- Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer
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He was the man who paid Charlie Sanders' salary for years, the man Sanders looked upon as a father figure, a boss and a friend. He was the man Sanders wanted to have introduce him into football's greatest honor, enshrinement into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
William Clay Ford Sr., who died of pneumonia on Sunday at age 88, embodied many things to Sanders, one of the best players in Detroit Lions history.
It was a different time in American sports when Sanders played and Ford was young enough to relate to the players he also paid. As rich as Ford was, as much as his last name was synonymous with the American automotive industry, Sanders knew him more as the guy he could talk to and befriend.
That is what he will remember. That is what stands out now, on the day Ford died.
"I think a lot of people look at him and just don't understand him, period,” Sanders said during a conference call with Detroit media Sunday night. "Not just as far as football is concerned. To me, he was just a guy that wanted to be just one of the guys.
"Once you got beyond, you know, Ford and who he was in terms of the corporate world and try to get to know him as a human being, you realize that this guy is really just a simple sports advocate that happens to own the Detroit Lions. He was a very personable guy that you could get to know and you could learn a lot from.”
It was a relationship that spanned 40 years, so Ford was the first person Sanders thought of when he found out he would be inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2007. Sanders just hoped Ford would be able to be there to do it -- and he was.
"It was as great an honor for me to be asked by Charlie to be his presenter as it was for him to be elected to the Hall of Fame,” Ford said during Sanders' introduction speech in 2007. "We really chatted about it quite casually, but he kind of hemmed and hawed around a little bit.
"Finally, it dawned on me that, 'Gee, he'd like me to be his presenter,' and I can't think of anything nicer.”
The quality of the man is what stood out to Sanders on Sunday, about how he would be generous with his money and his time to the players he hoped would one day give him the championship that eluded him throughout his 50-plus year ownership of the Detroit Lions.
Sanders said during his speech and again Sunday that he asked Ford to present him to the Hall of Fame because of who Ford was as a human being, not because of wins or losses or championships dreamed about but never won.
He saw a man who let his people work and take their own visions and try to implement them. He saw a man who didn't over-interfere, who just wanted to know what his employees were doing. He saw someone with a good heart and who cared -- an opinion shared by many who spoke publicly about Ford on Sunday.
And to those who look at the lack of titles and lack of wins and say, like was written here earlier, that Ford was too loyal, Sanders said his response would be unprintable.
"I understand the fans' side of it. They want a championship. I understand that. But so did he. And I know that,” Sanders said Sunday. "I know that personally, that it was what he wanted more than anything in the world.
"And so I'm not going to let that be the one thing I remember this man by because there was so much, much more that he brought to this world other than a lack of a championship.”