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
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.