Prime Time and Deion steal HOF show
CANTON, Ohio – He was always two different people. Those who know Deion Sanders understand that. There was the little boy in the corner of the kitchen looking up at his mother toiling over pots and pans, telling her that someday he would be rich. And there was Prime Time.
Saturday under the lights of a little football stadium, hard by the side of Interstate 77, we saw them both. We saw the man who had to thank every equipment manager who picked up a stray sock of his in a locker room. We saw the flash and we heard the voice rise and roll out over the hills until it undoubtedly woke the cows. And yet anyone who was left watching late on Saturday night had to understand one thing: the NFL will never see a better showman.
They gave him that gold jacket they give all the Hall of Famers here and he wore it over a white suit rather than let the greatest honor his sport can offer ruin the perfect look. He clutched the lectern, felt his voice crack and let the tears spill down his cheeks as he told the story of his mother, Connie Hicks, and how it shamed him so much that she was a hospital custodian. He’d lie to his rich friends about what she really did.
He said he never told her this before.
He said he never shared it with anyone.
And it hardly seemed to matter that he had in fact told this very same story in February when he was elected to the Hall of Fame. He said it with such conviction, with such humiliation and such self-loathing that it was as if he was laying bare his deepest lament. The truth probably rested somewhere in between the hurt in his eyes and the roar of his voice.
Now, though, the secret was out. And as the remaining crowd in a half-filled stadium and whatever was left of the television audience watched, he told of how he sat in his dormitory room at Florida State, a scared young man desperate to live up to a little boy’s promise, and invented the persona that would forever define him.
“I pre-rehearsed the saying because I knew I had the substance,” he shouted into the microphone Saturday, high on his confession. “I knew I had the goods, I knew I had the work ethic, but I needed to secure myself enough that my mama would never have to work another day of her life.”
Then he said the line that would sum up the essence of everything he became …
“If your dream ain’t bigger than you, there is a problem with your dream.”
It was easy over the years to tire of Prime Time. He burst at you with so much shouting, dancing and crazy rhetoric that people would forget he was also the best athlete of his generation. Good enough to play an NFL game and a baseball playoff game on the same day, good enough to cover half a side of the field as a defensive back and good enough to change the way punts were returned. Without Prime Time he was still here on Saturday night, but the words wouldn’t have mattered. The speech would not have been the same.
It was Prime Time that made him great.
“It was readily obvious that there were two Deions,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said earlier on Saturday. Jones said he remembered the day he signed Sanders and how before they met reporters to make the announcement, Sanders was playing with his son in a moment so intimate it remained with Jones 16 years later. Then they went outside and Prime Time burst to life.
“I’m an Ali fan,” Jones said, smiling.
And Sanders has become a modern day Ali.
Saturday was a night for great speeches. If not for Sanders, the evening would have belonged to Shannon Sharpe who wept and told of his granny, Mary Porter. He told how she raised nine kids and three grandchildren “and sacrificed more for her grandkids than she did her own.” He told how he burned to get out of the 1,000-foot square brick house with a concrete floor in Glennville, Ga., and find a life as far away from that little town as he could. And when he and his brother Sterling got to the NFL and came into good money, he told his granny he wanted to buy her a house. The only thing she asked for was a place where when she went to bed on a rainy night she wanted to wake up dry.
“I neglected my kids,” he said. “I missed recitals, I missed football practice, I missed graduations because I was so obsessed with being the best player I could possibly be that I neglected a lot of people. I ruined a lot of relationships. But I’m not here to apologize for that because it got me here and it got them to a life they never would have enjoyed had it not been for that.”
The speech was stirring and it was real.
But he had the misfortune of sharing the night with the greatest show the NFL has ever known.
When asked earlier in the night, Jones said he thought Sanders would be “humble” in his speech. He said Deion was moved by Emmitt Smith’s tearful address from last year.
And yet in humility Sanders was still very much a show. He thanked 112 people, including an aunt who got him a car phone while at Florida State, before getting to the substance of his speech, before introducing Nelly, Snoop Dog and Ice Cube. Then he said something that stopped everybody and merged the two sides in perfect symmetry.
“Many of my naysayers said, ‘You know Prime didn’t tackle,’” Sanders said. “Since 1989 I’ve tackled every bill my mama has ever given me, haven’t missed one.
“The next time they say Prime didn’t tackle, make sure you let them know, yes he did!”
And after tying a do-rag to the skull of his Hall of Fame bust, he was gone, leaving everyone unsure how much they saw was that little boy in the kitchen and how much was Prime Time.
Not that it mattered.
He’s still the best act the NFL ever had.
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