Beneath the flash, Deion Sanders is more thoughtful than most NFL stars
Posted: Monday September 6, 2004 11:44AM; Updated: Monday September 6, 2004 11:46AM
After three years away from the NFL, Deion Sanders signed a one-year contract to play for the Ravens.
The first time I was ever published by Sports Illustrated wasn't three months ago, when I started writing this column. Rather, it was in the October 16, 1995, issue, with Junior Griffey on the cover, when I was 22 years old. The NFL was celebrating its 75th season, and SI chose their own anniversary team. If I remember correctly, Deion Sanders wasn't even named an honorable mention to the SI team.
I got so fired up about this omission that I fired off a letter that began: "Forget the flash and dance, Deion Sanders can flat-out play." Sure enough, SI ran it. (I've been waiting on a check for that for nine years, by the way.)
Deion Sanders is my all-time favorite athlete. Growing up in Atlanta, Deion exploded into the ATL and immediately became the most exciting thing in town. Something about the way he talked, his lethal speed, his individuality -- it was all just so different than anything I'd seen before. I understood that his personality could be grating, but I've always preferred to follow a guy with too much personality than not enough. I had the posters, the T-shirts, the jerseys, everything. My e-mail password is still a combination of his name and uniform numbers.
So in the fall of 2001, when the men's magazine KING -- which is kind of like Maxim except it doesn't feature only white people -- asked me to profile Sanders, I cut short a vacation and hustled back to NYC. Deion was working for CBS, and I spent a morning following him around the set of The NFL Today.
After the show, we retired to the green room, where Deion's friend Eric B. (yep, from the seminal rap group Eric B. and Rakim) sat stone-faced, working his two-way pager. I interviewed Deion for a few hours, and got to ask him all the things I'd always wondered about.
For instance, about his unique style:
"I even had a game plan back in middle school. I would always let everybody wear their old clothes the first week of school, because I knew they didn't have but a week's worth of new clothes, or maybe four days. And I'd come out with my old stuff that first week. And then, when they were down, that second week, Boom! That's when I came out and came at 'em hard! Took 'em down."
About being afraid to tackle:
"I didn't miss many tackles at all. But my game was so strong that they had to find something wrong, so they had to say, 'He can't tackle.' You won't find nobody running over me on film, running through me, never."
About becoming a Christian as a way to stay in the spotlight:
"No, no, no. Religion has nothing to do with staying in the limelight. The church is not a stage. If I wanted to have a stage I could've run to BET or something else. Most people don't even watch the Christian network."
But I was most interested in asking him why the media never seemed to celebrate him like they did guys such as Steve Young or Jerry Rice. Just like Deion, those players redefined their positions. But they were revered. Every time I opened the sports page, someone was writing about how Deion needed to shut up or wear normal clothes. It seemed as if Deion had a target on his back.
"Why? Because I was a complex black man," he told me. "Being the first in years to come out and do it the way I did it. And not only that -- my game backed up my name. A lot of people who came out like I did didn't have the guts to back it up. But my game backed it up. So they [the media] said, 'Shoot, what can we say about this guy? We gotta attack his character. Because we can't attack his game. We can't sit him down and put a microphone in front of his face and not have him articulate his way out of it.' So I could verbally whup 'em and I could physically whup 'em. So they had to attack my character. But they didn't say anything about the other dudes when they came in cowboy boots and Wrangler jeans, when they came in their get-up. But when I came in my get-up, it was on."
A few days later, I was sitting at my desk when Deion called. I'd given him my card but never expected to hear from him again. He called to say thanks. I thanked him and figured that was that.
One month later, my wife dragged me out to go shopping in Manhattan early one Sunday morning. Around 1:00 p.m., I realized we were near the CBS studios, so we walked over and happened to catch Deion walking in from the outdoor set. I just wanted to say hey, but he grabbed me and wifey and pulled us through the security fence and led us into the green room, where Eric B. greeted me like an old friend. Deion invited us to stay for lunch, and moments later, a production assistant entered with several bags of fried chicken from Popeye's.
"Hey, where are the biscuits?" asked Eric B, clearly agitated. "I thought we ordered biscuits."
We were resigned to eating biscuit-free, until I looked on one of the monitors that was showing an in-house feed of the NFL Today desk and spotted JerryGlanville sitting alone, digging into a huge bag of biscuits. Seconds later, the biscuits were appropriated.
Since then, Deion and I have stayed in contact, speaking every few months. Last year he came by and hung out one afternoon at the SLAM offices. He remains the greatest athlete I've ever seen. He's the only person in history to hit a home run and score a touchdown in the same week. And he's the only person I know that answers his cell phone: "Praise the Lord."
Whether Prime Time makes the Pro Bowl or the Toilet Bowl this season, I don't even care. Prime Time is back, and my Ravens number 2 jersey has already been ordered.
When I heard he was making a comeback, I called his cell phone -- which ends with the numbers "2121" -- and left him a message, wishing him the best and telling him that no matter what happens, he'll always be my favorite player.
And, more importantly, one of my favorite people, too.
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Lang Whitaker is the online editor at SLAM magazine and writes daily at http://www.slamonline.com/index.html. He doesn't understand how USC can barely beat an unranked Virginia Tech and remain No. 1.