His nickname, “Prime Time," alone suggests style over substance. But those who witnessed the early NFL years of Deion Sanders insist the flashy cornerback had at least as much substance as style.
“He was Deion Sanders six days out of the week,’’ said Atlanta Falcons senior director of media relations Frank Kleha, who was with the team throughout the Sanders years. “He was Prime Time on the field on Sundays. He wasn’t a brash talker in locker room or anything close to it. He wasn’t just good teammate in the locker room. He was great teammate in the locker room.’’
Now, Sanders is headed for the ultimate locker room of greatness. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday and will be inducted to the shrine in Canton, Ohio this summer. He’ll be remembered as a flamboyant guy who did great things with the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers, had stops with the Washington Redskins and Baltimore Ravens and also played Major League Baseball. (Here's a photo gallery chronicling Sanders' NFL career.)
But Sanders’ time with the Falcons was hugely significant for the player and the franchise and should not be forgotten. Although the Falcons have had some other Hall of Famer players pass through for a year or two, the franchise was without a true Hall of Famer -- until now.
Sanders becomes the first player drafted by the Falcons to be elected to the Hall of Fame. As the fifth overall pick in the 1989 draft, Sanders didn’t arrive quietly. He was playing for the New York Yankees as he waited for a contract to get done with the Falcons. Just a matter of days before the deal was agreed to, Sanders hit a home run for the Yankees. He arrived in Atlanta on a Wednesday and that Sunday made his NFL debut.
In a game at the old Fulton County Stadium against the Los Angeles Rams, Sanders attempted to field a punt, dropped it and then scooped up the ball and took off down the right sideline for a touchdown. That was just the start of spectacular things to come.
There was the 1990 game against the Houston Oilers in which Atlanta coach Jerry Glanville was going against his former team in a high-profile game. Sanders picked off Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon and returned it for a touchdown. As best as anyone can recall, that’s the play where Sanders began his tradition of high-stepping into the end zone.
And there was the final game ever at Fulton County Stadium in 1991, when Tim McKyer intercepted a Dave Krieg pass and lateraled the ball to Sanders, who cut his way through virtually the entire Seattle offense on his way to a touchdown.
Sanders spent five seasons with Atlanta, the same amount of time he spent in Dallas, where he drew even more attention. But Sanders’ Atlanta days were a memorable ride. He came along at a time when the franchise was down and didn’t have any stars.
Sanders gave them instant star power. Almost exclusively due to Sanders’ presence, the Falcons started getting some nationally-televised games. Wait, make that “Prime Time’’ games.