Long before Barry Sanders took the National Football League by storm in the 1990s, another Detroit Lions legend surnamed Sanders helped revolutionize the tight end position two decades earlier.
He was none other than the great Charlie Sanders.
Sanders was a true innovator who helped kickstart a paradigm shift among tight ends in the 1970s NFL.
Before Sanders arrived in the Motor City in 1968, tight ends were predominantly blockers who helped quarterbacks and running backs put points on the board.
However, Sanders, one of the first pro football players with a basketball background, put his toughness and top-notch catching abilities to good use during his ten years in the league from 1968 to 1977.
Sanders’s prominent afro and catching style—one that had his body almost perpendicular to the football field prior to making a catch—were sights to behold back in the day.
Before long, Sanders racked up seven Pro Bowl selections during his ten-year pro football career. He eventually entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, OH in 2007.
This is Charlie Sanders’s remarkable gridiron story.
Charles Alvin “Charlie” Sanders was born to parents Nathan and Perteacher in Richlands, NC on August 25, 1946. He has two brothers: Nate and Adrian.
Sadly, Charlie’s mother passed away in 1948 when she was just 28 years old. Charlie was only two years old at the time.
When Sanders became a standout tight end for the Detroit Lions some twenty years later, he regretted the fact he wasn’t able to say, “Hi, Mom,” to a television camera during his legendary ten-year pro football career.
When Sanders entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he spoke about his upbringing in rural North Carolina. He learned the value of hard work at an early age.
“The country, as I refer to it, is a place where a kid could be judged, his character could be judged, by how fast he was able to work alongside the adults,” Sanders mentioned in his enshrinement speech.
Sanders remembered growing up surrounded by plenty of adults. It was a different kind of family atmosphere. Everybody looked out for each other. Whenever one of the children went off course, another adult in the community could straighten him or her out.
When Sanders was a child, he recalled the worst spankings children got were not from their parents. They received them from other grown-ups.
Charlie singled out his Aunt Flora as the fiercest disciplinarian in his family. Her take-no-prisoners approach reaped valuable dividends. Sanders thanked her for instilling in him the value of hard work and teaching him to become resilient.
While young Charlie Sanders learned many valuable lessons in his home state of North Carolina, his father Nathan, a former engineering major and hog farmer, served in the United States Army.
He also taught Charlie how to work hard and do housework such as washing dishes, cooking, and doing the laundry.
Nathan Sanders was a man of few words. If he said something to Charlie and his brothers, he got his point across without having to repeat himself.
He did not show up for many of Charlie’s sports activities when the child was growing up. However, Charlie understood because of his father’s numerous responsibilities. Despite his dad’s commitments, the young Sanders felt he made a profound impact on his life.
Sanders looked up to his junior high school head football coach, a certain “Coach McKee,” as another father figure.
Oct. 24, 1976 – #OnThisDay in history in the NCSHOF, Charlie Sanders of Detroit hauled in four passes for 89 yards and a TD to help lead his team to a 41-14 #NFL victory over Seattle. He starred at Greensboro Dudley and was an all-American at Minnesota before 10 NFL seasons. pic.twitter.com/3M6AjrOucQ
— North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame (@NCSHOF) October 24, 2020
Just as Charlie was about to enter the senior high school ranks, Coach McKee asked him if he was going to try out for the football team.
Without hesitation, Charlie replied in the affirmative. However, his coach had reservations. He told Sanders he lacked toughness.
Charlie took Coach McKee’s words to heart and worked on that aspect of his game. When Sanders earned his gold jacket and bust in Canton, OH in 2007, he realized that his coach’s words had changed his life forever.
Charlie Sanders attended James Benson Dudley High School in Greensboro, NC. He was a three-sport star who excelled in football, basketball, and baseball for the Dudley Panthers.
Charlie told the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s official website in 2010 he had grown up following the Washington Redskins. Since there were no NFL teams in North Carolina back in the day, he followed the Redskins’ rivalry with the New York Giants.
College Days with the Minnesota Gophers
Charlie Sanders attended the University of Minnesota from 1964 to 1967. He played for Minnesota Gophers head football coach Murray Warmath.
Sanders was a versatile two-sport college athlete who also suited up for Minnesota’s men’s basketball team.
Sanders met his future wife, Georgianna, at the University of Minnesota during their college days, per ProFootballHOF.com.
Charlie excelled at tight end for the Gophers during his junior and senior seasons in 1966 and 1967.
Behind Sanders’s 276 receiving yards and two touchdown receptions, Minnesota won eight of ten games and captured the Big Ten title in 1967. Sanders earned All-Big Ten honors as a senior that year.
Charlie Sanders was just giving football fans a glimpse of his incredible potential on the gridiron.
Sanders would eventually revolutionize the tight end position in the NFL and become a perennial Pro Bowler with the Detroit Lions in the 1970s.
Pro Football Career
The Detroit Lions made Charlie Sanders the 74th overall selection of the 1968 NFL Draft.
When Sanders joined the Lions as the 1960s decade wound down, he forged a tight relationship with team chairman William Clay Ford, Sr. that spanned four decades.
Sanders made a tremendous first impression on Ford, who thought he was the complete package at tight end for the Lions.
When Ford presented Sanders to the Pro Football Hall of Fame almost forty years later, he gushed about Charlie’s speed, catching prowess, toughness, and blocking abilities.
“Charlie is what you look for today in a tight end. He was a pioneer at that position. You knew he was Hall of Fame material. He looked that way right off the bat,” Ford said.
Sanders’s uncanny catching style included reaching out for the ball until his entire body was almost parallel to the ground. His body would then collide with the turf just as he made the catch.
It was a scene many fans of Detroit Lions football in the 1970s still remember to this day.
Sanders, who went a long way back with Detroit Free Press journalist Drew Sharp, once told the latter he played to the best of his abilities because he thought his pro football tenure would not last long. For Sanders, standing out on the gridiron became a top priority.
That’s exactly what Charlie did in the Motor City in the late 1960s and 1970s.
When Sanders turned pro in 1968, he forged a lifelong bond with his Lions teammates Mel Farr and Lem Barney. The group also welcomed Detroit Pistons All-Star Dave Bing into their fold.
The four men, who called themselves “The Boardroom,” frequently met and talked about the impact of African-American athletes beyond their sporting careers, per Sharp.
Sanders also became close friends with fellow rookie Greg Landry. The latter, a quarterback the Lions drafted in the first round, did not have a car in 1968.
However, Sanders did and offered him a ride to Detroit after the College All-Star Game in Chicago, IL that year.
At that moment, Landry knew he would become close friends with Sanders. Their friendship continued for many years until Sanders passed away in 2015.
One of Sanders’s secrets was a concoction Ford called a “milkshake,” which he drank before every game. Charlie never ate the pre-game meal. Instead, he chugged on his drink and played his guts out for the Lions.
Ford could only wonder how Sanders drank it. The former thought the milkshake looked—and most likely tasted—terrible.
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) December 4, 2022
Nevertheless, Ford considered Sanders a perfectionist on and off the football field. The way Sanders went about his business on the gridiron was indicative of how he carried himself off it—even many years after he retired from the NFL.
That kind of dedication prompted Ford to wish the Lions had Charlie Sanders-type players on their roster for years on end.
Aside from Sanders’s “milkshake” concoction, his pre-game ritual included a prayer, two sticks of gum, and pine tar, per the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s official website.
A Revolutionary Player
Charlie Sanders revolutionized the position of tight end in the late 1960s. When he broke into the pro football ranks, tight ends were mostly blockers who helped shore up the passing and running games.
However, Lions quarterbacks Greg Landry and Bill Munson established great chemistry with Sanders right off the bat. Detroit’s tight end catching passes from his quarterbacks became an integral part of the Lions’ offense.
Not only that, but Sanders was also one of the first NFL players who previously excelled in basketball, per FOX Sports.
Sanders had 533 receiving yards and one touchdown on 40 receptions in his rookie year in 1968. Arguably the best game of his 10-year NFL career was that year’s season finale against the Washington Redskins when he had 133 receiving yards on ten receptions.
Sanders quickly proved he belonged in the National Football League. He was the only rookie to earn Pro Bowl honors in 1968. Sanders would become a Pro Bowler six more times during his illustrious pro football career.
Sanders’s on-field exploits captured the hearts of many young fans in Detroit. When Sharp was growing up in the city’s northwest area in the 1970s, African-American kids frequently bought Lions helmets because they wanted their afros flowing out of their helmets just like that of Sanders.
Despite Charlie Sanders’s best efforts, the Lions had a woeful 4-8-2 record in Joe Schmidt’s second season at the helm. Detroit had not made the postseason since winning their fourth NFL Championship eleven years earlier.
The Lions Awaken
Sanders picked up where he left off in his second season in 1969. His career-high 656 receiving yards and three touchdowns on 42 receptions helped the Lions turn the corner as the 1970s drew near.
Detroit’s 9-4-1 record in 1969 was the team’s best showing since the 1962 NFL campaign when the Lions won eleven games.
Although Sanders continued earning rave reviews from fans and pundits alike, the Lions extended their longstanding postseason drought to twelve years.
Sanders earned valuable consolation when he became a First-Team All-Pro for the first time in his career. He went on to earn that accolade for three consecutive years.
Unfortunately, Sanders fractured his shoulder during the 1972 preseason. The injury forced him to sit out five games. Consequently, his run of three straight First-Team All-Pro selections ended.
Charlie returned with a vengeance and put up respectable numbers in the last five years of his NFL career.
During Sanders’s prolific pro football career, he recorded at least 30 receptions seven times. He also had at least 500 receiving yards in six of his ten seasons in the Motor City.
The only time Charlie Sanders played postseason football was in his third year in 1970. The Lions won ten games during the regular season and advanced to the NFC Divisional Round that year.
Unfortunately, Sanders and Co. lost to Tom Landry’s Dallas Cowboys in a low-scoring affair, 5-0.
Alas, Detroit went back to its mediocre ways during the final seven seasons of Charlie Sanders’s NFL career. The Lions averaged barely seven wins per season from 1971 to 1978 and began a postseason drought that lasted until the 1981 NFL campaign.
A Man of Many Talents
Sanders revealed his poetic side during his ninth pro football season in 1976. He wrote a poem entitled NFL (Just Passing Through) that The Detroit News obtained from the Lions’ public relations department.
“Here today, gone tomorrow.
If you don’t accept it, it’s a life of sorrow.
Trying to use our God-given talent.
Being brave like the knight, bold and gallant.
Those who can make it feel lucky indeed.
It’s God’s own way of letting you succeed.”
Charlie Sanders retired following the 1977 NFL season. He decided to hang up his cleats one season after seriously injuring his knee against the Atlanta Falcons during a preseason game.
Sanders had 4,817 receiving yards and 31 touchdowns on 336 receptions during his ten-year pro football career.
When Sanders played in the National Football League from 1968 to 1977, he considered the Los Angeles Rams’ L.A. Coliseum his favorite stadium outside of the Lions’ Tiger Stadium in Detroit, MI.
Sanders told ProFootballHOF.com in 2010 that he considered L.A. Coliseum appealing because of the sunny California weather. It was a welcome change from playing in frosty and frigid conditions in Michigan.
Charlie Sanders considered his first NFL coach, Joe Schmidt, his most influential. He also thought Chicago Bears Hall of Fame linebacker Dick Butkus was his toughest opponent.
Sanders, like most pro football players of his era, had to work during the offseason to make ends meet.
He told ProFootballHOF.com that off-season jobs typically paid more than NFL teams did in the 1970s. Sanders found employment with the Michigan Consolidated Gas Company in Detroit, MI during his playing days.
Among Charlie Sanders’s favorites were Motown music, soul food, and the movie Tombstone.
Post-Football Life and Death
Charlie Sanders bled Detroit Lions Honolulu blue and silver even after he retired from pro football following the 1977 NFL season. In fact, Sanders served the team in some capacity for more than four decades.
Sanders worked as a Lions radio color analyst from 1983 to 1988. He then coached Detroit’s wide receivers from 1989 to 1996.
Sanders’s first season on the sidelines coincided with Wayne Fontes’s first as Lions head coach and legendary running back Barry Sanders’s rookie year in the NFL.
Charlie crossed paths with the likes of offensive lineman Lomas Brown and wide receivers Brett Perriman and Herman Moore during his coaching tenure in Detroit.
Sanders used the opportunity not merely to make them better players but to make them better men as well.
“He told us that he came up at a time when there was still a great struggle for blacks,” Brown told Sharp in the summer of 2015. “And it was important that the three of us learned that our role goes beyond what we accomplish on the football field.”
For their part, both Moore and Perriman told the Detroit Free Press Sanders made a profound impact on their lives.
Sanders returned to the Lions’ radio booth in 1997. He also became a scout as the 1990s decade wound down. Before long, the Lions promoted him to assistant director of pro personnel in 2000.
Hall of Fame and Philanthropy
Charlie Sanders became a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in the summer of 2007. Detroit Lions chairman William Clay Ford, Sr. was his presenter.
Ford was the only Lions icon who had a longer tenure than Sanders’s forty-three years with the franchise.
Had Ford not been available, Sanders would have chosen his first coach Joe Schmidt to present him in Canton, OH, per ProFotballHOF.com.
As a tight end for the @Lions from 1968-77, few could compare to Charlie Sanders, who was selected to the Pro Bowl seven times, as well as the NFL's 1970s All-Decade Team.
— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) July 2, 2022
Part of Sanders’s enshrinement speech reads:
“I am not that self-proclaimed Hall of Famer who desired to be in sports. I am a guy that liked a challenge, and challenged myself with the understanding that winning is finishing. To my fellow brothers in the NFL… I thank you for your sacrifice.”
According to the Detroit Free Press, Sanders became just the seventh tight end in the Hall of Fame at the time of his induction.
Charlie Sanders is also a member of the University of Minnesota Athletics’ M Club Hall of Fame, the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame, the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame, the NFL 1970s All-Decade Team, the Pride of the Lions, the Detroit Lions 75th Anniversary Team, and the Detroit Lions All-Time Team.
Sanders launched the Have a Heart, Save a Life foundation in 2012. The tragic death of high school basketball player Wes Leonard due to cardiac failure in 2011 inspired Sanders to start the foundation, per the Detroit Free Press.
It was one of the many humanitarian endeavors Sanders spearheaded in the Motor City.
“Charlie did things not to bring attention to himself, but because it was the right thing to do,” former Detroit Pistons star Dave Bing told Sharp in 2015. “Helping those not as fortunate as he was.”
Sanders also contributed to the greater Detroit community via the Lions’ community relations department, The March of Dimes, The United Way, and his own Charlie Sanders Foundation.
The foundation began operations in 2007 and handed out at least two college scholarships to local-area high school students, per FOX Sports.
Illness and Death
Charlie considered raising his nine children his greatest accomplishment off the gridiron, per ProFootballHOF.com.
Sanders lambasted the modern version of the Pro Bowl in 2012.
“It doesn’t represent football,” Sanders told the Detroit Free Press (via Yahoo! Sports’ Doug Farrar). “It’s more of a mockery of the game. I think that if that’s the way they’re going to go about handling such a prestigious honor, then I think they need to eliminate it.”
Sanders’s doctors discovered a malignant tumor behind his right knee prior to knee replacement surgery in the fall of 2014.
Sanders thought the knee replacement procedure saved his life because it paved the way for his cancer’s discovery.
“The knee operation saved my life—I firmly believe that,” Sanders told the Detroit Free Press’s Mark Brudenell in February 2015. “Because of the operation, they discovered the cancer.”
Sanders also told Brudenell he injured his knee during his last NFL season in 1977. His physicians told him it was a rare case where the cancer apparently skipped his internal organs and remained in his knee all those years.
Sanders admitted to the Detroit Free Press he felt distraught when his doctors told him he had cancer. However, he felt great after undergoing appropriate treatment several months later.
Sadly, Charlie Sanders, one of the greatest tight ends in Detroit Lions franchise history, passed away on July 2, 2015. He was 68 years old.
Former Lions running back Mel Farr, a member of “The Boardroom” along with Sanders, Lem Barney, and Dave Bing in the 1970s, was at Charlie’s bedside when he died.
A nurse asked Farr to step out of the room for a few minutes so she could change Sanders’s bed sheets.
The nurse came back after just five minutes and informed Farr and Charlie’s family that he was gone, per the Detroit Free Press.
According to The Detroit News’s Jennifer Chambers, Charlie and Georgianna Sanders had renewed their marriage vows six days before he died.
Sanders left behind Georgianna and their nine children: Mia, Charese, Mary Jo, Georgianna Jr., Charlie Jr., Nathalie, Talissa, Wayne, and Jordan.
Georgianna and her nine adult children are splitting Sanders’s $1.175 million NFL pension plan among themselves over a 10-year payment period that began in 2016.
Sanders’s widow also received $6,000 under his league-defined benefit plan, per The Detroit News.