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Charlie Sanders heads into Hall of Fame with unique flashbacks

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Feeding chickens. Slopping hogs. Milking cows. Driving a mule-powered tractor through tobacco fields.

Dodging gunshots on Halloween night. Getting hosed down during the sit-in movement.

Since Charlie Sanders found out in February that he would be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame later this week, those images of his childhood in North Carolina have been racing through his mind.

The honor brought back memories of the road that led to his outstanding career as one of the NFL's best players in the 1970s, when the tight end was ahead of his time as a pass-catching threat for the Detroit Lions.

None of the unique -- and frightening -- experiences have struck Sanders as troublesome or traumatic, but one memory he's without shook him up while preparing for his speech.

"Until this happened, I never sat back and realized that I've never said, 'Hi Mom,' in my life," Sanders said in an interview with The Associated Press at Lions headquarters. "My mother passed away when I was 2 and because I didn't know what I was missing, I thought I had a normal life until now, because this honor has made me reflect on my life like I never have in the past."

Sanders planned to share some of those thoughts Saturday in Canton, Ohio, where he will be inducted into the Hall of Fame along with Michael Irvin, Thurman Thomas, Bruce Matthews, Roger Wehrli and Gene Hickerson.

Each will have a story to tell at Fawcett Stadium, but it will be tough to top Sanders' tale from his youth.

He was born Aug. 25, 1946, in Richlands, N.C., a rural town about 30 miles from the Atlantic Ocean and a world away from the NFL.

His mother passed away a couple of years later after bleeding to death.

"It wasn't like she was cared for at the Mayo Clinic," he said.

His father raised hogs after leaving the army, only to return to the service to earn enough credentials to be a professor of engineering at North Carolina A&T.

"We moved to Greensboro when I was 8, and that was a big change because I grew up without sports or TV," Sanders said. "I was used to getting up at 4 a.m. in the morning to work and our idea of getting into trouble was running away to a cousin's house two miles away."

He didn't play football, other than on sandlots, until the 10th grade at Dudley High School in Greensboro.

"My coach, Jonathan McKee, said he didn't think I was tough enough and that's how I got into the sport," Sanders said. "Coach didn't know he was my inspiration until I went into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame a decade ago.

"But basketball was my sport and it wasn't until my senior year that I was convinced to stick with football."

Sanders said he was the first black athlete recruited by Wake Forest, which became the first Atlantic Coast Conference team to integrate its football program in 1964. But he desperately wanted to escape the South and jumped at the chance to attend Minnesota.

"There was 'a lot' of racial tension in Greensboro," he said. "The sit-in movement started in my neighborhood with Ezell Blair, who lived down the street from me, and Jesse Jackson was one of my father's students at North Carolina A&T at the time.

"I didn't consider staying in the South after getting hosed down in the streets and shot at while trick or treating. I saw how life was different in Minnesota, where I could walk without turning my head. I hate to think of what would've happened to me if I didn't get out of that world."

He was a football and basketball star at Minnesota, then was drafted by the Lions in the third round in 1968. After nearly chosing to play in Canada, he signed in Detroit and became the only rookie selected to play in the following Pro Bowl.

His receiving statistics from his 10-season career are not impressive by today's standards, but he made the best of the block-first era for tight ends by leaping to snag most of the three or four passes thrown his way each game, and by picking up extra yards by dragging defenders.

"He was one of the best that we ever faced," said Bears linebacker Dick Butkus, himself a Hall of Fame member. "He was big and had good speed and was a tough guy. He could make some great catches."

Sanders had 336 catches for 4,817 yards and 31 touchdowns, earning a spot on the NFL's All-Decade Team from the 1970s, two All-Pro and seven Pro Bowl teams.

"On top of his talent, Charlie had a great passion to be the best," said Joe Schmidt, one of his coaches in Detroit. "He could've played in any era."

Matt Millen agreed.

"Charlie's career finished just as I was starting in the league and honestly, there are not a lot of players from back then that could excel in today's game," the former Super Bowl-winning linebacker and current Lions executive said. "He was ahead of the curve as a tight end because he was a threat in the passing game when he wasn't making great blocks on the line.

"And as a guy, I love him and love that he's still a part of the organization."

Sanders was an assistant coach in Detroit from 1989-96, was hired as a scout in 1998 and was later promoted to assistant director of pro personnel -- a title he still holds.

The Lions had just four winning seasons during Sanders career and didn't finish better than second in the division during one of the many lackluster eras since the franchise won the NFL title in 1957.

"People seem to think that's why I didn't get in early, but I would hate to think that's the case," he said after a deep sigh. "But I never really thought about it or worried about that because I already received my joy from football and my life well before this came along.

"This is the icing on the cake for a guy that was slopping hogs not long ago."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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