Former NFL running back Barry Sanders was a 10-time All-Pro and a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but he's getting even more accolades 15 years after leaving the game thanks to his selection as the Madden 25 cover athlete.
Throughout the voting process, Sanders received more than 40 million votes and beat legends such as San Francisco 49ers greats Joe Montana and Jerry Rice as well as another former running back, Marcus Allen, en route to a finals matchup with Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson. Sanders took 58 percent of that final vote.
It's a new string of publicity for one of the NFL's all-time greats. Sanders sat down with Bleacher Report and said that being selected was "extremely meaningful." He added, "[It] introduces me to so many new fans that didn't see me play and adds so much extra to the career that I had and the way it is remembered. It almost makes me cool and hip!"
I attempted to create some controversy by asking Sanders to compare himself to Tecmo Bowl superstar and former Oakland Raiders running back Bo Jackson, but Sanders (ever gracious) refused to create any virtual locker room bulletin-board material.
Sanders said that with all of the new features Madden has added—especially to the running game in 2013—he won't discourage anyone from playing with him, but that Jackson is one of the best in real life and digital form.
Of course, being on the cover of Madden comes with its own added publicity (for instance, interviews with Bleacher Report columnists). Sanders is also lending his likeness and name to Pepsi, which is offering fans a chance to "Unlock a Legend" in Madden by purchasing cans and bottles of Pepsi Max.
This led to a phenomenal ad, shown above, in which Sanders spoofs his own abrupt retirement.
As someone who grew up in Michigan watching Sanders run around defenders, I can comment that this commercial adds some levity even to a fanbase that still stings from Sanders' retirement and the following years of ineptitude in the Lions organization.
When asked about his retirement, Sanders told Bleacher Report:
"I was feeling like I'd done enough, ready to move on...I was never that guy who was going to stay and play until they had to cart me off the field. Some guys have that love of the game where they're going to get every last play. At year 10, I lost that determination to do it every day."
Sanders cited the Lions' "turmoil" and "rebuilding" as part of his decision and admitted that other teams tried to lure him out of retirement, but he made it clear there was never anything more than "inquiries."
As to whether he ever thought of coming back—even to the Lions—Sanders said his decision to leave the game was entirely mental, and there was nothing physically wrong with him. He could have continued to play at a high level. However, he said that while leaving was a "tough decision" at first, he became "more resolute over time."
He also wasn't scared in any way about injury or the lasting effects of the game that many former players deal with today. However, he did point out that many fans don't understand or respect what it takes to get up every day and go to work knowing how beat up one is going to get. The NFL is not some 9-to-5 job.
As to why he disappeared from the public eye after his retirement, Sanders says it wasn't anything intentional:
"For me, it was just something that happened naturally. When I retired and I wasn't playing any more, I was sorta doing whatever I was doing. No one was looking for me. Gradually, I've done more. A natural progression."
When asked how he developed his innovative running style, Sanders immediately pointed to the giants who he modeled his game after—Tony Dorsett, O.J. Simpson, Gale Sayers, Curt Warner and Joe Delaney, among others:
I was just trying to do what I saw those guys do on TV. I had to be instinctive, creative. I knew I wasn't the biggest guy. I wasn't running anyone over, so I had to run around them. I just tailored my game.
Sanders also noted some current backs he enjoys watching: Peterson (whom he bested in the Madden vote), as well as Houston Texans running back Arian Foster, Atlanta Falcons running back Steven Jackson and Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice.
Though he has been away from the game for a while, Sanders has had the opportunity, at times, to deliver some advice to the next generation:
"There's a lot a player has to deal with; you really have to become a businessman off the field. You have to make sure you protect your image as well as your body. Everything you do really does impact your performance.
Most of the people around you don't understand what it takes. It takes a lot of preparation. It helps if things are moving smooth off the field. Don't try to bite off more than you can chew. So many people around you that make themselves available to you, you don't know their motives.
Then you have to go play football."
Though Sanders is on a reunion tour of sorts, he claims everything has happened "organically." He doesn't really desire to be a bigger part of the game other than playing Madden with his young boys (who he claims are pretty psyched for their dad).
So, don't expect Coach Sanders any time soon or for him to be among the next round of hires for NFL Network or ESPN, but he'd never rule anything out.
For now, he's just excited to be a part of Madden and the Pepsi Max campaign. He calls himself a "fan" (and only a fan) of the game and notes that he's "pretty happy" with his life right now.
Sanders is one of the great legends of the NFL. His mythos was only amplified by the abrupt end to his career. His greatness—now codified for the new generation—is unique and unparalleled. Cynically, it's easy to feel like this short-lived reminder of that greatness just serves to remind Detroit fans of what they lost so long ago. But as time heals all wounds, so too will Sanders' increased visibility allow some long-felt wounds to finally mend.
The one impression that Sanders left me with is how abnormally human he truly is. Soft-spoken and unassuming, he almost needs to be reminded of how great his own career was. He is neither bombastic nor pretentious.
“Maybe a good rule in life is never become too important to do your own laundry.” - Barry Sanders— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) June 15, 2013
In many ways, he was almost unequipped to be a part of an NFL that quickly grew into such a media monster following his retirement—not in terms of talent or wit, but in desire. Other talents who paled in comparison to him on the field would learn well from just how surprised Sanders seems to be by how much people admire him.
Looking back, the only real way to judge Sanders' career and post-career life is with his own happiness and contentedness. When asked to look back and sum up everything he's done, Sanders replied, "It's pretty great how it's turned out."
Michael Schottey is the NFL national lead writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand by the columnist.