Following the unexpected retirement, with no backup plan and suddenly no face of the franchise, the Lions had a true identity crisis that accompanied the worst decade in team history.
As late as 2010, there will still more of Barry’s #20 jerseys being worn in the seats of Ford Field than any of the current Lions players. Very rarely does a single player have as large a hold over the minds of a team’s fanbase than Barry in Detroit. It wasn’t until the next year that the youth movement of Calvin, Ndamukong Suh, and Matthew Stafford came into their own, and the Lions’ future finally looked brighter than the past again.
When Detroit started 4-0 in 2011 and Ford Field hosted its first Monday Night game, that sentiment came full circle, with a recorded message from Barry being played over the stadium video monitor as the team ran onto the field. In one of the most emotionally-charged atmospheres in the short history of the new stadium, the Lions beat Chicago 24-13 to stay undefeated.
Only fitting, it was capped off by an 88-yard touchdown run from Jahvid Best, three yards better than Sanders’s career long. Despite all the disappointment and resentment over his decision to walk away, Barry was back in the building, and there was indeed life after Barry.
Over the next several years, in which the Lions finally got back to the playoffs again (three times), Sanders was back in touch with the team more and more often. In July of 2017 (a week before the date of his original retirement), he was announced as a team ambassador, officially reconciling with the franchise that he called home for those magical ten years as a player.
As his agent J.B. Bernstein told the Detroit News when announcing his official return:
"“Barry was a Lion, is a Lion and will always be a Lion. I don’t think he ever saw himself as not being part of the team.”"
And even 20 years after No. 20 walked away, for better or worse, I can say that I never really did either.