When I learned about Willie’s death Wednesday, in an e-mail from my boss, I was floored. I don’t talk to Willie – Barry’s colorful and interesting father – much nowadays. We last visited in November about Barry’s son, Barry, who is a standout high school running back in Oklahoma. As usual, Willie provided great copy.
The man was truly one of a kind. He never quite fit with his cautious son, who was always very careful with his words and much more like his soft-spoken mother.
But it’s probably a good thing there was only one Willie. He worked hard all his life to make a living and helped raise one of Wichita’s finest families. The Sanders clan included 11 children. They have always been close and all of them inherited traits of both of their parents’ personalities.
Barry, those who know him well say, was more like his father than he wanted to let on.
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I knew William has a warm and funny man. I’m sure, though, that his kids knew him at least partly as a disciplinarian. He pushed them and didn’t pass out compliments for free. Even when Barry was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2004, William took a couple of shots at his son during his acceptance speech.
But it speaks volumes that Barry, who I’m sure was completely in the dark about what his loose-lipped father might say on the podium in Canton, Ohio, that day, wanted him up there anyway.
And his speech, at least for me, was the highlight of that incredible Hall of Fame day.
William was diagnosed with lymphoma in March. I didn’t know and wish I had. I’m sorry I didn’t go sit with Willie. I very much enjoyed the few opportunities I had to talk to him over the years. He’s one of those rare special people who made everyone in his presence feel rare and special.