Black History Month: Charlie Sanders looks back on his early career

Posted Feb 27, 2014

There was a particular incident that pushed Charlie Sanders out of North Carolina to play football for Minnesota

Charlie SandersCharlie Sanders (AP Images)

A slur that stung him as hard as a wasp plunging its stinger into his neck sent Charlie Sanders heading north to play college football and pursue a goal of playing in the National Football League.

The incident proved to be a loss for his home state of North Carolina and the recruiters at Wake Forest who wanted him to enroll there. It was a gain for the University of Minnesota, where Sanders starred as a tight end – and, unbeknownst to most people, in intramural ice hockey -- and ultimately the Detroit Lions.

Sanders is a Detroit Lions icon. He was a seven-time Pro Bowl player in a 10-year career that gained for him the ultimate individual honor. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2007.

As America celebrates Black History Month, there is a recognition that times and circumstances change, and so do the people who are affected by both. Sanders can testify to the reality of both.

Black History Month memorializes and celebrates those who have an impact on America with their accomplishments in many fields – from Dr. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks in civil rights and social change to author Maya Angelou to men and women who have made history on the athletic playing field and in leadership and management roles.

Sanders is one of many of African American heritage who made lasting imprints in their careers as a Lion for their contributions on the playing field or in the front office – or both.

Had he not heard an off-hand remark while bussing tables at a restaurant at his home in Richlands, N.C., when he was being recruited to play college football, Sanders might have wound up playing for Wake Forest in his home state.

"A two-year-old identified me by skin color," Sanders said, shaking his head at how the slur was ingrained in one so young, "I knew then I had to get out of there."

His experience in his recruiting visit to Minnesota made him a Golden Golpher.

"I walked into Bridgeman's Ice Cream," he said, recalling his visit. "It was the first time I walked in the front door – and you couldn't hear the crack of the necks turning – 'What's this guy doing walking through the front door?'

"I had a sense of freedom. The next morning, I knew this was where I was going to go."

Sanders wound up being drafted by the Lions in 1968, and the rest was history for him. He was an immediate star and one of the Lions' most popular players with the fans.

Long before Sanders' arrival in Detroit, black players had made a mark with the Lions.

Bob Mann, a wide receiver who played at Michigan, became the first black to play for the Lions in 1948.

In 1949, Mann led the NFL in receiving yards with 1,014 on 66 catches – in a 12-game season. He went to Green Bay in 1950, where he also was the franchise's first black player, and spent his last five seasons in Green Bay.

After retiring, Mann became a successful attorney based in Detroit. His office was not far from Ford Field.

When the Lions opened Ford Field in downtown Detroit in 2002, Mann was honorary captain for the first regular-season game.

In the 66 years since Mann made history in Detroit, the so-called "color line" has been erased to the point that when Jim Caldwell was hired in January, there was hardly a mention that he was the first black head coach in franchise history.

In the Lions' front office, blacks have long held key positions. Among them are General Manger Martin Mayhew and pro personnel director Sheldon White.

Black players have excelled at the highest level.

Nineteen players who spent at least a portion of their careers with the Lions are enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Seven of the 19 are black – Lem Barney, Curley Culp, John Henry Johnson, Barry Sanders, Charlie Sanders, Ollie Matson and Night Train Lane.

Barney, Barry Sanders, Charlie Sanders and Lane are recognized by the Hall as having spent the bulk of their careers in Detroit.

John Henry Johnson established himself as one of the NFL's best fullbacks in his three seasons as a Lion – 1957-59 -- and was a key member of the '57 NFL Championship team.

Since his retirement as a player after the 1977 season, Charlie Sanders has remained connected with the Lions as a broadcaster, assistant coach and in his current position as assistant director of pro personnel.

He has experienced and witnessed an evolution in sports where black men have played more prominent roles, and not just on the playing field but as decision-makers in coaching and management.

On the field, the decision-makers are quarterbacks, centers, middle linebackers and safeties – players whose position carries the responsibility to make calls that affect the entire unit.

"It's happened in a lot of ways," Sanders said. "It's money and opportunity -- not just opportunity to play the game, but opportunity after the game. That's the biggest thing. The value you place on a player now versus then.

"It has been a major change. You can go back to the time when as a quarterback, as a center, you weren't going to touch that ball. We've gone through that transition.

"Football is no different than what's happening out here in the world."