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William Sanders, father of Barry Sanders, dies of lymphoma

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, June 1, 2011, at 1:03 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, June 1, 2011, at 7:04 p.m.

When Alverta Phillips went to visit her brother, William Sanders, last weekend, his house was full of people — and her brother was talking. No surprise there, for he loved to talk and tell stories.

"He was sitting up there chirping, running his mouth," Phillips said with a laugh. "He was a funny guy. He was a people person."

Mr. Sanders, who died of symptoms caused by lymphomas at age 74 on Wednesday, had a personality in stark contrast to that of his best-known son, Barry, one of the NFL's greatest running backs.

Mr. Sanders, who was diagnosed with lymphoma in March, made it well-known that he remained an Oklahoma Sooners fan — even when his son played at Oklahoma State, where he won the Heisman Trophy in 1988. Barry Sanders went on to a 10-year career with the NFL's Detroit Lions.

Barry Sanders referenced his father during his 2004 Pro Football Hall of Fame induction speech. He cited advice his father gave him after a junior varsity football game in which he didn't catch punts because he was worried about dropping one and losing the game.

"He said, 'Son, you can play the game the way it's supposed to be played. Don't be scared to make mistakes,' " Barry Sanders recalled. "'In life you're going to make some mistakes. Even if you wanted to stay in bed all day and avoid the world, that's not the answer, especially in the game of football. You're going to make some mistakes. Go out and play the way you're capable of, the coach has you in there for a reason, he has confidence in you."

While that was a serious father-son moment, Mr. Sanders also liked to say his son wasn't the game's greatest running back. According to Mr. Sanders, Jim Brown was, then he was second and Barry third.

Such a statement was common for Mr. Sanders.

"He always had a yarn of some kind, and if he could get controversial, he was in heaven," said Billie Lively, a longtime friend of the Sanders family.

Mr. Sanders, who was born in Wichita and went to North, satisfied his love for talking because he knew so many people.

"I don't think there was a stranger that daddy knew," his daughter, Diane Criner, said. "He was a friendly person."

Phillips added: "He never forgot when he met you, the date he met you, the circumstances he met you in. He'd relate the story and tell you when it happened."

What Mr. Sanders loved more than anything, though, was life.

"He was a fighter," Criner said. "He was not a person to just lay down and let something overcome him. He just enjoyed life, period. He was an outgoing person, and he was fighting this cancer to the very end."

But what Criner remembers even more is that her father was a strong, loving man, who loved his family and was well-loved in return.

"And my father would do anything for anybody," she said. "When they had the grocery store (Sanders Supermarket) on Grove, he helped numerous people who weren't able to purchase groceries, he helped people who need help with bills, with anything. He would deliver food to people.

"He was a genuine, good person, a caring person."

Mr. Sanders had 11 children, 16 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Funeral services are pending.

Reach Joanna Chadwick at 316-268-6270 or jchadwick@wichitaeagle.com.

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