Barry Sanders wasn’t big on keeping mementos of his football career.
He famously handed the football to officials after every touchdown he scored, and at the end of each season he let Detroit Lions staff members take his game-worn equipment either to keep for themselves or flip and make money.
“Barry always saw the game-used memorabilia as stuff he never wanted to keep and as a result it was a win-win because he didn’t have to deal with any of it or get rid of it or box it up, and the equipment guys were able to make extra money on the side, which he fully supported,” said J.B. Bernstein, Sanders’ agent. “They would ask him, ‘Hey, could we have this?’ And he would say, ‘Yeah, sure. If you can make some money off it, that’s great.’ They told him that that’s what they were doing and he was very supportive of it.”
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One historic piece of Sanders memorabilia is up for bid now through Heritage Auctions: the helmet Sanders wore in his last NFL game on Dec. 27, 1998, against the Baltimore Ravens.
The silver helmet, a Riddell AF-2, photo-matched to several games by the scuff marks on its shell, has a puffy Lions logo affixed to each side and Sanders’ No. 20 encasing wide blue and white striping on the back.
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The helmet, conservatively valued at $40,000 or more, according to the auction house, has a $17,000 bid with 10 days left at auction.
“It’s by far the nicest Barry Sanders helmet that’s ever hit the market and it just happens to be from his last game, so it’s a crazy piece,” said Chris Nerat, consignment director at Heritage Auctions.
“Collectors that collect game-worn items, they want blood, guts and scuffs and burns and hit marks that prove that it was worn on the battle field of the gridiron, and that’s kind of what makes this piece exciting. And other than it just being worn in the last game, it was worn in multiple games and there’s more scuffs and burns and things that aren’t on some helmets. The more wear the better.”
Nerat said the consignor of the helmet is an anonymous East Coast sports memorabilia collector who acquired the piece from a Detroit-area collector who had relationships with players, equipment staff and other employees of Detroit’s four professional sports teams.
“You can sell this piece any day of the year at any time of the day and it’s going to go crazy,” Nerat said. “It’s just one of those pieces that it’s a museum-quality piece, it’s historically significant in the sports world and it’s definitively photo-matched so it’s got the perfect storm going for it.”
Twenty-one years after his unexpected retirement, Sanders remains “one of the most popular, most desirable modern athletes to collect,” Nerat said.
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Earlier this year, Heritage sold the Nike cleats Sanders wore in his final NFL game, which came from the same collector, for $9,000. In 2017, the auction house sold one of his game-worn Oklahoma State jerseys for $38,400.
As hot as the hobby is now — both the interest in, and prices of, sports memorabilia have soared during the coronavirus pandemic — Nerat said he would not be surprised if the final sales price for Sanders’ helmet reached six figures.
Bernstein said he, too, expects the piece to bring a tidy return, though no one — neither Sanders nor whomever he initially gave the helmet to — would have figured it’d be worth so much one day.
The Lions did not respond to interview requests for Dan Jaroshewich, the team’s equipment manager during Sanders’ final season, and former assistant equipment manager Mark Glenn, both of whom still work for the team.
“I guarantee you, if you ask the equipment guy, ‘Look, if you thought this thing was going to sell for half a million bucks would you have kept it till now, No. 1, and No. 2, would you have cut Barry in on it?'” Bernstein said. “And he’d be like, ‘Yeah, of course.’
“Barry wouldn’t have given him the stuff if he knew it was going to be worth half a million, and they wouldn’t have taken it. The relationship Barry had with these guys, he loved them and they loved him. So it was a different type of deal, they wanted to help each other out. But I think if anybody in the mix knew what it was going to be, they would have certainly split it differently. Barry still would have given these guys a piece of it. He wouldn’t have wanted to deal with selling it, so he probably would have been like, ‘Yeah, sell it, just give me whatever you think is fair.’ You know Barry.”
Contact Dave Birkett at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive Lions content.