Charlie Sanders, a tight end for the Detroit Lionsfrom 1968 to 1977 whose sticky fingers, fleet feet and shifty elusiveness helped redefine a position that had traditionally been reserved for stolid blockers, died on Thursday in Royal Oak, Mich., near Detroit. He was 68.
The cause was cancer, the Lions said on their website.
Big — he was 6 feet 4 inches and played at 225 pounds and above — fast, strong and sure-handed, he was a potent force in the conventional role of run blocker, but he was as much or more of a pass-catching threat, an unusual enough set of skills at the time that he was sometimes referred to as the Lions’ secret weapon.
A prototype of the 21st-century tight end, a progenitor of the likes of Kellen Winslow and Tony Gonzalez, he led the Lions (or tied for the team lead) in receptions six times, and caught more passes, 336, than any other Lion in history until the record was surpassed in 1996 by Herman Moore, a player Sanders coached.
He scored 31 touchdowns, and for his career, he averaged 14.3 yards per catch, a figure more typical of wide receivers than tight ends. He was selected for the Pro Bowl seven times, and for three consecutive seasons, 1969 through 1971, he was named a first-team All-Pro by The Associated Press.
Inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2007, he was also one of two tight ends (Dave Casper of the Oakland Raiders was the other) to be named by the Hall of Fame selection committee to the National Football League’s all-decade team for the 1970s.
Charles Alvin Sanders was born on Aug. 25, 1946, in Richlands, N.C. His mother died when he was 2, and for much of his early life, his father was in the Army, so he was reared by an aunt in Greensboro, N.C., where he played basketball and football in high school. At the University of Minnesota, he played defense until his senior year, when he made the transition to tight end and led the team in receptions. The Lions drafted him in the third round, and he became an immediate star, making the Pro Bowl his rookie year.
In 1976, Sanders hurt a knee making a catch during an exhibition game, and though the pain was considerable, he continued to play. The injury’s severity went undetected until November 1977, when an arthroscopic examination revealed bone damage that further play threatened to render permanent, forcing his premature retirement at 31.
Sanders was a popular figure in Detroit who remained with the Lions in different capacities — as a receivers coach, a scout, a personnel evaluator and a broadcaster — for decades after his playing career was over.
He worked in the team’s community relations department and was a spokesman for several charities. His own foundation, started in 2007, provided scholarships for local students and funds for heart examinations for student-athletes. His survivors include 10 children.
At his Hall of Fame induction, he devoted his speech to thanking a long list of family members, coaches, teammates and advisers, but he concluded on a touching and surprising note.
“You see, my brothers and I lost my mother when I was only 2,” he said. “Of all the things I’ve done in football, and there have been a lot, there’s one thing that I really, really regretted. Many times I’ve seen athletes — college, professional — often look into a television and say, ‘Hi, Mom.’ I always thought that was special and always something I’d want to do but couldn’t. So I take this time right here, right now in Canton, Ohio, at the Pro Football Hall of Fame to say: ‘Hi, Mom. Thank you for the ultimate sacrifice. This day belongs to you.’ ”