Detroit Lions Hall of Famer Charlie Sanders dead at 68

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Charlie Sanders and Dan Miller.

Detroit has lost one of its best.

Charlie Sanders may have been born in North Carolina.  He may have put himself on the national radar at the University of Minnesota but he found a home in the Motor City.

Charlie came and he stayed. 

Third round draft pick, Hall of Fame career and nearly 50 years of uninterrupted service with the Lions organization.  When he took the helmet off he served as a broadcaster, a scout, an assistant and a pair of eyes any number of coaches leaned on because he knew what to look for in a football player.   

That stuff is easy.  A lot of that, you could get off a football card or read in his bio which is in any number of places.

I didn’t know Charlie when he played.  I didn’t know Charlie when he coached.  I knew Charlie when he was so touched by Wes Leonard’s tragic death that he wanted to do something about it.  We all felt something when we saw a gifted young man score a game winning basket and then collapse and die; sadness, pain, empathy for his family and friends. 

Charlie felt those things and then he went to work.  His foundation started the Have a Heart Save a Life campaign raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to provide healthy heart checks for young athletes. 

Lives have been saved. 

Lives will be saved.

That last line is important.  Charlie had been suffering for quite some time.  He was private about it and so too was the big family he loved so much.  A year ago Charlie looked like he could still play.  Strong.  Cancer changed that.  But it didn’t change the man.

Recently, Charlie was talking with his trusted assistant, Pat McCarthy.  Both probably knew it would be the last of their conversations which numbered in the thousands over the years.  He was clear about one thing.  He wanted his foundation to go on.  He wanted his golf tournament and other fundraisers to continue.  It wasn’t about having his name on anything.  It was about finishing the job.  Charlie wasn’t done yet.  

John Wooden once said “the true test of a man’s character is what he does when nobody is watching.”  Nobody was watching when Charlie found out about Wes Leonard.  He could have shaken his head in disbelief and sorrow like many of us, but he did a lot more than that.  We were all moved.  He was moved to action.

I will remember many things about Charlie.  His laugh, his smile, his incredible knowledge and how cool it was just to stand on the field and pick his brain about all things football. 

Thankfully, we will all remember his dedication to helping people too.  Because, after all the touchdowns and the bust in Canton, it’s what he wanted to leave behind for the people and the city he loved.