Barry Sanders Talks Thanksgiving Games, the Lions’ Chances and “Bye Bye Barry”

"For Detroit fans," Sanders says, "this is the season we've been waiting for"

Barry Sanders runs the ball for the Lions in 1991.
Barry Sanders played on Thanksgiving 10 times for the Detroit Lions.
Rick Stewart/Allsport/Getty

NFL Hall of Famer Barry Sanders can point to any number of awards, accolades and stats to show his standing as a football legend. The 1988 Heisman Trophy winner at Oklahoma State, Sanders was selected by the Lions with the third pick and spent the following decade playing for Detroit. Before he unexpectedly retired in 1999 at the age of 31, he helped lead the Lions to their first and only postseason win since 1958. Sanders was also a Pro Bowler every single year and won the Offensive Rookie of the Year award as well as an MVP while totaling 3,062 carries for 15,269 yards and 352 catches for 2,921 yards to go along with 109 touchdowns.

Buried in his stat sheet is the fact that Sanders — who is the subject of the new documentary Bye Bye Barry, now available to stream on Prime Video — also played 10 times on Thanksgiving, helping Detroit go 7-3 on those holiday games. In his Turkey Day appearances, Sanders tallied a total of 210 carries for 931 yards and eight TDs, with the highlight of his Thursdays likely being his performance against the Bears in 1997.

Speaking with InsideHook ahead of the Lions taking on the Green Bay Packers on Thursday in a game that is somewhat of an anomaly given the respective records of the two teams, Sanders discussed suiting up on Thanksgiving, his documentary and what it’s like to be watching Detroit emerge as a contender in the NFL.

InsideHook: How instrumental was the passage of time in you being interested in doing the documentary?

Barry Sanders: Enough time probably had to go by. It’s been over 20 years since I played and so much has happened since then. That time certainly helped give me some perspective that I would not have had shortly after retiring. I’m on different terms now with the team than I was back then. A lot of things are different. My dad’s been gone for 12 years now. That’s certainly helped give me some perspective.

It seemed like things were rocky for a bit, but you are back on good terms with the Lions?

No, things are great. Things couldn’t be better. I mean, there may have been issues 20 years ago, but nothing recent. Everything’s smooth. I’m at a few games a year. I’m embraced by the organization and on good terms with everyone. You see how well things are going on the field. That’s always the main thing. The priority is that fans are getting what they deserve and what they’ve been waiting for. That’s really the bottom line.

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With your relationship with the team in a good place, what has it been like watching the Lions this year?

It’s been great. Lions fans have been waiting and expecting for something great to happen. We’ve been building for this for several years now and it’s been nice to see them really put it together. I think the last time they won the division was in the ’90s. [Ed. note: 1993.] That’s a lot of years of getting beat up by Green Bay and Minnesota and Chicago. If you look at the roster, I think we have probably the best players in key positions as a whole. For Detroit fans, this is the season we’ve been waiting for. If they keep playing the way they have, it’s likely they’ll have a home playoff game. Who knows what can happen from there? Dan Campbell set a tone and expectations with the guys from day one. He put everyone on notice it wouldn’t be business as usual. He deserves all the credit.

Detroit will obviously be playing on Thursday. What was it like for you playing on Thanksgiving ever year?

It was very unique because you’re a part of the Thanksgiving holiday. You know that not just fans in the U.S. are watching, but that servicemen and women at bases all over the world are watching. As a kid growing up, I was watching to see Walter Payton playing. So, it’s really special. It feels a lot like a playoff game, especially when you add in the halftime entertainment, whether it was Aretha Franklin or some other Motown [artist]. All the things that go into the week make it different than most of the weeks you experience in the league.

Did you develop any Thanksgiving traditions from playing in the game every year?

Oh, yeah. I would have a ton of family come up for the game. A lot of them would cook and prepare some sort of a Thanksgiving meal for everyone. They made it as close to being at home as possible. We would have our own Thanksgiving feast directly following the game. That was always nice. I’m basic. I like turkey, dressing and maybe some slices of sweet potato pie. To me, that’s the Thanksgiving meal right there.

What’s the top takeaway you’d want viewers of the documentary to walk away with?

I think just how important certain people were to me, like my dad and how instrumental he was. I wanted to be able to say thank you and shine a light on some of the people who were instrumental to my story. Everyone has a story and a backstory. I wanted to share mine in that way and say thank you to some of the people who were with me on this journey.

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