Deion Sanders worked to be the best

SAN ANTONIO -- We've all seen the prancing, preening and high-stepping. We saw the athleticism. And the swag. And, yes, we saw the do-rag, too.

But few saw how hard Deion Sanders worked at his craft.

Ultimately, that's why Deion will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday.

He'll tell you that he wasn't the best athlete Fort Myers, Fla., ever produced.

Not even close.

Many had more athleticism. Some ran faster; others jumped higher. The streets, however, seduced many of the kids in his neighborhood, robbing them of the opportunity to become professional athletes.

The lure of the streets never appealed to Sanders because, as a 7-year-old, he'd promised his mother, Connie Hicks, that one day he'd be rich and she'd never have to work another day on Lee Memorial Hospital's janitorial staff.

It's the reason Deion never took his blessings for granted, and why he worked so hard to maximize them.

Without the work ethic, the Atlanta Falcons wouldn't have selected him with the fifth pick of the 1989 draft, and he wouldn't have intercepted 54 passes, a total that would have been considerably higher if quarterbacks hadn't started ignoring his side of the field for seasons at a time.

And Deion certainly wouldn't have become one of the NFL's best playmakers -- he scored 23 touchdowns in six different ways -- or the 1996 defensive player of the year.

When his career ended, Deion was easily the best cornerback of his generation, and the best cover cornerback in NFL history.

Long before iPads and laptop computers became the norm, Deion used to take a personal DVD player -- a new technological advancement at the time -- on flights with him. Longtime video coordinator Robert Blackwell converted the Beta videotapes the club used to discs for Deion.

"We all had them, but his cost a lot more, about $1,000 back then, and his screen was about twice as big as ours," former Cowboys cornerback Kevin Smith said. "We watched movies on ours, but he was studying. The biggest problem is that the player wouldn't hold a charge. It only lasted about two hours, so a lot of time it would go dead before the flight landed."

Until then, Deion would sit in his seat, staring at the screen and rewinding the video every couple of seconds. Back and forth. Again and again. Ten times. Twenty times. Sometimes more.

He'd study the player's splits and footwork and hand movements until his quest to find a clue that unlocked the receiver's route ended. Then he'd move on to the next play and repeat the process.

Don't forget, Deion played man-to-man no matter what play the defensive coordinator called.

"He'd just sit there and watch the receiver's first two steps on every play for the entire flight," said former Cowboys safety Darren Woodson. "No one saw all of the time he put into preparing and studying to be great. It was like he was a boxer preparing for a fight. He knew everything about the dude across from him."

Sanders, though, didn't just study receivers. He studied offensive coordinators just as intently.

His reasoning: Players come and go, but coordinators stay in the NFL forever.

Coordinators tweak their schemes, but their concepts remain the same. So do their tendencies, which is why Deion kept notebooks on the types of route combinations coordinators liked in certain situations.

See, Sanders wasn't just the best athlete on the field; he was also among the smartest.

You can't bait quarterbacks -- occasionally, he'd miss a jam at the line of scrimmage on purpose -- without the supreme confidence that comes from knowing exactly what the quarterback will do.

It's the reason Deion studied video relentlessly.

And we haven't even talked about his practice habits. Deion always covered his team's best receiver.

In Atlanta, it was Andre Rison. In San Francisco, it was Jerry Rice. In Dallas, it was Michael Irvin.

"We couldn't even get any reps in practice because Deion would take them all," said former Cowboys cornerback Kevin Mathis, a coaching intern with Dallas this summer. "He practiced like it was a game. He treated football like a job. He had fun, but he took it seriously."

The best always want to compete against the best. They don't fear competition; they thrive on it.

Besides, if Rice or Irvin couldn't regularly beat Deion in practice, then his opponents on Sundays had no chance.

It made the games easy. And it made Deion among the best to ever play the game.

Jean-Jacques Taylor is a columnist for ESPNDallas.com.