There was a time not too long ago when Barry Sanders seemed destined for a reclusive life after football. He faxed a surprise retirement announcement to his hometown newspaper in 1999, fled to England and later spent time in arbitration with the Detroit Lions over his signing bonus.
For years afterward, Sanders wouldn't so much as acknowledge the factors that prompted his early retirement. From the outside, I assumed he had had enough of public life and was ready for a much different existence in as an ex-player.
That has all changed during the past few years, however. Sanders has appeared in national television commercials, participated in high-profile panel discussions and is active on Twitter. An NFL Films documentary of his life, aired on the NFL Network last winter, reintroduced him to legions of fans.
Sanders' public profile rose once again Wednesday night when he won a national vote to appear on the cover of the "Madden NFL 25" video game. You might not be a big gamer, and Sanders might not be either. I for one was amused to see Sanders, 44, standing on the SportsNation stage with the 28-year-old Adrian Peterson while 25-year-old hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar performed.
But Sanders took this process seriously from the start, promoting himself during a trip to ESPN headquarters and actively seeking support from celebrities via Twitter. Wednesday afternoon, golfer Tiger Woods encouraged his 3.2 million Twitter followers to vote for Sanders.
Sanders won the cover contest over Peterson with 58 percent of the finals vote. Along the way, he demonstrated a sardonic but still-humble personality most of us never saw during his playing career and one I assumed we wouldn't experience in retirement. It sounds silly, but it's true in our virtual age: Barry Sanders introduced himself to a whole new generation of fans Wednesday night. Let's see where it takes him.