DETROIT — A light chant of “Barry, Barry, Barry,” broke out at the Detroit Golf Club from spectators as participants were introduced Tuesday for Rocket Mortgage Classic’s AREA 313 Celebrity Scramble.
The roar didn’t eclipse those cheers for Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders during his playing days with the Detroit Lions from inside the Pontiac Silverdome, but more than two decades after abruptly retiring, he’s still revered as Detroit sports royalty.
“Hey, look, I last played 20-something years ago,” said a smiling 52-year-old Sanders, the Lions’ all-time rushing leader who retired in 1998. “So, I’m quite fortunate to be able to enjoy things like this.”
Sanders’ legacy is solidified. So much so that bidding for a 1990 game-used and autographed road jersey of his ended Saturday and was auctioned off for a whopping $55,152 by Grey Flannel Auctions.
But now Sanders wants to see a new era in franchise history with long-term success.
“We’ve got our work cut out for us, but hopefully [new Lions coach Dan] Campbell is the man,” Sanders told ESPN. “He definitely came in and made an announcement, a big entry so yeah, I think we’re excited about him.”
The hiring of Campbell, executive vice president and general manager Brad Holmes in addition to all the new faces in Motown makes Sanders — still the Lions’ biggest star — “feel different” about this group that things are going to turn around soon.
After playing through many tough seasons, Sanders can certainly relate to the changes and knows Campbell and Holmes have a big challenge ahead.
“Well, it’s a great opportunity for the new regime. So many great sports moments have happened here in Detroit. There’s been hockey championships, baseball championships, basketball championships, but Detroit is definitely a football town,” Sanders said. “And there’s a thirst and a hunger to win and hopefully they are the guys that can get it done. I know the town is excited and we know that their work is cut out for them, but if it was easy, everyone would be able to do it. So hopefully they’re the guys.”
The Lions are still trying to establish an identity, particularly at Sanders’ old position, and are leaning heavily on second-year running back D’Andre Swift.
Detroit’s run game thrived with Sanders, who rushed for 1,000 yards in each of his 10 seasons, including 2,053 yards in 1997. Since 1998, they’ve been arguably the worst running team in the league. The Lions haven’t had a 1,000-yard rusher since Reggie Bush in 2013, the longest active drought in the league, per ESPN Stats & Information.
“I’m definitely hoping the best for Swift,” Sanders said.
Sanders said the running back position is in good shape with talent across the league.
“I think there’s sort of an ebb and flow to it. I think there’s certainly been a shift over the last few years,” Sanders said. “A shift maybe away from certain running backs, but at the same time you look at certain other guys who have definitely continued to show how valuable the running back is, like Derrick Henry for instance,” Sanders said. “I think there will be more guys. Zeke [Elliott] was a little bit down last year, but he’s been dominant since he’s been in the league. Obviously, there’s more young running backs.
“You look at whether it’s a [Nick] Chubb or whether it’s [Alvin] Kamara. There’s enough guys out there that make people say ‘Oh, no. We need to be able to run the ball and give the running back the ball.’ So, yeah, I do still think it’s in good hands. Really what I’m trying to say is there’s been more of a resurgence of guys who can run the football and really show that they are valuable and needed.”