Prime Video’s Bye Bye Barry documentary aims to reveal why legendary Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders suddenly decided to walk away from the NFL in 1999, days after his 31st birthday. While the film itself, an NFL Films production, hits it out of the park in terms of nostalgia and interviews, it’s unable to stick the landing and give viewers a satisfying ending.
First, here’s the synopsis of the film from Prime Video.
Bye Bye Barry is the long-awaited, feature-length documentary that reveals, in intimate detail, the unprecedented journey of Barry Sanders. One of the giants of the sport, Sanders displayed a style and flair that has never been replicated. His record-breaking career at both Oklahoma State—where he won the Heisman Trophy in 1988—and with the Detroit Lions created a standard that will be celebrated forever. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2003 and the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2004. His pro career lasted 10 years, and during that span he earned Rookie of the Year honors, was named the league’s Most Valuable Player in 1997, was a four-time rushing champion, gained more than 1,000 yards rushing in every season, was a six-time first team All-Pro selection, and was named to 10 Pro Bowls.
No one has ever run with a football like Barry Sanders. He moved like Michael Jordan. He had the power of a prizefighter. And he revolutionized the sport while playing on a team that was often overmatched. By the end of his rookie year in Detroit, anyone who saw his elusive style recognized this was a groundbreaking performer. Ten years into his Hall-of-Fame career, it was only a matter of time before he broke Walter Payton’s record for most career rushing yards. But in his prime, at the peak of his game, Sanders did the unthinkable. At age 31, in the summer of 1999, he walked away from the game, never to return. Few retirements have ever been so shocking. And none done with more intrigue.
“Barry Sanders is the best running back to ever play,” said Matt Newman, head of Prime Video Original sports content. “We’ve all watched his highlights and wished he had played longer in the NFL, and wondered why he really retired so abruptly. We are thrilled to look back at his extraordinary career and get to better understand one of the biggest icons of the sport.”
Instead of holding a massive press conference at the Lions’ facility, or conducting a one-on-one interview, Sanders faxed the announcement to his hometown paper in Wichita, Kansas and took a solitary trip. He caught a flight to England and walked around London, leaving the world to guess why he left. And a continent away, everyone did speculate. His team, the city of Detroit, and the entire sports community all had theories on why an immortal would simply walk away from the game. But no one ever had a satisfying answer. Until now.
“Watching Barry Sanders play running back was to witness a mystery,” said Angela Torma of NFL Films, co-director and co-producer of the film. “But Sanders’ career ended with a much bigger mystery: Why did one of the greatest running backs of all time walk away in his prime, on the cusp of breaking the league’s all-time rushing record? In Bye Bye Barry, we discover the reasoning for his retirement, and why it still reverberates so strongly across the sports landscape today.”
Twenty-four years after the shocking decision to walk away from the sport, NFL Films joined the 55-year-old Sanders and his four sons on a trip back to England to explore his career, revisit his upbringing, and share his joys and heartbreaks. Sanders and his boys visit the most famous landmarks in London to tackle one of the greatest mysteries in sports history: Why did he retire when he did? Fans across the NFL landscape have waited a long time for closure. Now, they’ll finally get the conclusive account on why Barry Sanders said “bye bye” to the NFL.
By reading that, you get a good sense of what Bye Bye Barry is going for. Sanders’ retirement and the reasons behind it aren’t the primary focuses of the film, but rather the natural conclusions. The first roughly hour or so of this ninety-minute feature talks about how historically great Sanders was, and learning about why he ended up retiring would have been the cherry on top of the story.
Without fully giving away Sanders’ reasoning, there was no smoking gun for his retirement. Listening to him to talk his sons in London about his departure from the NFL, Sanders just sounded tired and burned out. That in and of itself isn’t a very dynamic or earth-shattering reason, but it’s completely valid. More than anything else, it seemed like Sanders was a person who just needed to move on from his current career.
The rest of Bye Bye Barry is a fantastic recap of his career. Detroiters like Tim Allen, Eminem, Jemele Hill, and Jalen Rose talk about what Sanders meant to the city. Former teammates like Kevin Glover laud Sanders’ ability and what he meant to the team. Opponents across the league like Bill Belichick and Emmitt Smith discuss watching and facing Sanders. Sanders’ family chimes in as well, revealing more about him as a person.
Sanders himself, unsurprisingly, is featured throughout. While he does seem slightly guarded in his commentary, Sanders offers crucial insight into his career with the Lions and his accomplishments. Without Sanders taking part, Bye Bye Barry probably wouldn’t have been able to get off the ground. While the film’s ultimate conclusion is unsatisfying, viewers at least get more insight into Sanders’ career and retirement from the man himself.
Given that this is an NFL Films production, archival footage is plentiful and used well. Game clips of Sanders are used liberally and help to add context to just how special of a player he was during his career. NFL Films has this down to a science, so there really aren’t any surprises in what is or isn’t used. Perhaps the most interesting footage comes early in Bye Bye Barry when Sanders is drafted by the Lions, featuring clips of the Draft itself and early interviews with Sanders. A very young Dan Patrick is in some of these clips, which we got a kick out of.
While Bye Bye Barry is a fine way to spend 90 minutes, it almost seems like a super-sized version of A Football Life. Much of the information is similar to what we saw in Sanders’ edition of A Football Life ten years ago but with more and newer interviews. Given how long ago that feature came out, revisiting Sanders and his retirement makes plenty of sense. However, if you watched that one and are familiar with the details of the story, you probably won’t discover all that much new in Bye Bye Barry.
Bye Bye Barry premieres on Tuesday, November 21, exclusively on Prime Video.