DALLAS – Deion Sanders proved as elusive going into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as he was during his 15-year career as one of the greatest mercenaries in sports history.
Clad in black sweatpants and a black sweatshirt emblazoned with the word “TRUTH” in red, capital letters across his chest, Sanders entered and exited the ballroom in the Sheraton Hotel & Convention Center in a jog on Saturday night, never stopping to take questions. Sanders had good reason, having left a youth game he was coaching against rapper Snoop Dogg, then returning to it as quickly as possible.
In between, Sanders dropped a little wisdom about passion and drive.
Few men in NFL history have done so much, so fast and so confidently as Sanders. On Saturday, he reached the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, saying he was never the least bit nervous about his chances.
Sanders was one of seven men selected for the class, joining running back Marshall Faulk, tight end Shannon Sharpe, defensive end Richard Dent, linebackers Chris Hanburger and Les Richter, and NFL Films creator Ed Sabol.
While all of them possessed special qualities, perhaps no one has had the combination of athletic ability and showmanship as Sanders, particularly when you consider his longevity. Other players, such as New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath, had Sanders' blend of star power and talent, but no one did it for as long and with so much success.
Sanders wasn’t just fast, he had world class speed. He wasn’t just a talented athlete, he was so good that he played pro football and pro baseball.
On the same day.
Sanders didn’t just have flare, he was a one-man fireworks show. P.T. Barnum had nothing on Sanders.
But above all things, Sanders had a powerful drive.
“Deion didn’t just want to make the NFL, he wanted to make a mark on it,” said Eugene Parker, Sanders’ long-time agent and friend. “Deion was looking for the biggest stage, the place to make the biggest impact.”
Even if that meant that Sanders, who scored 22 touchdowns in his career and is one of two players to score six different ways, was willing to look disloyal in the process. In 1994, Sanders left the Atlanta Falcons as a free agent, essentially forcing his way out of town and heading to play for then-division-rival San Francisco. Sanders led the 49ers to a Super Bowl title in his one season there.
In 1995, he went the free-agent route again and played for Dallas, leading the Cowboys to their third title in four years after owner Jerry Jones made Sanders the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL. After five years in Dallas, Sanders played one year in Washington, retired for three years because of a persistent toe injury and came back for two years with Baltimore as a backup.
While Sanders still lives in the Dallas area and is most often associated with the Cowboys, the reality is that he played for one thing.
And he played extremely hard and extremely well for it.
Don’t be confused by the push for cash. Sanders wasn’t necessarily driven for his own gain. Rather, it was the burning image of his mother, Connie Hicks, working as a hospital janitor when he was growing up in Fort Myers, Fla.
“I saw a young woman pushing a cart in a hospital that I was embarrassed by,” Sanders said when he finally stopped for a minute to be introduced on stage. “Truly embarrassed that my mother wasn’t a nurse or a doctor and I used to lie to my friends until they saw her in the hospital and knew that she was a custodian in the hospital.
“I remember at the age of 7. ‘Momma, one day I’m going to be rich and you’re not going to have to worry about money one day.‘ That was my promise to my mother. So whenever the naysayers or the doubters would say anything, I would look right past them. When they told me what I couldn’t do, I looked past them. I don’t care what you say because I will make it and she will retire, and she has not worked since 1989.”
That was the year that Sanders was the No. 5 overall pick by the Falcons, where he first started to develop his entertainer persona. Sanders became known as “Prime Time,” a nickname that has since been shortened to “Prime.” Sanders danced and strutted, even among the greatest athletes of the game. He high-stepped down sidelines and even in heavy traffic. He turned touchdown dances into high art and even developed a strong relationship with rappers like MC Hammer.
“Deion knew that this was about more than football,” Parker said. “But he knew it had to start with the football.”
That’s why Sanders wanted to play for a winner, first with the 49ers and then with the Cowboys. In addition, unlike so many extremely gifted athletes who flame out when they lose their speed, Sanders labored. He studied film passionately. He worked out constantly, not content on once being great.
There was even gamesmanship to the hard work as he often trained by himself to fuel the myth that he was a product of just natural talent.
“He didn’t want people to know how hard he worked at it,” Dallas owner Jerry Jones said. “He wanted to maintain the illusion.”
On Saturday, Sanders kept the illusion going a little longer. He claimed on stage that he was never concerned about whether he would make it into the Hall. He said he thought about it only when friends and media members brought it up.
“I never put a lot of emphasis on what someone else thought of me," Sanders said.
“No, I don’t want to sound like I’m not grateful, and this is a lesson to young people. How other people feel about you has nothing to do with how I feel about me. I can’t let how others view me influence how I view myself. … Yeah, it sounds arrogant, it sounds brash, it sounds cocky, but it’s real.”
And just like that, Sanders was out the door and on his way.