In 1989, the Detroit Lions held the third overall pick in the NFL Draft.After UCLA quarterback Troy Aikman went to the Cowboys and the Packers took the monstrous offensive lineman Tony Mandarich, the Lions were left with a dilemma.
Nearly everyone in the front office wanted to take a flashy cornerback named Deion Sanders, who had also broken all of Florida State’s punt return records and already been drafted by the New York Yankees to play baseball.
But Sanders didn’t want to play in Detroit. A terrible team in a cold weather city? No, thanks. Had the Lions pulled the trigger, he famously said he “would’ve asked for so much money they would’ve had to put me on layaway.”
The Lions young coach Wayne Fontes convinced his bosses to take another Sanders – Barry, the running back – which worked out pretty well for them.
It worked out pretty well for Deion, too. He fell to the Falcons at No. 5* and Sanders got exactly what he wanted. Not a better team or better fans or even a better stadium – he got a better opportunity to sell the brand that is Deion Sanders.
In the era of “Just Do It” and 24-hour television, pro athletes aren’t just guys who play games for a living – they’re entertainers. Deion Sanders anticipated – and even introduced – the era of the celebrity-entertainer-athlete. The player for whom sports are not just a job, but merely the vehicle to more fame and bigger and better opportunities.
Athletes had done endorsements before. Michael Jordan was well on his way to making shoes his primary source of income by that point. Others had written books or sang songs or appeared in movies. (Babe Ruth played himself in Pride of the Yankees, after all.)
For those pros, however, those were merely side pursuits. For Sanders, being “Neon Deion” was his career.
The Falcons were not a better franchise than the Lions. (They were terrible, actually, and only made the playoffs once during his tenure there.) Atlanta was the better city, however. Warmer, yes, but also younger, hipper, richer, and growing bigger everyday.
The Yankees were terrible, too. (It was 1989, remember.) But they were still the Yankees and still in New York.
He played his two sports off each other, partly to get better contracts and partly to make keep himself in the spotlight year-round. He started with the Yankees in the summer, earning a couple of brief callups, and even hitting a home run in a meaningless September game on a Tuesday.
On Sunday, the first time he touched a ball in an NFL game, he scored a touchdown.
He wasn’t even the first to play two sports. Bo Jackson did that, but mostly because he could, not to show off (as Deion himself learned the hard way.)
Deion was clearly better at football, which is why baseball always took a backseat. He would spend his summers stealing bases, but every August (after training camps were over) it was time to go back to the real work. The one that made him famous.
Sanders eventually left the Yankees to join the Braves. More convenient, since they were also in Atlanta, but also more fortuitous, since they were a franchise on the rise. He joined their second World Series team, while doing double duty on the gridiron, famously dousing a doubting Tim McCarver in the lockeroom after they won the NLCS. Controversy never really hurt “Prime Time.”
He left the Falcons for San Francisco, disrespecting them on the way out. One-year. He won a Super Bowl and immediately moved to Dallas to win another one.
Was all the moving because he was troublemaker, a locker room cancer? Or did he just want to play for the best (or more popular) team? Did he love the rings or the attention that came with them?
Nike was alongside him, the whole time, of course. It didn’t really matter whether success followed him, or he followed it.
Passed his Prime Time, he bounced around some. Cincinnati. Baltimore. The Redskins overpaid for him, of course. A defensive back who didn’t like to hit people could somehow still put fans in the seats.
He found religion and now shares what he learned with college kids. He’s not a coach, teaching proper bump and run techniques. He’s an advisor, helping future pros find the right agent, sign the right contract, invest in the right future. He doesn’t teach them to play football, he teaches them to survive and exploit it.
Deion Sanders changed sports forever and not just because he revolutionised the position he played or found a way to play two major pro sports at the same time. He was a tremendously gifted athlete, but his real legacy wasn’t interceptions or awards or Super Bowl rings.
He recognised that being a pro athlete in the modern age was not just about being a pro athlete. It’s about Nike and Pepsi and having a good high step and hitching your wagon to right stars at the right time.
An athlete is an entertainer. An entertainer has to sell himself.
And you can’t sell yourself in Detroit.
*Both of the Sanders, Aikman and No. 4 pick Derrick Thomas are all in the Hall of Fame now.