Upon hearing the news Thursday of Charlie Sanders’ death, former Gophers fullback Jim Carter recalled the talent and temperament of a man who helped the team win its last Big Ten football title in 1967.
“He was a great, great player, a good man and a good teammate,” Carter said. “He never let us down. And he was tough.”
Sanders, 68, died Thursday, eight months after he was diagnosed with cancer discovered during knee-replacement surgery. Moved from defensive end to tight end before his senior season with the Gophers, Sanders went on to a stellar 10-year career with the Detroit Lions and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2007. He remained with the Lions as a broadcaster, assistant coach and scout and had been Detroit’s assistant director of pro personnel since 2000.
Chosen by the Lions in the third round of the 1968 NFL draft, Sanders made 336 catches for 4,817 yards over a pro career that ran from 1968 to ’77. Gophers teammate Bob Stein remembered Sanders as an “old-fashioned, throwback” tight end, one who possessed the skill of a wide receiver but relished the chance to flatten an opponent with a wicked block. Both Stein and Carter played against their former teammate in the NFL, and both said that was the only time they weren’t happy to see him.
“He was a great receiver and a very good runner after the catch,” said Stein, a defensive end. “But the one thing he did better than just about anybody was the crackback block. When he was on the field, you’d better have your head on a swivel.
“He never lost that defensive mentality when he moved to tight end. He would knock your head off.”
Yet Stein and Carter remained lifelong friends of Sanders, as part of a Gophers team known for the close bonds among its players. A native of North Carolina, Sanders came to Minnesota after seeing Lou Hudson — a high school teammate — become a star for the Gophers basketball team. Coach Murray Warmath moved Sanders to several positions before deciding to try him at tight end.
Defensive tackle McKinley Boston, who roomed with Sanders, remembered him bulking up for his senior season with protein shakes and lots of meat. Defensive end Leon Trawick, who also shared their apartment, said Sanders quickly blossomed in his new position.
“That last year, Charlie played alongside [All-Big Ten tackle] John Williams, and they were hard to beat,” Trawick said. “He was one of the best tight ends in the nation.”
Carter said Sanders — known as “Satch” — was the best tight end in football when they faced off in the NFL. As a linebacker with Green Bay, Carter had to battle his friend twice a season. He recalled Sanders making exceptional one-handed catches before that was common, and Carter always warned his teammates about the blocks that Stein said “would knock you upside down.”
Sanders injured his knee in a preseason game in 1976 and retired a year later. His 336 receptions are fifth on the Lions’ career list, and he appeared in seven Pro Bowls.
Though his Gophers teammates had scattered around the country, more than 30 of them attended his 2007 induction into the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. They were there for him, too, when a malignant tumor was found behind his right knee last November.
“It caught everyone off guard,” Trawick said. “It’s heartbreaking. He was a truly decent man, a stand-up guy and a great friend. And he had a wonderful life.”
Sanders is survived by his former wife, Georgianna, and 10 children.