By Ashley Dunkak
CBS DETROIT – In the 50 years that William Clay Ford Sr. owned the Detroit Lions, the franchise grew in value from $6 million to $900 million, and the Lions went 310-441 with just 10 trips to the playoffs.
While the lackluster legacy of the Lions might be what lingers in the minds of some, Hall of Fame tight end and Lions assistant director of pro personnel Charlie Sanders has said Ford — who passed away Sunday at the age of 88 — should be remembered for more than a lack of a Super Bowl.
Given a chance to blast Ford’s critics, Sanders deferred, but he delivered his message.
“If I said it I don’t think you’d be able to print it because it ruins that part of it,” Sanders said on a teleconference Sunday night. “If that’s the legacy that they want to remember him by, then you know what? They can turn in their tickets.
“I understand the fans’ side of it,” Sanders continued. “They want a championship. I understand that, but so did he. I know that. I know that personally. It’s what he wanted more than anything in the world. So, I’m not going to let that be the one thing that I remember this man because there was so much, much more that he brought to this world than the lack of a championship.”
Sanders played for the Lions from 1968 to 1977, served as a broadcaster for the team from 1983 to 1988, coached in the organization from 1989 to 1996, went back to broadcasting for 1997, and has been a player personnel scout since 1998. When it came time for Sanders to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, he asked Ford to give the introduction. Sanders said he crossed his fingers Ford would be able to do it, and Sanders was honored that the owner did.
Sanders referred to Ford as a “father figure” and “perfect person” who was always fair. Sanders recalled the owner as always being cheerful, positive and upbeat, a man who loved the city and loved the Lions.
“I think a lot of people look at him and just don’t understand him, period, not just as far as football’s concerned,” Sanders said. “To me, he was just a guy that wanted to be just one of the guys. But once you got beyond Ford [Motor Company] and who he was in terms of the corporate world and tried to get to know him as a human being, you realize that this guy’s really just a simple sports advocate that happens to owns the Detroit Lions. He was a very personable guy that you could get to know and learn a lot from.”
Ford never talked much publicly about the Lions, and Sanders said that contributed to people’s misunderstanding of Ford, fearing him or not wanting to get to know him because they had already drawn their own conclusions.
“Once they were able to break beyond that barrier, they found out that they were just dealing with a good-hearted human being,” Sanders said. “He never forced his opinion on the coaching staff. He never forced his opinion on any players and I don’t think any employees. He let the management handle their portion of it. I think he was just hoping he was right in terms of who he picked to ultimately get this team to where he wanted it to be.
“Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, but it didn’t have anything at all to do with his desire and determination to bring a championship to the city of Detroit,” Sanders continued. “There was the one side of that turned out to be excellent. There was the automotive side of it. The football side of it wasn’t as positive, but again, as I said at my induction speech in Canton, it had nothing to do with him as a human being. He was very, very dedicated to the Detroit Lions, to the fans and to the city.”