In 1992, Deion Sanders was named first-team All-Pro for the first time in his career as a cornerback for the Atlanta Falcons. One of the games he missed that season was to play in the World Series for the Atlanta Braves. They lost to the Toronto Blue Jays in six games. Those who thought that Sanders playing football and postseason baseball at the same time was a self-centered sideshow had a point, except for the fact that he was the best position player in that World Series. He batted .533 with a 1.255 OPS and stole five bases.
What he set out to do was stake his claim as the best athlete on earth by going even further with the two-sport athlete life than Bo Jackson. For Jackson, football was a “hobby” that he didn’t participate in until the baseball season was complete. As Sanders was peaking as an NFL superstar, had his team won the World Series he would have been the MVP.
The fact that 31 years later Sanders is still one of the most recognizable figures in all of sports, when there is a generation who never saw the Pizza Hut commercials with him and Jerry Jones, is a testament to his force of personality and ingenuity. Sanders’ high-stepping touchdowns are not why he has been named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of the Year in 2023. He received the honor for the job he did as the head coach of Colorado Buffaloes football.
Sanders strolled into a program with one winning season since 2007, and did his best to remake it into his image in a single year. He brought with him 50 players through the transfer portal, and before October he was on the ESPN College Gameday set wearing an enormous white cowboy hat and handing The Rock a pair of Prime 21 sunglasses.
That would be the last of the highs for Colorado in 2023. They defeated Colorado State in overtime later that night and won only a single game the rest of the season. What he didn’t bring with him in the Louis baggage was beef, and the Buffs spent the next couple of months getting pancaked.
Kudos to Sanders for what he did in one season at what was arguably the worst FBS in America last year. He thrust a team with one victory into the national spotlight, with the same swagger and defiance he had as a player. Unfortunately for them, one of the greatest athletes ever can’t shut down half of a field and return punts for touchdowns anymore.
Which is why Sanders receiving this Sportsperson of the Year accolade in 2023 is like Al Pacino and Martin Scorsese winning Oscars for Scent of a Woman and The Departed, respectively. Their best work was not properly appreciated in its time.
Sanders was part of a new era of Black athletes that began with Michael Jordan. As a rookie, Jordan dipped his toe into waters of unapologetic swag with the gold chains and the custom Air Jordan sweatsuit during the 1985 NBA Slam Dunk Contest. He got — allegedly — frozen out of the All-Star game the next day because the veterans were unhappy with who they felt was a cocky youngster.
What came out of the state of Florida that decade, was speed, gold and a bunch of young Black men who were not afraid to say that they were the best. Sanders was not the first cut from this cloth, but he was certainly the best. He sprinted into that spotlight like it was an end zone. In the process he made himself a ton of money.
So much money that the NFL took the Dallas Cowboys to court in 1995 for inking him to a seven-year, $35 million that came with a $12,999,999 signing bonus. The league had the same distaste for Sanders’ irreverence to the norms of sport at the time just like the late Tim McCarver, and newspaper headlines that called him “Frequent Liar Miles.”
Sanders got his money, fame, championships and accolades for his athletic prowess and bombastic personality. The respect for being a transcendent sports figure, however, did not come as easily. Sanders reset the contract market in 1995 after years of building his “Prime Time” character who was unstoppable in two sports, and Cal Ripken Jr. was named Sportsperson of the Year for setting a record for consecutive games played.
Near the beginning of SI’s video that commemorates this honor for Sanders he spelled out exactly how he left an indelible mark on both sports and pop culture. With a diamond-encrusted whistle and crucifix around his neck at 56, he said, “I move the needle, I make things happen. I provoke an opinion.”
He is absolutely correct. Sanders has shifted tectonic plates for more than three decades with his moves on and off of the field. He played what was considered a nameless and faceless position as an NFL cornerback. By scoring touchdowns, dominating big-league pitching in his spare time and telling us about his greatness all the while adorning himself in gold, Sanders is a generational talent.
His second act is reminding people of the power of his presence, even though battling clots has resulted in him not even having the same number of body parts as when he used to “Deion Shuffle.”
However, this honor is coming way too late, and for less of a performance. There was a time when he was a truly groundbreaking figure. Sanders was as Black and as great as he wanted to be in a time when a lot of other people did not want to see that.
Then he was dangerous. Now, he’s a cool dad, which is always easier to embrace than a brash young person who is better than everybody and knows it.
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