If Detroit Lions fans didn’t respect owner William Clay Ford Srwho died on Sunday, it’s possibly because they didn’t know him.
The Lions owner died Sunday morning from pneumonia at age 88. He had owned the Lions since 1963 and in that span had only one playoff win.
“If that’s the legacy (the fans) want to remember him by, they can turn in their tickets,’’ Hall of Fame tight end Charlie Sanders said in a conference call on Sunday night.
“I think that’s unfair, I understand the fans’ side of it they want a championship, I understand that, but so did he and I know that, I know that personally. This is what he wanted more than anything in the world,’’ said Sanders who knew Ford since his rookie year with the Lions in 1968.
“I’m not going to let that be the one thing I remember this man by because there was so much more that he brought to this world other than a lack of a championship,’’ Sanders said.
Despite his wealthy upbringing — he was the grandchild of Henry Ford — Ford was remarkably down to earth.
“I think that was the part that a lot of people didn’t understand about him,’’ Sanders said. “They feared him or didn’t want to get to know him because they had predetermined who he was based on the name that went along with him. Once they got beyond that barrier they found they were dealing with a good-hearted human being.’’
Sanders said he developed a rapport with Ford in his rookie season and it lasted more than 40 years. Sanders has served different positions with the Lions since he retired after 10 years as a Pro Bowl tight end. He is currently the assistant director of pro personnel.
Sanders thinks Ford was misunderstood and not just when it came to football.
“To me he was a guy that just wanted to be one of the guys,'' Sanders said. "Once you got beyond Ford and who he was in the corporate world, and try to get to know him as a human being, you realize this guy is a simple sports advocate that happens to own the Detroit Lions. He was a very personable guy that you could get to know and you could learn a lot from.’’
The two were close enough that when Sanders was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2007, he asked Ford to introduce him.
“It was as great an honor for me to be asked by Charlie to be his presenter as it was for him to be elected to the Hall of Fame. We really chatted about it quite casually, but we kind of hemmed and hawed around a little bit. Finally it dawned on me that, gee, he'd like me to be his presenter, and I can't think of anything nicer,’’ Ford said in the introduction speech.
Sanders could have chosen anyone, but he asked Ford.
“He’d been my employer for 40 years — I had hardly known my wife that long,’’ Sanders said on Sunday with a laugh. “He meant that much to me, we went through the father figure, he was that to me. He was just a perfect person. I think a lot of this has to do with why I’m just as adamant today as I was before about the city of Detroit and the Detroit Lions. I owe him so much.’’
Sanders said Ford left the coaching staff and players alone.
“He was just hoping he was right in terms of who he picked to ultimately get the team to be where he wanted it to be,’’ Sanders said. “Unfortunately that didn’t happen, but it didn’t have anything to do with his desire to bring a championship to the city of Detroit.’’
At Sanders’ induction speech at the Hall of Fame on Aug. 3, 2007, he thanked Ford for the introduction and then he said, “For those dreams he's had haven't happened yet, it by no means takes away from him as an owner, as a human being, as a man.’’
Sanders stood by those words again on Sunday.