ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — After 12 seasons in the NFL, three Super Bowl appearances, a Super Bowl 50 victory and two Pro Bowl selections, wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders has announced his retirement.
For the Broncos, as well as for the four other teams for whom he played, Sanders was a ball of energy, the kind of wideout whose style of play could not be constrained by his physical frame. He made Pro Bowls, won a championship and put his name into the franchise record books and supplied the team with several of its more memorable moments from the past decade.
But ahead of what would have been a 13th year in the NFL, the venerable veteran decided his energy will be dedicated to family life and other pursuits in life after considering the question for months.
"For me, I feel like it's the right time for me," Sanders told DenverBroncos.com. "Twelve years. I'm walking away from the game healthy. I've had a great career. I played in a lot of great games. Three Super Bowls. Pro Bowls. I played for some great organizations. And so I just feel like it's my time. Twelve is good for me. Now I can go and run routes with my son and play basketball with my son, hang out with my kids and enjoy my life."
Nearly a decade ago, Sanders arrived in Denver in hopes of pushing his career to new heights. A former third-round pick by the Steelers, the SMU product enjoyed a promising start to his career and played in a Super Bowl as a rookie. But following two playoffs-less seasons, Sanders entered free agency and eyed a new home in Denver.
He talked of taking up residence in what he called "wide receiver heaven" by joining forces with quarterback Peyton Manning, and he described a vision of hoisting a Lombardi Trophy alongside his young son.
In doing so, he spoke his dreams into existence.
That first year, Sanders set the table for a tremendous run in Denver with career bests in receptions, yards and touchdowns as he made his first career Pro Bowl alongside Demaryius Thomas, the Thunder to Sanders' Lightning.
"I went back and watched the video of my interview, my press conference, when I was with the Broncos," Sanders said. "And I said that this place in Denver, Colorado, with the Denver Broncos, was the place that I can hoist the Lombardi Trophy [with] my son, and this is wide receiver heaven. And when I got here, the heavens opened up the gate, and we started throwing the ball all over the field. I had the opportunity to go to the Pro Bowl. … It was just a great ride. The best years of my career, by far."
The next year, he recorded a second consecutive season with more than 1,000 receiving yards but found greater team success, as Denver marched to Super Bowl 50 and toppled the Panthers to win the Lombardi Trophy. Over the course of that season, Sanders made plenty of key plays — two touchdowns in a Thursday-night thriller against Kansas City, a 75-yard score in a road win against the Browns — but the catches weren't the moments he'll remember most.
"One of my favorite times, really, that whole 2015 run was really the confetti with me and D.T.," Sanders said, recalling when he and Thomas made snow angels in confetti on the field after the AFC Championship victory over New England. "We were just playing. You know D.T. — I'm like, 'Yo, we've got to go play in the confetti!' I'm the rah-rah guy. D.T. was kind of chill. I'm like, 'Yo, we've got to go play in the confetti.' And D.T. was like, 'Man ….' I was like, 'Come on!' And we just went and both dove in the confetti after beating the Patriots, going to the Super Bowl. That is just such a fond memory.
"And then I just remember sitting next to Peyton, and it was his final game. The clock was ticking down and we were about to win the Super Bowl and I remember looking at Peyton and telling him, 'Just embrace it, man. This is beautiful. This is beautiful. You're going out on top.' And then once the clock struck zero, to be able to go and grab my family and celebrate, it was just one of the best years of my life. It's something that I look back on and I still can't believe, to this day. Like, to see this ring — at one point in my career, all the hard work, all the passion, everything that I gave to this game, all the blood, sweat and tears, at one point I sat on top of the mountain of this game and was arguably one of the best to do it. I'm extremely proud of that."
After Manning's retirement in 2016, Sanders continued to play at a high level and returned to the Pro Bowl. With Trevor Siemian under center, Sanders recorded a third-straight season with more than 1,000 yards and his fourth consecutive year with at least five touchdowns.
By the time Sanders' time with the Broncos came to an end in 2019, No. 10 had earned the No. 10 spot in the Broncos' record books in career receiving yards, and he is currently seventh in career receptions. In addition, his 2014 season is the franchise's sixth-most-productive with 1,404 receiving yards.
After his departure from Denver, he joined the 49ers, Saints and Bills. He tallied a third Super Bowl appearance with San Francisco and made the playoffs at each stop. And while he hoped to win another ring in the final years of his career, he said he has no second thoughts about hanging up his cleats.
"I don't have the itch," Sanders said. "And I think I don't have the itch because I know I gave the game everything that I had to offer. … I gave it my all. Every single rep, every single play. I tried to go 100 percent, as hard as I can. … I gave the game everything that I had, and the game gave it back to me. I'm walking away three Super Bowl appearances, a Super Bowl ring and memories of a lifetime. I'm absolutely blessed and grateful for the opportunity to be able to play this game at the level that I played at."
While his time playing the game is over, it doesn't mean he won't be around it. Sanders said he hopes to get into television, and he already has some clips for his reel from a co-hosting appearance on "Good Morning Football" and guest spots on NFL Network’s "GameDay Morning."
Whether people see him on TV or elsewhere, though, Sanders said he hopes he's remembered by the kind of player he was even more than the achievements.
"What I want people to remember, really, is the determination," Sanders said. "Not only that, but any of the people of the younger generation that's coming up, [I'd] just sit back and say that they can measure your hands, they can measure your feet, they can measure your arms, they can measure whatever — but they can't measure your heart. And that was the difference between me and a lot of other players. That I knew what I was willing to do and what I was willing to put on the line and go out there and make plays for my team to go on and win. They could never measure my heart.
"I hope that when people go back and watch the film that they see a guy that's 170-pound, 5-11 receiver out there going against these big guys — but his heart is as big as ever, his will was as big as ever, and he was always ready to make the play and do whatever it took to win the game because he loved the game of football, and he loved to put on in arenas."
In looking back at how far he's come — how he went from an 8-year-old in rural Texas dreaming of an NFL career to a Super Bowl champion — Sanders can't help but marvel at his journey.
"I grew up in the small town of Bellville, Texas," Sanders said. "To make it this far, this journey, it's just incredible to see how far I've come. Sometimes — it's weird for me to say it — but I'm proud of myself. I feel like a lot of people should tell themselves how proud they are of themselves, because we've all come a long ways in life. And when I look back on my career, I can honestly say I gave it my all."
Relive Emmanuel Sanders' Broncos career with 100 of our favorite images from his more than five seasons in Denver.