Published July 27, 2019
I don’t think that Charlie Sanders made a catch in stride in his entire career.
At least, that’s how I remember it.
“Get off my lawn!” alert coming from an oldtimer. This is your chance to click away.
I can still see the 1970 Thanksgiving Game as I type this.
Sanders, the greatest tight end in Lions history (and it’s not even close), put the Lions on his back in that Turkey Day game against the Oakland Raiders.
It was a memorable game in a memorable season, for a franchise that has had precious few of them since 1957.
The Lions entered the game 6-4, still stinging from a mid-season, three-game losing streak that included being beaten at the final gun by a 63-yard field goal in New Orleans.
The big, bad Raiders, who didn’t lose very often in those days, were 6-2-2.
If the Lions had any hopes of making the playoffs as the NFC’s first-ever wild card team, it was mandated that they run the table in the season’s final four games.
But the Raiders, wearing their iconic black jerseys on the road to satisfy NBC-TV, who was reluctant to showcase the white jerseys with the silver numbers for fear they wouldn’t show up well, bounded out to a quick 14-0 lead in the first quarter. Some Raiders players were seen laughing at the Lions on the sidelines—something that is understandable now, but not back in 1970, when the Lions were a good football team.
Greatness beyond numbers
That’s when Charlie Sanders went to work.
Sanders, in his third NFL season out of the University of Minnesota, caught two touchdown passes, both of the circus variety, requiring no. 88 to extend himself parallel to the turf in order to haul the football in.
The second of the two TD catches, coming in the third quarter, put the Lions up, 21-14 in a game that they would win, 28-14. They did indeed run the table, finishing 10-4 before losing to the Cowboys in the playoffs by that notorious 5-0 score.
The greatness that propelled Sanders into the Pro Football Hall of Fame wasn’t only found in the numbers. By today’s standards, Charlie’s yearly stats weren’t eye-popping. He never caught more than 42 balls in any given season because the NFL wasn’t pass-happy in his time. But he averaged 14.3 yards per catch and had some of the softest hands of anyone who’s ever played the position.
In Sanders’ day, a tight end was more of an extension of the offensive line first and pass catcher second. In the 1960s, John Mackey of the Colts was considered the gold standard of tight ends, with Mike Ditka not far behind.
But by 1970, Charlie Sanders had surpassed the aging Mackey as tight end par excellence.
Again, it wasn’t the numbers. It was the athleticism. Sanders was the most acrobatic tight end I’ve ever seen. And I do mean, ever.
Never did Sanders make a routine catch, or so it seemed. One-handed grabs, extensions, dives, leaps—you name it, Charlie did it. If a Lions QB threw the football in even Sanders’ general vicinity, old Charlie would come down with it.
The Hall of Fame voters were a little slow on the take, but they finally granted Sanders entry in 2007, some 30 years after his last game, which was criminal.
A complete TE
You want blocking from your tight end? Sanders provided that in spades. He was six-foot-four and played at around 225 pounds. He was a dual threat—pass catcher and blocker—and often on the same play. It wasn’t unusual for Sanders to pancake his man with a devastating block, then release and catch a 17-yard pass for a Lions first down.
His peers respected his work, resulting in Sanders making seven Pro Bowls to go with three All-Pro selections.
I’m giving you this history lesson because it’s heinous what the Lions are doing—and that’s saying a lot when you talk about the Honolulu Blue and Silver.
First, it’s unbelievable to me that the franchise hasn’t retired Sanders’ no. 88—especially after his Hall of Fame induction. Second, they’re handing out 88 to a rookie—T.J. Hockenson out of Iowa.
I don’t want to hear that the Sanders family is OK with this atrocity. I don’t want to hear that the kid asked nicely.
The family statement: Read between the lines
Here’s a statement from Sanders’ family about Charlie’s number being doled out to a kid who hasn’t suited up for a single NFL game. And read it carefully, for it was written carefully.
“The Sanders family appreciates the organization communicating with us prior to their announcement that T.J. would suit up in Dad’s legendary jersey this fall. We want the community to remember that our father honored the Fords and the Detroit Lions organization with great character and humility for nearly 50 years, while they too honored him. Amongst all of his accolades and positions, he enjoyed representing the Fords and Lions culture as their ambassador while yet on staff in the scouting department until his passing.
Here’s the more telling part of the statement. The bolding is mine.
“Although we would have loved for our father’s number to be officially retired, we understand T.J. Hockenson’s work ethic, background, and love for family are characteristics in alignment with the Great 88’s legacy and the Lions’ decision. We look forward to meeting him at training camp! If Dad were here, he would probably tell T.J. with a firm shoulder pat, squeeze, and look straight in the eye…’Make me proud son.'”
The Lions were wrong to not have retired no. 88 and they doubled down on that wrongness by authorizing its use without consulting the Sanders family first, which it sure sounds like from the statement’s first sentence.
The statement rightly also recognizes that Charlie Sanders was more than someone who played tight end for the Lions for 10 seasons (1968-77). He served the organization in many capacities—an organization that didn’t deserve his ambassadorship, yet Charlie gave it to them anyway.
Sanders was a broadcaster for the Lions. He was an assistant coach. He was, as the family’s statement said, a member of the scouting department as well. He was as close to Mr. Lion as anyone would want to be.
And for all this, the Lions have failed to honor his number and worse, they are letting a kid wear it.
Clumsy number history repeats itself
This reminds me of 1993, when free agent signee Pat Swilling deemed it necessary to wear no. 56—his number in New Orleans—despite the fact that the Lions had retired it to honor Joe Schmidt, who only invented the middle linebacker position.
Joe said it was OK, but what else was he going to say?
But at least Swilling had proven himself in the NFL prior to making his ill-advised request.
I’m not down on Hockenson. You could say that the youngster should never have asked—that he should have had enough respect for Sanders’ place in franchise history to not even consider wearing the number. Hockenson didn’t even wear no. 88 in college; he wore 38. But in the NFL, tight ends can’t wear numbers in the 30s. They are required to wear numbers in the 80s.
The Lions should have said, “Son, no. 88 is in mothballs and there it will stay.” End of story.
When Brett Hull, who’d worn no. 16 all his career in the NHL, signed with the Red Wings in 2001, he knew better than to inquire into 16 in Detroit—for that was the unofficially retired number of defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov. Hull settled for 17, and he helped lead the Red Wings to the Stanley Cup the following spring.
Even the great Joe Montana, no. 16 with the San Francisco 49ers, didn’t dare ask about the number when he moved on to the Kansas City Chiefs—where Lenny Dawson wore it into the Hall of Fame. Montana took no. 19.
Again, I’m not killing Hockenson here. It’s not known why he wanted no. 88 and it doesn’t matter. The number shouldn’t have been made available to him. Receivers can wear numbers from 10-19 and 80-89, so there’s a lot of flexibility possible to keep 88 from seeing the light of day, which has been its status ever since Sanders went into the HOF.
I hope T.J. Hockenson has a helluva career. By all accounts he has a great chance of doing so. And I’m sure he’s a good kid.
But he shouldn’t be wearing no. 88. No one should, ever again. Full stop.