HOF Profile: Charlie Sanders

There hasn’t been a better success story in the history of the NFL than that of tight end Charles Alvin Sanders.  He left the South in the 1960s to attend the University of Minnesota in hopes of playing basketball more than football. Sanders’ only season at tight end for the Gophers produced just 21 receptions.

This soft-spoken, skinny guy from North Carolina was going to play outdoors for Detroit? Yes, but not in the limelight and never for a champion.

In 10 seasons and 128 games in the Motor City, Sanders played in one playoff game. He had two 100-yard receiving games, playing for a run-dominated team.

That’s as many as the last Lion to make the Hall of Fame, running back Barry Sanders.

But the Pro Football Hall of Fame is Charlie Sanders’ domain too. Finally.

Seven Pro Bowls 336 receptions and 29 years after his career ended, the Detroit Lion is a member of the Class of 2007 as voted by the Hall’s Seniors Committee.

“I’m just baffled,” Sanders said of his selection. “Why me? I never even set out to play sports. I always thought my big breakthrough would come in basketball.

“I just followed the script that was written for me.”

Sanders’ life would be laughed out of Hollywood as too implausible. He has remained employed by the Lions for the last 30 years as a scout, coach and media member, giving him 40 years in Detroit.

Lions Hall of Famer Lem Barney said the last laugh goes to Sanders.

“He was always a patient person,” said Barney, Class of 1992. “He needed to be. I thought he should have been in the Hall of Fame quite some time ago.

“He was probably the best blocker at tight end ever, and the best route runner ever.”

REVOLUTIONARY TIGHT END

Charlie Sanders, a blocking beast? He had to try and look the part after Detroit drafted him in the third round. At 6-foot-4, barely 200 pounds, he needed help at a position that was devoid of glory and big on blocking.

“I wouldn’t even get drafted today,” Sanders said. “I wasn’t (heavy) enough for tight end and not fast enough to be a wide receiver.”

So he mixed together milk, eggs, honey, whatever had carbs and calories, and drank the stuff. He thought all tight ends were 250 pounds, big and slow. But it was a mistake to bulk up.

Upon seeing Sanders, Lions Head Coach Joe Schmidt told him if he didn’t get down to 235 pounds, he’d be switched to tackle.

The light bulb came on. Sanders realized that what made him different made him better, that despite his smallish frame, he could block like the Bears’Mike Ditka or Baltimore’s John Mackey, his idol. He knew he could fly like teammate Earl McCullough and Washington’s Charley Taylor.

“He was the bridge tight end,” said Dallas Morning News writer Rick Gosselin, a member of the Seniors Committee. “He took the position from Mike Ditka in the 1960s up to Kellen Winslow in the 1980s. The tight ends then were thicker, blockers. Sanders was more sleek. He was a great route runner who learned to be a great blocker.

“He could run the seam route 30 years ago like they do today.”

“He has all the tools of a modern tight end,” agreed former Lions quarterback Greg Landry, who entered the NFL with Sanders in ‘68. “He’s big. He had speed. He was strong, with huge legs. He could back-block a linebacker and down block on a defensive end. It was fun to watch him circle back and pick off a lineman with a crushing block.”

OVERNIGHT SENSATION

Sanders didn’t have the chance to utilize his unique physical skills at Minnesota. The Gophers recruited him as an H-back type, but put him at defensive end as well his freshman year. They tried him at safety as a sophomore, then at linebacker as a junior. Searching for a spot for their senior, they settled on him playing tight end.

All Sanders did in 1967 was help Minnesota and coach Murray Warmath to a share of the Big Ten title. The team hasn’t won or shared one since. Despite Sanders’ limited receiving role, his talent and tenacity was evident to the Lions after he played in the Blue-Grey and the College All-Star Games.

Schmidt, Detroit’s HOF linebacker and its most successful coach of the last 40 years, liked Sanders’ versatility and perseverance.

On Sundays, Sanders transformed into a beast.

“You didn’t want to be around him on game day,” Barney said. “He took energy away from you. He used to snort like a bull. At the pre-game meal, guys sat away from him. He had some fire in his eyes.”

He hit with reckless abandon and learned to use his basketball skills and leaping ability on the Tiger Stadium turf. He had the strength to make one-handed grabs behind him as well as diving stabs in the corner of the end zone.

Sanders made 40 catches for 533 yards as a rookie, but Rookie of the Year honors went to a teammate, receiver Earl McCullough. But the acrobatic Sanders was a constant on the Pro Bowl radar.

SPORTS FIND CHARLIE

Sanders didn’t go looking for sports as much as sports found him. A Greensboro neighbor, Kenneth Henry, turned the country kid onto the games that would shape his life.

“My first organized sport was Little League,” Sanders said. “Then I played basketball in junior high. The first basket I ever attempted was at the wrong basket. I was like ‘Wrong Way’ Jim Marshall.

“I was just a big, lanky kid. I remember at the end of ninth grade, my junior high school coach asked if I was going to play football. He said, ‘I don’t think you’re tough enough.’

“That stuck with me. I worked really hard to make the team.”

Sanders’ efforts paid off. He went to Dudley Senior High School in Greensboro and starred on a state championship team with future NBA All-Star Lou Hudson, who recruited him to Minnesota. He played football, basketball and baseball and made all-state in all three sports.

Sanders wanted to play hoops more than football after Minnesota signed him.

He played sparingly for the Gophers football team as freshman, which only heightened the urge to get on the hardcourt. That changed after one game on the college level.

“I was a 6-5 center in high school,” Charlie said, “and here I am looking into some 7-footer’s belly-button. I played one season of basketball, and that was it.”

It didn’t take Sanders that long to realize he had already made the right choice in coming to Minnesota. He met his wife, Georgianna, at a campus mixer. It took a year to get together, but once it happened they’ve been inseparable for the past 40-some years and nine children later.

“I wanted to find out if there was a different world outside the South,”Charlie said. “As soon as I got to Minnesota, the racial tension wasn’t there. I thought this was the best place in the world for me.

“I always thought I was a late bloomer anyway.”

MR. RELIABLE, DR. DURABLE

Once Sanders made the Lions lineup and the Pro Bowl, he aspired to do it every year. With seven Pro Bowls -- and three All-NFL teams -- in 10 seasons, he nearly did. He was named to the NFL’s All-Decade Team of the 1970s.

He did that despite playing on a mostly .500 team while never catching as many as 45 passes in a season. You never heard Sanders clamor for the darn ball, though.

“Charlie, my southern brother, was a gentleman,” said Barney, who hails from Mississippi. “He let his football do the talking. He was a great athlete, a great friend and father. And he did everything for the glory of the Lord.”

“My personal goal was to get to the Pro Bowl,” Sanders said. “That meant you had to catch at least 40 balls. If they passed four my way, that meant I had to catch at least three.

“I knew they were coming my way on third down. You had to fight through the pressure. If I didn’t catch it, I wasn’t going to get another chance soon.”

His high-water reception mark was 42, accomplished in 1969 and 1974, but it was his consistent brilliance that stood out. In his first nine seasons, Sanders averaged 35 catches. His 2.63 grabs per game for a career are still second only to the Ditka’s 2.7 among HOF tight ends of the day. Sanders’ 14.3 yards per catch is third, ahead of Ditka’s 13.6, and they were also close in touchdowns-to-receptions ratio, 9.9 to 10.8 in Ditka’s favor.

Sanders caught 31 touchdowns passes in his career.

“When we got inside the 10, I would always throw to Charlie,” Landry said.

“I always threw to the corner of the end zone. More than throw high, he dove, toward the corner. I would aim for the back corner. He could really catch the ball. I think he caught 90 percent of the balls thrown to him.”

A YEAR IN THE SUN

Sanders’ desire to be needed carried over to his game, his teammates and his team.

“Everything I did was based on approval,” Sanders said. “On the field, I had to take a scalp and bring it back. That way I could take the game personally.”

Detroit was on the rise when it drafted Sanders, Landry and McCullough. It went from 4-8-2 their first season to 9-4-1 the next. Then came Sanders’ one glorious season, a 10-4 mark in 1970 that got the Lions second in the division, to Minnesota, and a spot in the playoffs.

“We gelled. We realized our potential,” said Sanders, who had 40 catches and six touchdowns that season. “That team, I thought, was the best team in the NFL.

“But we had a safety at Dallas that just destroyed us,” he said of a 5-0 defeat that led Dallas to the Super Bowl. “We were going to the Super Bowl. But from that point on we didn’t refurbish our defense.”

Detroit limped to 6-7-1, two 7-7 seasons and two 6-8 records before a knee injury tabled Sanders’ career after the 1978 season. He left with the team record for catches, 336.

“There has never been a tight end like Charlie Sanders,” Lions great defensive lineman Alex Karras said in 1971. “I’m sure of that because I can’t imagine anybody being better than he is at his job.”

LIFETIME LION

Sanders thought he would leave the Lions after playing. And he nearly left Detroit owner William Clay Ford -- for his arch enemy.

“I was going to be owner of auto dealership program ... a Chevrolet dealership,” said Sanders, laughing at the thought of trading in his loyalty. “I was in training for three years. I had a dealership picked out.

But then Charlie Sanders Chevrolet got put on hold. I thought my life was on hold. I thought I was going to have to move. So back to the Lions I went.”

He broadcast Lions games on radio. When Canton native Wayne Fontes became the team’s head coach in 1988 Sanders was hired as a tight ends coach. He eventually became the receiving coach.

There, he tutored Herman Moore, a four-time Pro Bowler who set the NFL single-season mark with 123 catches in 1995, and Brett Perriman, who had 108 grabs that year.

“I think I liked coaching better than playing,” Sanders said.

After Fontes was fired, Sanders was unsure of management’s direction. And his.

“I got a call from the scouting department,” he said. “They asked me what I wanted to do. I said, ‘I want to retire and die as a Detroit Lion.’ And I meant it. Still do. So I went to work as a college scout. Then later I got to become assistant director of pro personnel.

“It has always just happened for me. I thank the Ford family for being loyal to me. Forty years with one organization, that’s a long time. You think if people stay four years now that’s a long time.”

Somehow, it has all worked out. Even the happy ending Saunders so richly deserved.

Reach Repository sports writer Jim Thomas at (330) 580-8336 or jim.thomas@cantonrep.com.