Charlie Sanders

Catching Up with "Charlie Deep"



His puffy right knee has slowed him down a bit and his slimmed down upper body has lost some of its original strength but Charlie Sanders still has those great hands and quick reflexes. You can actually feel an intimidating sense of power resonating from each finger joint of his engulfing handshake. And when asked "who was the toughest player he had...."  Charlie replies "BUTKUS!" in a lightning fast reflexive manner before the question can even be completed.
Helmet Hut recently traveled to the Detroit Lion's headquarters and training facility to reunite Charlie with two of his game used Lion's helmets and an authentic reproduction of his University of Minnesota helmet. Just like rediscovering long lost friends Charlie first stared intently at the vintage trio and as unmistakable signs of familiarity emerged he broke into a silent grin that spoke volumes. The grin was not one of humor but rather of retrospection. An older but wiser man suddenly realizes that the special skills of his youth, once so easily taken for granted, can now only be performed in his memories ....... making an acrobatic one-handed catch for a critical first down on a cold and muddy at Tiger Stadium field as a roaring crowd rise from their seats to further reveal the wonderful "Forrest" green stadium colors. He uses his wide receiver type speed (his teammates aptly named him "Charlie Speed!") to get far downfield well past the helpless linebacker. In the corner of the leftfield endzone (in front of a ground level scoreboard better suited to keeping track of balls and strikes) he catches the under-thrown waterlogged ball while falling forward on his knees. He makes another key reception going over the middle, leaping high to snare the leading pass. On the way down he is violently sandwiched by two defenders who render him unconscious. The trainer is eventually able to revive him but no one other than the referee is able to remove the ball from his clutches. As the rain increases his soiled and damp heavy dureene jersey becomes even more unbearable as he crashes facemask to facemask into the firmly planted middle linebacker. His tenacious block creates a sliver of daylight for a nimble Mel Farr who seems oblivious to unpleasantness of the situation......Charlie seemed to recapture his entire glorious career in that brief moment and then, just as quick, that special grin disappeared. When we subsequently asked him what he remembered from those good old days, Charlie just smiled and humbly replied, "Not really that much -- that's almost 40 years and nine kids ago, you know."
Charlie's endearing personality still stands out just like it did when he was a seven time Pro Bowler for the Lions. Charlie possesses the patience and charm of a Southern gentleman. (Charlie, how about another picture standing by the chalkboard? -- "sure, no problem" / sitting down? -- "sure, happy to" / holding your jersey? -- "sure, how's this?"). Actually, Charlie did grow up in Greensboro, North Carolina where he excelled in sports at the then renowned "basketball factory" Dudley High School. He was a star performer on their state championship basketball squad that also included future Basketball Hall of Famer Lou Hudson and Harlem Globetrotter Curly Neal. Charlie chose to go to college in Minnesota only because Hudson and Neal had already decided to go there.
He still returns to the Minnesota campus for special events and says that he is very excited that a new on-campus outdoor football stadium is now under construction. "The should have never moved their home games to the Metrodome," says Charlie revealing his traditionalist side.  He added that during his pro career he preferred playing outdoors at Tiger Stadium rather than inside the Silverdome. "Tiger Stadium just had so much more history it just seemed like a more natural place to play," he said. While examining some of his game worn equipment he explained why he preferred the steel cage "OPO - Butterfly" style facemask that he wore in the late 1960s compared to the aluminum Dungard mask he was issued in the early 1970s. "That steel mask just seemed stronger and more substantial to me," he remarked. Charlie said that the lighter weight, less protective suspension helmets that were worn when he played would not be adequate for today's faster and larger players -- "Someone would get killed wearing one of these today," he exclaimed. One of our favorite comments from Charlie surfaced when we asked him if he approved of the extra black trim that the Lions have added to their helmets and uniforms in recent years. He initially struggled with this question. But just like an over-inflated balloon at a corporate party inscribed with slogans touting management's latest "brain storm," Charlie's "politically correct" balloon couldn't hold any more hot air. As it burst his real feelings came rushing out. Charlie just shook his head in disgust and wondered why someone had to mess with the classic Honolulu Blue and Silver team colors that served the team so proudly and for so many years. The Lions kept his old number "88" in deep storage until this year when Mike Williams, the team's number one draft choice, asked Charlie permission to wear it as a tribute to him (Williams had not previously worn that number). He enjoyed another laugh when we suggested that he could have demanded a nice payday from the talented rookie for that granted permission "I guess I missed out on that opportunity" he chuckled. Charlie currently serves as the Lion's Assistant Director of Pro Personnel. He really enjoys it when any of the current Lion players or coaches ask him for advice regarding playing the tight end position.
Lion's fans should be quite proud of Charlie Sanders. He has always acted like a true gentleman while also being one of pro football's greatest tight ends. In the late 1960s both the Lions and the City of Detroit suffered serious setbacks. Charlie Sanders was a symbol of hope, class and success during that troubled period and he continues to represent both the team and the city in a similar manner. We hope the next time we see his retrospective grin it will be forever cast in bronze and, along with his entire bust, be rightfully displayed among his peers in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.