Charlie Sanders R.I.P.


SOECharlesHallmansquareWhen I first started paying attention to the NFL as a youngster growing up in Detroit, I especially loved watching Charlie Sanders catch passes for my hometown Lions. I didn’t know then that as a tight end he was doing something not often seen, since others in his position were mainly blockers in pro football’s offensive scheme.

Sanders, a third-round draft pick out of the University of Minnesota, would finish his first pro season with 40 catches. Ten of them came in the Lions’ regular-season finale against Washington.

Charlie Sanders as a Lion
Charlie Sanders as a Lion

He finished runner-up to teammate Earl McCullough for league top rookie honors but later became the only rookie selected to play in that season’s Pro Bowl. My junior varsity basketball coach once said that Sanders made every Lions quarterback look good because he’d turn very bad throws into remarkable completions simply with his hands.

Until Barry Sanders arrived a few decades later, there was only one Sanders who wore the Detroit Lions’ Hawaiian blue and silver colors. Charlie Sanders died last week at age 68 of cancer.

He left behind a “considerable personal and professional legacy,” stated Detroit Lions President Tom Lewand of Sanders in a released statement. He called Sanders “one of the greatest Detroit Lions of all time” whose likeness since 2009 is inside Ford Field as one of the original 12-member Pride of the Lions class.

Sanders was one of many Blacks who came north on the Gophers’ athletic Underground Railroad. He came from his native North Carolina to play for Murray Warmath, who recruited, played, and won with non-White players on his football team.

Charlie Sanders as a Gopher
Charlie Sanders as a Gopher

Sanders played for Minnesota 1966-67 and made the all-conference team in his senior year on the Gophers’ 1967 Big Ten co-championship squad. He was drafted by Detroit in the third round in the 1968 NFL Draft.

He finished his 10-year Detroit playing career (1968-77) with 336 receptions, 31 touchdowns, seven Pro Bowl appearances and twice an All-Pro. He is enshrined in seven Halls of Fame, including the U of M Football Hall of Fame (2013), his home state’s Sports Hall of Fame (1997), Michigan Sports Hall of Fame (1990) and only the seventh tight end ever to be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame (2007).

Sanders spent nearly a half-century with the Lions, first as a player, then an assistant coach (1986-96), a scout, and finally promoted to the front office in 2009 as assistant player personnel director, a position he held until his death last week. He also worked over the years in the broadcasting booth doing analysis and color on both radio and television regular season and pre-season game broadcasts.

Only the late Detroit owner William Clay Ford was with the team longer than Sanders’ 43 years with the club. “Charlie was a special person to the entire Lions family for nearly a half century,” noted Lewand. “[He] became the consummate Detroit Lion on and off the field.”

Sanders’ charitable work perhaps was overlooked. He started his own foundation in 2007 and raised funds for college scholarships. After a Michigan high school player collapsed and died on the court just minutes after he hit his team’s game-winning basket, Sanders started his “Have a Heart” program in 2012 to provide free heart screenings for both students and players.

“He was the perfect ambassador for our organization and, more important, was a true friend, colleague and mentor to so many of us,” said Lewand.

As an adult, I have met many former Detroit pro athletes who I watched during my formative years. I was able to briefly share my memories while interviewing them as well. This reporter unfortunately never got the chance to meet Sanders and tell him how much I enjoyed watching him catch passes, leading my hometown team either to victory or doing his best in avoiding defeats.

Charlie Sanders will be missed by those of us who only knew him from afar as well as by those who knew him better.


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