They Drove through the predawn darkness together, leaving their home about 5:15 a.m. and arriving at their destination 15 minutes later. There Joyce Wright would drop her son off, sweetly telling young Deon Grant to be good as he hopped out of the car and began making his way to an entrance of the Augusta National Golf Club, where he worked occasionally as a busboy when he was a teenager. Once inside the club, Deon saw how the wealthy lived, how they drank fine wine, ate exquisite meals and spent Ben Franklins faster than he could blink. These images stuck with Deon. "Everybody at that club is all about money," says Grant, a native of Augusta, Ga. "I saw how the major players lived. Man, that was a way of life I wanted."
It looks as if he'll be getting his shot at riches soon. Grant, Tennessee's junior free safety, is tied for first in the country in interceptions (six) and is touted by the Volunteers' coaching staff as Tennessee's most gifted athlete. The 6'3", 205-pound Grant is that rare player who's fast and agile enough to cover wide receivers man-to-man (he runs a 4.48 for the 40) and sturdy enough to deliver bone-rattling hits (on his first collegiate play, he pasted UCLA running back Skip Hicks so hard that Hicks fumbled).
All this has NFL scouts drooling over him. Already, his teammates compare him with another Deion, the one who plays on Sundays. The comparison is fitting: Both Grant and Deion Sanders play defensive back, return punts, spend time at wide receiver and wear enough jewelry to sink a small ship.
"Deon is such a special player that we had to find a way to get him on the field as much as possible," says Tennessee defensive backs coach Larry Slade. "So this summer we started working him at wide receiver. One-on-one, he's really difficult to cover."
So far this season Grant's work at receiver has been limited primarily to practice—he has caught only one pass, for a four-yard loss, in a game—but that doesn't mean he hasn't made an impact catching the ball. Before the Vols met Auburn on Oct. 2, Grant told Tennessee quarterback Tee Martin that he would intercept three passes. "Fine, but you better return one for a touchdown," Martin replied. On the Tigers' first play from scrimmage, Grant did just that, picking off a Jeff Klein bullet and returning it 19 yards for six points. He also got his other two interceptions, tying a school single-game record. "I figure I'll intercept 12 passes this year and lead the country," Grant says. "I can see it clearly."
Perhaps. But what Grant's loose lips really reveal is that he's not scared of giving people reasons to dislike him—and there are plenty who do. Like an entire state full. Ten days before Tennessee's game against Florida, Grant boldly said, "I don't know what it is about Florida, I just don't like Florida. Florida is just not my style." Then again, the Gators probably don't like Grant much either considering that in 1998 his fourth-quarter interception helped Tennessee to a 20-17 overtime victory over Florida.
"I back up everything I say," Grant says. "I'm not arrogant, I'm confident. And I'm confident that someday I'll be able to buy my mom a very nice house."
Given the way he's playing, that's not hyperbole.