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Sanders' spectacular career ends with disappointing retirement at 31

So this is how it ends for Barry Sanders. Not with a bang, but a whimper.

Sanders officially hung it up Tuesday, retiring at the young age of 31. And his decision has sent shock waves of disappointment throughout the sports world.

Add another name to the disappointed list.

In retrospect, it makes sense that Sanders ended his career in such a tumultuous manner. After all, despite his statistical achievements, Sanders' career was fraught with inconsistencies. Sanders could dominate an opponent one week, racking up obscene numbers of yards, as he did several times against my beloved Chicago Bears. But on several occasions, opponents would completely shut Sanders down.

Many of these shutdowns occurred in the playoffs. During Sanders' 10 years in the NFL, Detroit only won a single playoff game. Even in that victory, Lion quarterback Erik Kramer was the star; Sanders failed to break 70 yards rushing.

But when remembering Sanders' history of failure in the postseason remember this: he was playing for the Lions.

Detroit was never a strong team during Sanders' tenure. Sure they had a high-powered offense, with Sanders working in tandem with former Cavalier Herman Moore, but the defense always left something to be desired. Okay, it left a lot to be desired.

It's easy to see how Sanders could become frustrated with the state of events in the Motor City. Throughout his pro career, the Lions had a revolving door at quarterback, including Kramer, Rodney Peete, Andre Ware, Scott Mitchell, Frank Reich and Charlie Batch. Not exactly a list that inspires thoughts of enshrinement in Canton.

Besides the problems Detroit had filling the position behind center, they have an underachieving coach in Bobby Ross. Ross is still employed solely on the basis of two tremendous seasons with underdog teams, one at San Diego and the other with Georgia Tech. And if I had to deal with hearing Ross yell every day for six months, I might quit my job too.

Like Michael Jordan and Jim Brown, Sanders left at his peak. He did not wait around to see his body fail him as so many star athletes do, unwilling to leave the party to which they have dedicated their lives.

But there is a very telling difference between the way Jordan and Brown left, and the way Sanders did.

Brown retired in an open and straightforward manner, and while Jordan left people guessing for months, he at least held a press conference when he announced his decision.

Sanders, in contrast, sneaked out the proverbial back door. The only word he gave was in a statement published on the Wichita Eagle's Web site.

In that statement, Sanders gave the following defense for his departure: "The reason I am retiring is simple: My desire to exit the game is greater than my desire to remain in it. I have searched my heart through and through and feel comfortable with this decision."

He might be the only one.

We'll never know just how good Sanders could have been. Barring injury, he likely would have passed Walter Payton to become the NFL's all-time rusher. Coming into 1999, Sanders trailed Sweetness by 1,459 yards.

After Detroit made several moves to encourage Sanders to return, including giving Moore a long-term extension, he quit. Many of his longtime supporters in the Motor City feel betrayed, and rightfully so.

Others feel Sanders' retirement will be short-lived, that he'll soon return with another team and try to make it to the Super Bowl. I seriously doubt it. For all the controversy surrounding his departure, I take Sanders at his word. The best running back of the '90s, and one of the best ever, is gone.

Sanders' electrifying moves on the field, in combination with his statistics, place him in that top echelon of NFL running backs.

But unfortunately, for all of Sanders' phenomenal runs, the way he went out will become a notable part of his legacy. It's not a very praiseworthy chapter.