Charlie Sanders, the Detroit Lions’ Hall of Fame tight end, died on Thursday. He had been battling cancer for several months.
Sanders and his broad smile were a part of the Lions since he was drafted in 1968 out of Minnesota.
Sanders, 68, had knee replacement surgery in February and that’s when the cancer was discovered.
Sanders had never cut ties with the Lions — most recently working as assistant director of pro personnel — and was a fixture around the practice facility until recent months. Through the years he had worked at a variety of positions including broadcaster, wide receivers coach and the last 16 in the personnel department. He was a starting tight end for 10 seasons.
PHOTOS OF CHARLIE SANDERS THROUGH THE YEARS
The seven-time Pro Bowler is credited with reinventing the position of tight end which he played from the Lions from 1968 to 1977.
He played at a time when the NFL was much different. In an upcoming book, “The Game of My Life: Detroit Lions” Sanders said: “You want to be this guy I’d try to knock your head off, I’d try to break your leg. We didn’t have any rules. It was a game of survival. The only rule we had, that showed lack of respect if you went at a guy’s knees. We’d say hit me in the head, don’t go after my knees. because that was our only source of survival. You don’t have knees you can’t run, you can’t run you can’t play. That was the rule of thumb you want to end a guy’s career you go after his knee.’’
He was a resident of Rochester Hills. He and his wife ex-Georgianna had nine children.
Daughter Nathalie Marile Donyale Sanders, 36, died on June 2.
Sanders' former teammate Larry Lee posted on Facebook about the death of his friend: "I have so many great memories 99% of them include laughter. My band played his Hall of Fame party in Canton and when we worked together at the Lions meetings, training camp, etc were fun. He used to bar b que at the Silverdome ...''
He was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Feb. 3, 2007 and was introduced that day by the late William Clay Ford. Sanders’ Hall o Fame speech was a classic It included this poem he wrote:
“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 a knight, bold and gallant.
Those who can make it feel lucky indeed. It's God's own way of letting you succeed.
Our efforts we extend in hopes to win. Some play their hearts, others just pretend.
So give your all and nothing less. Today we win, tomorrow we rest.
You're not just my teammate, but my very best friend.
Let's play together until the end.
Today we hang together, just you and me. For tomorrow is a day we may never see.”
Then he remembered his mother who died when he was 2 years old.
“Of all the things I've done in football, and there have been a lot, there's one thing that I really, really regretted. Many times I've seen athletes, college, professional, often look into a television and say, Hi, mom. I always thought that was special and always something I'd want to do but couldn't.
“So I take this time right here, right now in Canton, Ohio, at the Pro Football Hall of Fame to say, Hi, mom. Thank you for the ultimate sacrifice. This day belongs to you, for it was written. I want to thank you all enjoying the best day of my life and may God bless you.’’
On June 1, the Charlie Sanders golf outing went on without his presence. The annual event raises money for “Have a Heart Save a Life” healthy heart checks for teens and is part of the Charlie Sanders Foundation. (haveaheartsavealife.org). There was an abundance of love for Sanders that day.
“When I came into the league, Charlie was my (receivers) coach,’’ said former WR Herman Moore that day. “When I came in I looked at him as a father figure, even to this day still do. He’s treated me as a son, it’s been special for me to have that association with him at any level, at any capacity with his family. I’m blessed to be here and for him to always be considerate of me.’’
Because the Detroit area had been home for Sanders since he was drafted by the Lions in 1968, he had friends all around the city.
“We’ve been friends for a long time, I’m so pleased to be out here to support this effort,’’ said former Detroit Pistons Dave Bing said on June 1. “With Charlie not being here and the condition he is in, all of us supporting him, praying for him and just want him to have a speedy recovery.’’
Sanders was well liked by the current members of the team. They knew him and respected that a Hall of Famer was in their presence on a daily basis.