How Good Was Deion Sanders?

Few players encapsulate every stereotype of their position like Deion Sanders. He combined style and substance in a way no other cornerback ever has. His personality was divisive, but he had the respect of the entire NFL throughout his career. Sanders has a strong case for being the best corner in football history.

Deion Sanders could’ve been a star in multiple sports

The question was never, “Will Deion Sanders be good at sports?” It was, “In which sport will Sanders decide to use his outrageous talents?” Sanders played football, baseball, and basketball in high school. Then, he continued to play multiple sports at Florida State University. 

As a freshman, he started in the Seminoles’ secondary, played outfielder for the baseball team, and led the track and field team to a conference championship. His athletic ability was legendary. According to ESPN, Sanders once played the first game of a baseball doubleheader, ran a leg of a 4×100 relay, and then returned to play another baseball game. 

For understandable reasons, Sanders’ baseball career often gets overlooked. But he was a solid player, especially when you consider that it was never his full-time job. Sanders had to negotiate with his NFL team so he could play baseball instead of attending training camp.

During the 1989 season, he became the only pro athlete to ever hit a home run and score a touchdown in the NFL in the same week. Sanders played nine years in the major leagues for four teams, but his best year was in 1992 with the Atlanta Braves. Sanders hit .304 for the team, stole 26 bases, and led the National League with 14 triples in 97 games.

The Braves came up short in the World Series that year, and Sanders played well in a losing effort. He batted .533 with four runs, eight hits, two doubles, and one RBI — with a broken bone in his foot. Eventually, Sanders hit the limits of his double act; he had to devote himself to one sport,

Sanders breaks the mold of NFL cornerbacks

Outfielder Deion Sanders of the San Francisco Giants looks on during a game
Deion Sanders with the San Francisco Giants| Jed Jacobsohn/Allsport

Always ready with a catchy quote, Sanders once said of his two professions, according to ABC 7 NY, “Football is my wife and baseball is my mistress.”

The Atlanta Falcons picked him fifth overall in the 1988 draft. His gift for the spectacular was apparent from his first NFL game, when he returned a punt 68 yards for a touchdown. Sanders was a great special teams player. He led the league in kickoff return yards (1,067), yards per return (26.7), and return touchdowns (2) in 1992. Then, he became too valuable to be used on punt and kick returns. 

Not that this ever stopped him from getting his hands on the ball. Sanders caught 53 career interceptions, had one fumble return for a touchdown, and even spent some time as a wide receiver, nabbing 60 receptions for three touchdowns over the course of his career. 

Sanders’ best season was with the Super Bowl-winning San Francisco 49ers in 1994. He had six interceptions for a then-NFL record of 303 yards and three touchdowns. Two of his interceptions were returned for a gain of over 90 yards, the first time any player did this in NFL history. Sanders later received the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year award. 

“Prime Time” affected football both on and off the field

But Sanders’ impact on the game transcended numbers and awards. He was a one-of-a-kind showman. He was a rare defensive player who could draw crowds of fans, and he did so without being the sort of physical big-hitter who old-school fans loved.

Indeed, Sanders played entire games without his jersey getting dirty because, during his peak years, opposing quarterbacks would sometimes avoid his side of the field unless they had no other option.

Sanders’ confidence bordered on arrogance at times. This annoyed some fans, coaches, and other legendary players over time. But Sanders’ only crime was being just like everyone who watched him; he knew what he brought to the table was special and that fans couldn’t keep their eyes off him.

As the Pro Football Hall of Fame reports, Sanders once said, “They don’t pay nobody to be humble. Some people will come out to see me do well. Some people will come out to see me get run over. But love me or hate me, they’re going to come out.”

Sports are a form of entertainment, and all forms of entertainment need a showman. You don’t earn the nickname “Prime Time” as a teenager without having an innate gift for attracting the right sort of attention.

In rare cases, Sanders’ need for stardom led him to make bad decisions, such as recording a rap album. But football would be a lot more boring without personalities like his. Sanders was a supreme mix of talent and charisma. He’s one of the best to ever put on a helmet.

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