Bye Bye Barry (now streaming on Amazon Prime Video) could bear the subtitle, The Agony and the Ecstasy of the Detroit Lions Fan. The documentary is a Lions fan’s simultaneous dream and nightmare: It celebrates Barry Sanders, the greatest player in Lions history, a running back who supersedes any superlative we might conjure. But it also rips open old wounds about how he retired early, in his prime and without warning, very suddenly ending the joy of watching him play, and dashing any desperate hopes he might someday win a Super Bowl for an eternally downtrodden team. Twenty-four years later, the notoriously private, attention-deflecting Barry (we Lions lifers can call him Barry; anyone else should call him Mr. Sanders, thank you) talks publicly about his legacy as one of the GOATs, and why he so unceremoniously quit the game.
BYE BYE BARRY: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: In 1999, Barry Sanders sent a fax to the Detroit Lions office on the day before training camp, announcing his retirement. Nobody saw it coming. (I remember the day well, punctuated with the resounding thud of millions of jaws dropping simultaneously.) He was 31. He’d only played 10 seasons. He was within sniffing distance of Walter Payton’s all-time rushing record. He was the greatest running back to ever touch a football. How ludicrously great was he? Even his moves had moves. He made some of the most fearsome defensive players in NFL history look like oafs – trying to tackle Barry, they’d lunge at him and grab nothing but air and end up flat on their faces and topple into each other like bowling pins, or he’d bounce off them like a pinball then slip through them like a greased eel as they looked around, flummoxed, bamboozled, flabbergasted, discombobulated, as he dashed into the end zone.
He could run, sure, but he was singular in many other ways: In an era of NFL showboats, he’d score a touchdown and, instead of celebrating, hand the ball to the ref and trot nonchalantly to the sideline; in an era of stat hogs, he’d take himself out of a game on the brink of a record to deflect the spotlight, and so he could be just one of the guys, playing his role in a team sport. Barry played his way and was only ever himself. No facades, no posturing. So it makes sense that he’d quit in his own style, on his own terms. If you think he frustrated defenders, imagine if you were one of his admirers, a true Honolulu-blue-blood Lions fan – and this is where I raise my hand, shake my head and cry a little, which is a hell of a lot less crying than happened on July 27, 1999, when he called it quits.
Wait now, am I reviewing the movie, or just fondly and painfully reminiscing? Well, Bye Bye Barry effortlessly reignites all the thrills and disappointments of watching Barry slice through defenders like a Ginsu through foie gras then shrug off his extraordinary accomplishments like he’s just punching the clock at the assembly line – and yet they feel like futile efforts, because he played for one of the most historically terrible organizations in pro sports. There I go again, painfonding. But I’m not alone, because the doc trots out a legion of talking heads to speak on Barry, the man, and his accomplishments: Eminem, Jeff Daniels, Tim Allen and Jalen Rose are identified as “Lions fans” (yes, ha), journalists Dan Patrick and Jemele Hill, former teammates and close friends Kevin Glover and Lomas Brown, and his mother Shirley Ann Sanders and siblings. And, of course, his endearingly outspoken father William Sanders, who’s omnipresent here despite having died in 2011, thanks to archival footage that illustrates how he ate up the spotlight in his son’s stead. William always had a lot to say when Barry didn’t, but now that the man himself is talking, we’re locked in and listening.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Bye Bye Barry is on par with the best of the 30 for 30 football docs (The U, The Best That Never Was, Four Falls of Buffalo) or Lawrence Taylor bio LT: The Life and Times.
Performance Worth Watching: At the risk of overstating things a little, Barry Sanders highlights are more thrilling than any sequence ever put in a film, Tom Cruise and John Wick and the destruction of the Death Star be damned.
Memorable Dialogue: Hill speaks some hard truth: “There were some Lions fans who were angry at him for leaving the way that he left, (but) there were a lot of Lions fans who understood. Because frankly, if they had an opportunity to send the Lions a fax and divorce them and then go to London for a couple weeks and walk around, they would’ve done the same thing.”
Sex and Skin: None.
Our Take: Barry left us hanging, and now we hang on his every word. Knowing how the man avoids attention and lets his on-field accomplishments speak for him, we thought it might never happen. One of the most compelling moments in Bye Bye Barry is a Dan Patrick anecdote: The then-ESPN reporter was assigned to interview Barry on draft day, but after he was picked third overall by the Lions, Barry was nowhere to be found; when he finally tracked him down a couple hours later, Barry goes live on the air and tells Patrick that, no disrespect intended, doing media appearances just isn’t important to him. And if we take anything away from this diligent and dutiful documentary, it’s the assertion that Barry never held anything in greater stead than his integrity, and that he wouldn’t be here today, talking about his life and career, if he didn’t want to be.
And the manner in which the film frames his at-long-last sharing of what he was thinking two-and-a-half decades ago – well, it’s inspired, bordering on genius: He sits down with his four adult sons, who quiz their dad on the hows and whys of his retirement. It’s personal, so why have some film producer or journalist grill him? Par for the course with Barry, there’s no big revelation here, just a well-reasoned discussion about the physical and emotional wear and tear of being an NFL player. That’s so very Barry: No nonsense. No hyperbole. No what-ifs or could-have-beens. No mudslinging. Goddammit, the guy broke our hearts, but we have to respect his reasoning, which belies that of so many other sports heroes, but adheres to his own truth. And it only makes us appreciate him even more as a human being, not just an all-timer with the most electrifying highlight reel you’ll ever see – a gobsmacking collection of clips that Bye Bye Barry wisely returns to frequently and with exquisite timing, lifting our spirits after many examinations of Detroit Lions-inspired existential hollowness.
Notably, the film somewhat sidesteps how Barry’s blindside-blitz of a retirement resulted in an acrimonious relationship with the Lions organization that took many years to repair; at long last, the team erected a statue of Barry outside Ford Field in 2023, a special moment captured here. Bye Bye Barry lets other commentators criticize how management let key players go in free agency, leaving Barry a lone star on teams destined for dispiriting mediocrity. Barry’s among the greatest athletes in sports who never won a championship, and that’s the sad truth of his story. I also advise you to set your expectations accordingly, because, outside his upbringing as one of 11 children and the son of an outspoken man who’s Quite The Character – William Sanders might warrant his own doc someday – he doesn’t discuss his private life at all, which leaves us to piece together a portrait of who he is outside of football. I think it’s safe to reason that he’s a good man who foregoes ego and fame in a quest to live his life honorably. Bye Bye Barry underscores that, and sure seems to do right by a man who’s a legend for many reasons, perhaps first and foremost because he’d never, ever deem himself one.
Our Call: Bye Bye Barry is a hell of an emotional rollercoaster ride for Lions fans. More objectively, it’s a worthy, thorough sports documentary that mostly avoids hagiography as it puts a positive spin on one of the most thorny, complicated stories in NFL history. STREAM IT.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.