Where Sanders goes, teams win
By Ron Flatter
Special to ESPN.com
He wore black and white as an Atlanta Falcon, and the colors fit well. With Deion Sanders, there are no shades of gray.
When he struts into the end zone on a long return for a touchdown, he inspires just as many cheers on Sunday as he does critics on Monday. There's no in-between.
"Some people will come out to see me do well," he said. "Some people will come out to see me get run over. But love me or hate me, they're going to come out."
He is the only man to have played in a Super Bowl and a World Series. While nowhere near as proficient in baseball as he was in football, Sanders was an outstanding base stealer who was a mediocre hitter.
In the NFL, in 1996 with the Dallas Cowboys he became the first regular starter on offense and defense in 34 years. But make no mistake. With six Pro Bowl selections as a cornerback, defense is where Sanders earns his big bucks. After he picked off 30 passes in his first six seasons, quarterbacks stopped throwing his way. It is often said Sanders dominates half the field with his mere presence.
Between his talent and presence, Sanders earned back-to-back Super Bowl rings with the San Francisco 49ers and Cowboys.
Off the field, his value comes in being "Prime Time." He is a prominent pitchman for Nike and Visa, cashing in on a flamboyant, jewelry-laden persona that is not limited to the playing field. His senior year at Florida State, Sanders arrived for the climactic home game against Florida in a white limousine. He emerged wearing a tuxedo.
"How do you think defensive backs get attention?" Sanders said. "They don't pay nobody to be humble."
He was born Aug. 9, 1967, in Fort Myers, Fla. By the time he was eight, he was playing organized baseball and football.
At North Fort Myers High School, Sanders played cornerback and quarterback. He was all-state in football, baseball and basketball. After scoring 30 points in a basketball game, a friend nicknamed him "Prime Time."
At Florida State in 1987, Sanders, a sophomore outfielder, helped the Seminoles reach the College World Series. But he became nationally known as a two-time football All-American, winning the 1988 Jim Thorpe Trophy as the nation's top defensive back.
When the Falcons made him the fifth overall selection in the 1989 NFL draft, Sanders showed up wearing thousands of dollars worth of gold jewelry and an attention-getting black leather ensemble complete with an embroidered "Prime Time."
He spent the summer of '89 in the outfield of the New York Yankees' Triple-A Columbus team. After joining the Yankees, he homered against Seattle on September 5. Three days after signing a $4.4-million, four-year contract with the Falcons, Sanders ran back the first punt he received for a touchdown against the Los Angeles Rams on September 10. That makes him the only pro athlete to hit a homer and score a touchdown in one week.
Where Sanders was flashy playing football, he was low key in baseball. "You can't jump around and get excited and go crazy in baseball," he said. "Nobody ever masters that game."
Two seasons with the Yankees proved that. After batting only .177 in 71 games, he was released near the end of the 1990 season. By then, he had become a full-time Falcon, starting all 16 games that year.
In 1991, Sanders batted .191 in 54 games as a centerfielder for the Atlanta Braves. Where baseball was a struggle, Sanders seemed to have football mastered. He earned his first Pro Bowl invitation in 1991, intercepting six passes to help the Falcons reach the playoffs as a wild card.
But the sport he once called his "girlfriend" sought more of a commitment. "The only way I have a chance to be successful in baseball is to give it a shot for a full season," he said just before 1992.
That year, Sanders seemed torn. He hit a career-high .304 with a National League-leading 14 triples. He had the Falcons waiting for him until the fourth game of the year. They were paying him $750,000 a season, but they fined him $68,000 for going AWOL to the Braves, who were paying him $600,000. On October 11, Sanders played for the Falcons at Miami, then took a charter flight to Pittsburgh for the Braves' playoff game that night, hoping to become the first athlete to play in two pro sports the same day. But Braves manager Bobby Cox didn't play him. Broadcaster Tim McCarver criticized Sanders, and after the game Neon Deion's response was to dump ice water on McCarver.
After going hitless in five at-bats in the Pirates series, Sanders batted .533 (8-for-15) against Toronto in the World Series. Something had to give, and after 1992, Sanders would not make baseball his No. 1 priority again.
Despite being a part-timer, Sanders still led NFC Pro Bowl vote-getters among cornerbacks and kick returners in 1992. He also led the league with a 26.7-yard average on kickoff returns.
Sanders was batting .276 in 1993 when he went on the disabled list with a respiratory infection, ending his season in August. He arrived late with the Falcons, but that did not prevent him from leading the NFC with seven interceptions in 11 games.
During the 1994 season, Sanders was traded to Cincinnati. He was hitting .283 with 38 steals when the players' strike ended the season in August.
If nothing else, the strike hastened Sanders' free-agent auction in the NFL. He signed a one-year deal with San Francisco, where he tied the 49ers' single-season record with three interception returns for touchdowns and became the NFL Defensive Player of the Year. His four tackles and interception helped the 49ers beat San Diego, 49-26, in Super Bowl XXIX.
In July 1995, Sanders was traded to the San Francisco Giants and hit .268 for the season. A free agent in football again, he signed a $35-million, seven-year deal with the Cowboys.
One month after arthroscopic ankle surgery, Sanders made his Dallas debut October 29. He wasn't used much as a return man, teams seldom threw the ball anywhere near him, and he was still finding his way as an offensive player with only two regular-season catches. But his presence at cornerback helped Dallas win the Super Bowl that season.
Sanders didn't play baseball in 1996. With Dallas, he started at cornerback and wide receiver to become a full-time, two-way NFL player -- the first since Chuck Bednarik from 1949-62. He caught 36 passes for 475 yards and a touchdown on offense and simply minded his half of the field while teams avoided him on defense. The Cowboys determined he was on the field for 50 percent of their offensive plays and 80 percent on defense.
Saying he "got bored," Sanders returned to baseball in 1997 with the Reds. Sanders was going through a messy divorce that year, and he admitted later that he attempted suicide twice.
The first two weeks of football season, Sanders played baseball, then showed up just in time to play for the Cowboys on Sunday. Although he left the Reds for good after the second week of the NFL season, his 56 steals still ranked second in the National League.
Sanders appears to be out of baseball for good. For his career, he batted .266 with 38 homers, 164 RBI and 183 steals.
In 1998, Sanders returned an interception for a touchdown for the eighth time in his career, putting him one behind the record-holder, Ken Houston. He also ran back two punts for scores.
While Sanders' swagger has not changed over the years, he has professed Christian beliefs since 1997, often raising his arms to the heavens after touchdowns.