To those who played with him and those who tried to stop him, the retirement of Barry Sanders stripped the NFL of a true superstar -- and a whole lot of fun.
"You look at a player like Barry and say, `Wow!"' Dallas wide receiver Michael Irvin said.
"I don't know if we realize how fortunate we were to see him play," said Cleveland linebacker Chris Spielman, a former teammate of the Lions' running back.
"The best way to describe Barry is that he did something every single week, whether it would be in practice or a game, that would absolutely amaze you. How did he do that? He did it consistently. Barry is in a class by himself."
Sanders said Wednesday he was retiring from the NFL after 10 years and just 1,458 yards from the career rushing record set by Walter Payton. After averaging 1,500 yards a season, Sanders seemed certain to break the mark this year.
Those who know him said surpassing Payton probably never entered into his decision.
"Barry was never much on records or stats. He was all about winning," Spielman said. "For him to play just to break Payton's record would be very much out of character for him."
"Maybe it wasn't important to him," said Terrell Davis, the NFL's Most Valuable Player and last year's league rushing leader with Denver.
Payton, who suffers from a rare liver disease and is awaiting a transplant, said he understood Sanders' decision.
"It is not about money. It is not about statistics. It is about the romance kindled by playing the game the way it was supposed to be played," Payton said. "As I am engulfed in my personal trials, my family, friends and life are more important than any yard of touchdown ever scored. And in a sense, Barry is fighting for the same."
"For my own selfish reasons, I would like to see Barry come back and play."
Davis gained 2,008 yards in 1998 and Sanders rushed for 2,053 the previous year. They are among just four players to top the 2,000-yard mark in NFL history and were to meet for the first time in the Silverdome on Christmas Day.
"I am going to play against Detroit without Barry so I am going to miss out on that opportunity," Davis said. "I am like anyone else. I am disappointed. ... Barry's been doing things I wouldn't try to do. I'm a running back. Barry's an athlete."
Sanders' running style was unique, combining the speed of a sprinter with the contortions of a gymnast.
"I could say I'm glad I don't have to play against him, but he's exciting to play against," said defensive tackle Mike Wells, now with Chicago. "I was a teammate of his for four years, and I was a fan as well."
Bears coach Dick Jauron said memories of playing against Sanders were "all bad."
"He's no fun to play against," said Jauron, a Pro Bowl defensive back who plotted ways to stop Sanders on the coaching staffs at Green Bay and Jacksonville. "He was fun to watch -- as long as you weren't the one he was making look bad."
At 31, Sanders was in his prime and the retirement announcement was unexpected.
"He's not retiring, is he? Y'all are joking. Please! That's got to be a joke," said Emmitt Smith of the Cowboys, who takes over as the leading active career rusher with 12,566 yards. "I don't buy it just yet because the man has many, many more years left."
The Lions' failure to get to the Super Bowl, plus a pair of 5-11 seasons the last two years, frustrated Sanders.
"I can certainly sympathize with his situation up there," Smith said. "I mean, the man has been everything Detroit wanted, but has Detroit been everything he needed? Probably not. So, frustration and a lot of disappointment is on his side."
Smith, Davis and others said they hoped that Sanders' absence would be short-lived, and that he would return for at least one more season of highlight-film runs.
For the time being, however, football is without perhaps its single most spectacular performer.
"My remembrance will be that you had a chance ... to be around sheer greatness, like Michael Jordan or Sam Snead or Jack Nicklaus or Dan Marino," said Miami Dolphins assistant coach Pat Jones, who recruited and coached Sanders at Oklahoma State. "He has withstood the test of time. He'll go down as one of the greatest backs that has ever played the game."
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