I’m going to have some fresh thoughts about Willie, Barry’s very entertaining and kind father, later. I’m very sad to hear of his passing. He’s one of my all-time favorite people and upon learning of his death I immediately wished I had spent more time with him over the years.William Sanders poses with his Hall of Fame son, Barry, at the Pro Football Hall of Fame ceremony in Canton, Ohio, in 2004. Willie, a lifelong Wichitan, died Wednesday.Here’s a column I wrote on Willie and Barry at the time of Barry’s induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, in 2004. It was a glorious day for Willie, who gave Barry’s memorable acceptance speech.
Willie was one of a kind. My deepest condolences go out to his wonderful family.
OK, here’s the column:
BARRY SANDERS ATTRIBUTES HIS FAME TO DAD’S EXPECTATIONSHIS FATHER’S SON
CANTON, Ohio – Fathers and sons. Sometimes the connection is obvious.And sometimes, as is the case with William and Barry Sanders, it isn’t.Which is why I was surprised to learn that the father, William, hadbeen selected by the son, Barry, to make the introduction speech atSunday’s Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony.What would Willie say? He has never been one to bite his tongue.“My dad, he’s going to wing it,” Barry Sanders said during a shortnews conference an hour before the induction ceremony. “He could beextra short, he could be extra long – it all depends on how he feels.But for me, it was really a no-brainer to have him introduce me. He’salways been my biggest fan, or my biggest critic, whether we’re talkingabout sports or academics or whether I could be a better person. For me,this just makes sense.”OK, Barry, we’ll trust that you know what you’re doing. But boy,this could get interesting.Because Willie was pretty angry when Barry, from Wichita’s NorthHigh, left the Detroit Lions just before the beginning of training campin 1999, without an explanation to the team. And if you know Willie, youknow there is nothing that goes unsaid.If a thought comes into his head, it has clear sailing to his lips.Would Willie use this forum to finally pay his son the kind ofrespect we all know he deserves?Or would he take Barry to task one more time, in front of thousandsof fans, more than 50 Hall of Famers and a national television audience?Willie, it turns out, was on his best behavior.His speech was certainly not as tender and sentimental as thosegiven by the daughter of John Elway and the sons of Bob Brown and CarlEller, the others inducted Sunday.In fact, Willie said very little about Barry.“If you want to know about Barry Sanders, then you have to buy BarrySanders’ book,” he said.To which Barry, seated behind, covered his eyes in embarrassment.Don’t worry; it’s not the first time.When you’re as soft-spoken as Sanders, and your father is Mount St.Helens, you get used to covering your eyes.“First,” Willie said, “I want to say hello to the greatest runningback who ever lived.”Pause. . . .“He’s not with us today; I think he’s back with his family in LosAngeles. He’s Mr. Jim Brown, and I want to say hello to him.”That was a little punch in Barry’s gut, but life goes on.Willie thanked his wife – Barry’s mother – Shirley. And the rest ofhis sons and daughters, and their husbands and wives and children andgrandchi ldren.“I want to thank God for all of them,” Willie said. “Because thisis the reason Barry is here today, because of this supporting cast.”Willie sent out wishes to several friends back in Wichita. Youwondered how long his speech might last. Would ESPN have enough time?Then, abruptly, Willie Sanders cut himself off and introduced hisson, the pride of Wichita.“And now,” Willie said, “I want to introduce you to the third-bestrunning back who ever lived, Barry Sanders.”First in Willie’s mind is Brown.Second is himself.And it’s really difficult to tell whether he’s kidding.After the ceremony, Willie Sanders explained himself.“I wish all my old football coaches were still alive,” he said.“But the same thing Barry did to get into the Hall of Fame are thethings they benched me for at North back in 1954 and 1955. They wantedme to hit the hole and stay in the hole; they didn’t want me runningaround and improvising. Linwood Sexton (former University of Wichitagreat) always says I was 20 years before my time.”Willie said Sunday’s ceremony wasn’t as emotional for him as beingin the audience at the Heisman Trophy ceremony in New York City in 1988,when Barry won the award.“I expected this here, but when he won the Heisman I didn’t expectit,” he said. “That’s why there were no tears here today.”Willie has forgiven Barry for leaving football. He said they stillhaven’t had a conversation about Barry’s retirement.“It’s his life. What can I do about it?” Willie said. “I just knowI miss him playing.”Doesn’t everybody?Fellow Hall of Famers Gale Sayers and Lynn Swann mentioned how muchthey long to see Barry with a football in his arms.“When I shed a tear because of Barry Sanders’ retirement, I think Iwas probably reminiscing about me and about playing the game,” saidSayers, the former Kansas and Chicago Bears great whose NFL career wascut short by injuries. “God gave me a talent and took it away and Godgave him a talent and didn’t take it away. He quit. And I was sodisappointed because of how much I loved watching him run.”During his induction speech, Sanders credited his dad as “truly thereason why I am here.”He told a story about returning punts during a junior varsity gamefor North during his sophomore year. The game in which he was playingwas close, and he felt uncomfortable fielding punts. So he let them rolldead.On the ride home, Willie asked him about it. Barry told him hedidn’t want to risk dropping a punt and losing the game.“He said: ‘Son, you can play the game the way it’s supposed to beplayed. Don’t be scared to make mistakes. In life you’re going to makemistakes.’ . . . That was some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten.”A father’s love for a son and a son’s love for a father can takemany shapes.Barry Sanders expressed his love for his father Sunday.In his way.Willie Sanders did the same for his son.In his way.“I feel too good to cry,” Willie said. “I don’t know. I guessyou’ve got to have a son go into the Hall of Fame to really realize howI feel.”