On Saturday afternoon here in Memphis, Jackson State University squared off against Tennessee State University, in this year’s iteration of the Southern Heritage Classic, a matchup of HBCUs that has been held annually in Memphis since 1990. Jackson State won the game going away, 38-16, thanks in large part to 362 passing yards (and 3 TDs) from QB Shedeur Sanders.
Sanders was a highly-touted recruit coming out of high school, a top-15 ranked pocket passer who won three Texas state titles, and received scholarship offers from everyone from pretty much every big school in the South, from Alabama to UGA to Florida State.
Yet, Shedeur eventually ended up at Jackson State, a school with about 7,000 total students, the size of the student section at some of those other colleges. And he’s leading JSU through a season where they’re garnering more national attention than they’ve ever received before.
And for that, we can thank Deion Sanders. Excuse me, let’s make that Coach Prime.
Now, Deion Sanders is my favorite athlete of all-time. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise — I grew up in Atlanta, after all, and for a significant portion of my youth, Deion was the most exciting player on the Atlanta Braves and the Atlanta Falcons, at the same time. I had Deion posters on my wall, and jerseys from all of his teams. When the Falcons eventually let Deion go and he returned to Atlanta as a member of the 49ers, I went to the game, and was there when Deion got into a slap fight with Andre Rison then eventually picked off a pass, ran the length of the field for a touchdown, and pulled a muscle while dancing in the end zone.
I treasured Deion not just from an athletic standpoint, but from a social perspective as well, as Deion high-stepped into a rapidly changing South and basically forced many Atlantans to examine their positions on a lot of things. As Deion told me many years later, “I was a complex black man. 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.”
Deion could be a divisive personality, certainly, but that in many ways forced people to publicly take sides. I was (and remain) proudly and unapologetically a Deion stan. What he did was incredible — playing two professional sports at the same time, and doing it at a high level — and no amount of talking or dancing would ever dissuade me from my belief that Prime Time was one of the GOATs.
A few years later after he left Atlanta, I got to interview Deion Sanders. He was not long removed from his playing days, and was working as a pundit for “The NFL on CBS.” I spent a Sunday at the CBS Studios in Midtown Manhattan, following Deion around and asking him about his life and his career. Because I had studied him so obsessively, I was able to query him on some details that he said nobody had ever asked him about before. He always wore his football gloves unbuckled, for instance, so that the little velcro strap would flutter in the breeze. The NFL threatened to fine him, Deion said, unless he wore them closed. Ever the creative problem solver, Deion got the glove company to make him gloves that had two fasteners, one which he could close, plus an extra strap that would hang open. I still wear my glove hanging open to this day when I play golf, my own little tribute to Deion.
A few weeks after that interview, I was sitting at my desk one day when my work phone rang. I answered, and there on the other end of the line was Prime Time himself, calling to say hello and make sure I had everything I needed for the article I was writing. I’d given Deion my business card, but never in a million years expected him to actually proactively reach out to me. Before long we were calling each other regularly, and when Deion would come to New York City each weekend for his CBS duties, he would touch base. At the time, Deion was heavily involved with the ministry of Bishop TD Jakes, and each time I called him, he answered his cell phone with the words, “Praise the Lord.” Not, “Hello,” or, “Hey,” but always “Praise the Lord.” Eventually, after much negotiating with my fiance, I asked Deion to officiate our upcoming wedding. After brief consideration, he gracefully demurred, noting he wasn’t certified to officiate weddings in the state of Georgia.
Our friendship eventually petered out, although I suspect Deion still has the same cell phone number, since it ended with his longtime jersey number 21. While we stopped communicating, I never stopped rooting for Deion, as he returned to pro football with the Ravens, then pivoted back to being a media personality, then started a sports-centric charter school in Texas. These ventures have been met with varying levels of success, but the common theme whenever Deion is involved with anything is that you get the full Deion experience. The personality, the panache, the style — all that stuff is genuine; that’s who Deion has always been. When Deion was leaving Florida State, he showed up for the NFL combine wearing his finest suit. He told me one of the people working at the combine pulled him aside and said, “Sorry sir, no agents are allowed.”
This has been a bit of a stumbling block at some points in his career, as some managers or coaches felt like Deion valued himself over his teams. And maybe he did. But he also helped two teams get Super Bowl rings and made the NFL Hall of Fame. I think the Falcons probably could have used him for longer than four years.
Almost one year ago, Deion announced that God had called him to become a college football coach, and he was going to become the head man at Jackson State, which hadn’t had a winning season since 2013. They had some growing pains out of the gate last season, but this year, with a full complement of transfers and recruits, are off to a strong 2-0 start.
To me, what Deion is doing is remarkable. It still hasn’t been a full year, but he’s already raised the national profile of Jackson State, and he’s building a program where players who want a chance to get to the next level can get that chance with the mentoring of one of the greatest to ever do it. If you want to learn what it takes to make it in the NFL, would you rather learn from Deion Sanders or, say, Shane Beamer or Josh Heupel?
And unless you’re a fan of a school playing against Jackson State, how can you root against what Deion is doing? Do you not want to see young people have the best chance possible to make their dreams come true?
I have no idea if Deion will make a long-term career out of being a football coach, or if this is just some diversion. His track record doesn’t really seem to suggest an ability to focus on any project for too long — see his rap career, for instance — but even if Deion only lasts a few years at Jackson State, that may be enough. Even though he’s only been there twelve months, Deion Sanders is already pushing Jackson State and the SWAC into the Prime Time.