry Sanders’ decision to retire at the height of his abilities. It’s told in a way that may actually satisfy some football fans’ sense of wonder regarding the decision.
But in order to understand the circumstances around his walking away, you have to tell the story of who Barry Sanders was and his career up until his retirement.
To watch this documentary is to watch poetry in motion and be reminded of just how great Barry Sanders was at the height of his powers. And because he didn’t stay too long, it was for the entirety of his career.
Honestly, I wasn’t as curious about his decision to retire as I was in how the documentary was going to actually tackle the subject at hand. Barry retired in July of 1999 and he’s remained fairly mum on the subject since.
So how did they do it?
Well, first a little context, in case you haven’t watched the documentary, or if you don’t remember. Barry Sanders spent his entire 10-year NFL career with the Detroit Lions from 1989 to 1998 in arguably one of the most highly decorated professional athletic careers of all time. In 1999, he sent a fax to the Lions announcing his retirement and then headed to London.
The documentary uses this information to have Barry in London around a table with his sons asking the questions that reporters have been want to ask since the announcement. And having it be in front of cameras doesn’t change the fact that Barry is sitting down for a meal with his sons. It gives Barry the space to answer the questions from people who genuinely love him and want the answers, instead of those who are trying to press for more, as might have been the case in a press conference.
But while Lions fans may want to watch this for closure, the main takeaway I got from this documentary is that in sports in the 2020s, we need more Barry Sanders.
To quote Barry’s father from the documentary, “God, I’m so proud of him. The average football player would have been trying to set records and trying to hang on. And he walked away at the height of his career, and that really takes guts.”
For people of a certain age, we’ve seen many players in many sports hang on too long. I didn’t question Barry Sanders’ retirement; I thought it was admirable. Like his father said, “guts,” but perhaps he was just the class of the NFL both on and off the field for handling everything as workmanlike and professional as he did.
Barry Sanders was in the NFL for a decade. Ten seasons is three times the average NFL career, which is 3.3 years. He wasn’t average, but even the best of the best often stay too long. Playing past your prime long can mean you get cut or traded. Worse, it can mean that you get hurt or deal with potential physical ailments due to the strain on the body.
Barry Sanders stood up and made his decision. He made it on his own terms. That he did it at the peak of his career and never looked back is all the more reason that more players should look up to him both for his steadfast professionalism.
That he did in one place for his entire career is even more impressive given the way contracts and free agents seem to fly around the various professional leagues around the globe. He is a legend within the NFL and in Detroit for that very reason.
Honestly, when I finished watching this documentary I thought only one thing. We need more like Barry Sanders.