Charlie Sanders : Detroit Lions Hall of Famer dies at ‘age 68’

Charlie Sanders : Detroit Lions Hall of Famer dies at age 68

Charlie Sanders, the gregarious Hall of Famer for the Detroit Lions, died Thursday following a battle with cancer. He was 68.

For a decade, Charlie Sanders was one of the best tight ends in the NFL, a sure-handed pass catcher who helped revolutionize the position.

But with the Detroit Lions, that’s only part of Sanders’ legacy.

When Charlie Sanders’ playing career ended in 1977, a year after he suffered a serious knee injury, he stayed a part of the organization, first as a broadcaster, then an assistant coach, and most recently — since 1998 — as a member of the personnel department.

“The Ultimate Lion,” said Sanders’ good friend, former Detroit Pistons star and former Detroit Mayor Dave Bing.

The Ultimate Lion spent 43 years with the organization over parts of the last five decades, the longest tenure of anyone outside the Ford family who owns the team.

“Today we lost one of the greatest Detroit Lions of all time,” Lions president Tom Lewand said in a statement. “Charlie was a special person to the entire Lions family for nearly a half century. While never forgetting his North Carolina roots, ‘Satch’ became the consummate Detroit Lion on and off the field. He was a perfect ambassador for our organization and, more important, was a true friend, colleague and mentor to so many of us.”

Charlie Sanders, a Greensboro, N.C., native, will be most remembered for his Hall of Fame playing career that spanned 10 seasons (1968-77), all in Detroit.

He made seven Pro Bowls, was twice selected a first-team All-Pro, and modernized a position that, when he entered the NFL, was mostly an extension of the offensive line.

“Just a tremendously great athlete,” said Hall of Fame cornerback Lem Barney, Sanders’ teammate with the Lions for 10 years. “He was always a believer that we could win.

“He always thought if he could get the quarterback to throw it to him he was going to catch it. He made some acrobatic catches. I’m telling you, one-legged, one arm in the air, floating through the air almost like a Superman. If you threw it to him he was going to find a way to catch it.”

A third-round draft pick out of Minnesota in 1968, Charlie Sanders was selected to the NFL’s all-decade team of the 1970s and to the Lions’ 75th anniversary team.

He amassed 336 catches for 4,817 yards as a Lion, retired as the team’s all-team leader in receptions and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2007. Just seven other tight ends are in the Hall.

“When I got inducted into the Polish(-American Sports) Hall of Fame and Charlie was there and he was the one that introduced me, all it showed on the highlight film was him diving and catching the ball,” recalled Greg Landry, Sanders’ quarterback for most of his tenure with the Lions. “I got up and told the people, ‘Hey, wait a minute now. I didn’t throw the ball that poorly all the time.’

“But it seemed like Charlie, he would so concentrate on the ball that sometimes he’d lose his legs and he’d just dive out there and he’d never drop one. He’d just catch it in his hands and tuck and tumble and hit the ground. But he was a great athlete that way, and he was a blocker. He could hook people, hook linebackers or hook defensive ends because he was so strong. He had strong legs and he was strong in his arms, and he was a great blocker.”

Sanders suffered a knee injury in an exhibition game against the Atlanta Falcons in 1976 that ended his career and ultimately led to the discovery of the cancer that claimed his life.

In November, doctors found a malignant tumor behind Sanders’ right knee while he was being prepped for knee replacement surgery.

Charlie Sanders underwent multiple rounds of chemotherapy after surgery and was confined to the hospital for most of the last few months.

Bing, Barney and others visited him in recent weeks, and all said he remained upbeat during his fight, even as the effects of the disease began to show.

“This city has been blessed to have somebody of his character and his ability as a football player,” Bing said. “When you mix those two things together, he really represents the Lions organization and city of Detroit like nobody else.”

After Sanders’ playing career, he joined the Lions’ radio broadcast team for seven seasons as color commentator (1983-88, 1997) and spent eight years as an assistant (1989-96), where he coached receivers and tight ends.

In 1995, he coached a receivers group that included Herman Moore and Brett Perriman, the first two teammates in NFL history to each catch 100 or more passes in the same season.

Charlie Sanders joined the Lions’ front office as a player personnel scout in 1998 and took over as assistant director of pro personnel in 2000, a role he held until the time of his death.

Off the field, Sanders was known for his warmth and generosity. He spent most Sundays after games with Barney, Mel Farr and other teammates relaxing at the old Larco’s Chophouse, and Landry called Sanders “the most giving person I’ve ever seen.”

“He was involved in everything,” Landry said. “And if you wanted someone from the Lions to do something, Charlie Sanders would call you up and say, ‘What can I do to help the kids in Detroit?’ He was very good that way.”

Charlie Sanders started his own foundation, the Charlie Sanders Foundation, in 2007 as a way to provide scholarships to high school students in Michigan and North Carolina. More recently, the organization raised funds for student heart-check programs, a cause he took up after hearing the stories of Wes Leonard, the Fennville basketball player who died on the court in 2011, and Chris Keenist, the son of Lions senior vice president of communications Bill Keenist, who was forced to give up football because of a heart condition.

Last week, as Charlie Sanders was fighting for his life, his foundation presented a $3,000 check to the Wes Leonard Heart Foundation to provide automated external defibrillators to high schools.

“I loved the guy,” said Bill Keenist, one of Sanders’ close friends. “I used to tease Charlie, but growing up in my small town south of Pittsburgh we had one NFL player come from our town and he was a tight end that played for the Detroit Lions and his name was Craig Cotton. So every year at Thanksgiving, we’d be so excited and he’d never get on the field because of Charlie. And I didn’t like Charlie because I’m thinking, ‘If it wasn’t for this guy, our hometown hero would be playing football.’ So I didn’t like Charlie, and then you get here and I loved him like a brother. He was the best.

“There was no one that was more selfless and more giving, that truly walked the walk and talked the talk when it came to giving back and being thankful for what he had. You know the Bible verse, to whom much is given, much is required, and he lived that every day because he felt he was truly blessed and all he did was give and give and give.”