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A year later, hard to believe he's really gone

Going to Silverdome, with Lions in mind. Even now, I must cue myself, that Barry Sanders doesn't play for Detroit anymore.

Millions thought he quit too young. Barry was 30. Hundreds of thousands figured it was a money ploy, that once the Sanders wallet was fattened and his ego stroked, the most dynamic running back of an NFL generation would be back.

Tony Dungy told me no. Immediately after Barry's declaration, Tampa Bay's coach said that when No. 20 talks, you'd better believe it. By now, I should know to cease questioning the judgment of Tampa Bay's coach.

T.D. also was right when he said Bucs defense would not suffer without Hardy Nickerson. Then that Booger McFarland, in addition to possessing a bigger backside, had a higher upside than Brad Culpepper.

Remember all the seasons when Bucs tacklers couldn't find Sanders? He'd be there, seemingly in grasp range, then Barry would be gone. Pfffft! Like smoke in a breeze. How extraordinary he was, from 1989 until choosing to disappear in 1999.

Tampa Bay fared especially poorly with Find Barry quests on 11/13/94, when the shifty, 5-foot-8 wonder ran for a Lions record 237 yards. Another memorable Bucs afternoon of Sanders misses was 10/2/97, when he dodged, darted and fled for 219, including a mesmerizing 85-yarder.

Since his mysterious retirement, journalistic blitzers have fared no better than those bad, old Bucs in Find Barry pursuits. He's not prone to appear as a locker-room guest, like Michael Jordan.

Sanders was too quiet, too introverted to surface on Leno or Letterman. He had neither the glib nor gab to become a TV commentator like Dan Marino. Only place I've seen Barry's face was in a creative commercial for a brokerage house, along with Wade Boggs and other jock retirees.

But, a Find Barry update Drew Sharp, a Detroit Free Press columnist, has cornered Sanders as few Tampa Bay linebackers ever could. It seems appropriate, with the Bucs about to visit Pontiac, for me to be writing about No. 20. For years, it was habit.

"I'm done with football," said Barry, who chose not to play past age 30. "I'm enjoying it." Being an NFL has-been, he means. "I like retirement." Although 18 years shy of AARP.

"If I wanted to play football again," he said, "all I'd have to do is show up at the Silverdome." Wow! Can that be true, two seasons after his checkout? Or just enduring self-confidence? Don't tell me Sanders can't twinge with arrogance.

"Can't a man just leave his job when he's tired?" Sanders asked Sharp. "My decision had nothing to do with the Lions. I played 10 years; that was enough. My retirement didn't have to mean anything more than just a person who believed his career was complete."

Rumor was, Sanders had differences with Bobby Ross, who succeeded Wayne Fontes as Detroit coach in 1997. Ross says he tried repeatedly but unsuccessfully to telephone Barry. To check the scuttlebutt for himself.

"I told you there was not a problem," Sanders stressed to Sharp. "Why would anyone think there was a problem if they hadn't heard it from me?" Wait a minute, Barry. So why didn't you embrace a Ross contact? It all still looks a bit strange.

Don't expect Sanders at the Silverdome on Sunday when the 2-0 Bucs play 2-0 Detroit in a smashing attraction. He hasn't been to a Lions game since last playing on 12/27/98, gaining just 41 yards in 19 carries against Baltimore. It was a fourth consecutive loss, ending that disturbing season with a 5-11 record.

In the 21 months since, Barry has been only a semi-recluse. He still lives in Michigan. "I consider it home," Sanders said. There have been shadowy appearances in NBA and NHL crowds. When he showed up at a Red Wings hockey game, the crowd booed at Joe Louis Arena.

"That bothered me at first, but I try to not take it personally," said the Heisman Trophy winner from Oklahoma State who is a lock first-ballot Pro Football Hall of Famer. Sharp wondered if Sanders saw media criticisms as cheap shots. "I can live with it if you guys can," he told the columnist. "Could it have been handled better? Probably. Why worry about it now? It's over."

Barry's admiration for athletic excellence is broad-based. When the PGA Tour came to nearby Grand Blanc this summer, he was there with a gawking multitude, trying to glimpse Tiger Woods.

Sanders, now 32, approached a Woods bodyguard. "Can you introduce me to Tiger?" he asked, with the wide eyes of a teenaged autograph maven. "Tell him," the football icon continued, "I'll carry his golf bag if Tiger wants."

Later on, Woods and Sanders met outside the clubhouse. Mutual admiration was obvious. Tiger is as savvy about almost everything, especially a wizard such as Barry. They talked 15 minutes.

"You know, it wouldn't surprise me if Tiger were to leave the same way I did," said the football fellow. "Gets up one day, believes he has accomplished everything he set out to do, then moves on to the next phase of his life. He is really something."

So were you, No. 20.