- Calvin Watkins, ESPN Staff Writer
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When it comes to Deion Sanders, perceptions often overshadow reality. Looking beyond those perceptions, it's impossible not to see Sanders as one of the great cornerbacks in NFL history.
At some point Saturday evening, Sanders is expected to get elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It's an honor he will cherish, but it doesn't define him.
In fact, it's almost impossible to define Sanders' NFL career.
"Prime Time," the persona that first surfaced during his days at Florida State University, stuck with the flashy defender and return man throughout an unparalleled 14-season NFL career.
"It is what they wanted to see," Sanders said. "It's who he was when he stepped onto the field. It's an entertainer. He was flamboyant, outlandish, outrageous, could articulate his thoughts in a charismatic fashion."
But off the field, Deion Sanders is a completely different person.
"Deion is the dude who always cares about his teammates, his friends, his family, loved ones and especially kids," Sanders said.
Whether people better relate to "Prime Time" or to Deion Sanders won't change the fact he remains a main reason why NFL teams value cornerbacks differently in today's game.
"I'm not going to say, 'flamboyant corner,'" Sanders said. "I would say I was an original. So being an original, you're going to get criticized. They criticized the Mona Lisa, quite a bit."
Prime Time: The Player
Big paydays came early and often in the era of "Prime Time."
He was the first cornerback in NFL history to receive a seven-figure contract when the Falcons selected him fifth in the 1989 draft.
It's no coincidence that during his time in Atlanta, Sanders released the album "Prime Time," which included the single "Must Be The Money."
He received the highest signing bonus in Cowboys history in 1995, when Jerry Jones gave him a five-year deal worth $25 million, including a $13 million signing bonus. By comparison, quarterback Troy Aikman's bonus was $7 million.
When asked if he thought Sanders was one of the best free-agent signings he's had, Jones said, "I think Deion was. I'd be hard-pressed to see one that was more impactful than he was. ... I'd sure have to put him in the top two or three."
On the field, Sanders proved why he earned all that money.
He was an eight-time Pro Bowler and a nine-time first-team All-Pro. In 1994, he was The Associated Press' NFL defensive player of the year. He is tied for 23rd all-time with 53 interceptions. He's scored on punt returns (six), kickoff returns (three), interceptions (nine), a fumble recovery (one) and receptions (three) in his career. He was a member of the NFL's All-Decade team of the 1990s as a cornerback and punt returner.
Opposing offenses were afraid to throw toward Sanders' side of the field. He was probably the epitome of the modern-day "cover" corner or "shutdown" corner.
"I definitely had respect for him," Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon said. "I played against some of the best corners that played the game, whether it was Mike Haynes or Lester Hayes, Rod Woodson or whoever it might have been. But you have respect for those guys and you know what they do well, but you don't want to make a living throwing it out there either."
And when Sanders got his hands on the ball, whether it was on an interception or a punt return, he was a threat to score.
"He had no bad habits," former Atlanta Falcons coach Jerry Glanville said. "Everything we asked him to do, he could do."
But there were perceptions that Sanders didn't want to tackle, or made "business decisions" to avoid physical contact.
Glanville said he would occasionally send Sanders on a corner blitz but felt it unnecessary because Sanders took wide receivers out of the passing game.
"A reporter asked me to describe [my] game ... first and foremost they pay me to cover, they don't pay me to tackle," Sanders said. "And from that point on, it went everywhere. Anyone who has ever criticized my game has never seen film on me turning it down or running away from it."
"Prime Time" also never ran away from the spotlight. In a league that would rather have its players contain their emotions, Sanders' feelings were there for everybody to see.
In one instance, while returning an interception against the Cowboys, Sanders cut across the field and put the ball behind his head as he was being chased. He said it just happened with the flow of the game as he was trying to fit through defenders.
Another move was his high-stepping, which Sanders started while growing up in Fort Myers, Fla. In the pros, it became one of his signatures, especially when he got near the end zone.
"Deion did what Darrell Green did, but he did it with a certain flair known as 'Prime Time,'" former Cowboys teammate Michael Irvin said. "He was a phenomenal corner. I don't think Deion gets enough credit for the physical style of his play at corner with wide receivers because people like to joke about his business decisions when it came to tackling. But Deion was strong and physical when it came to covering wide receivers."
Observers might say Sanders was just making things up as he went along. That his natural ability was all he needed. But those who know Sanders will tell you that was far from reality. He was a student of the game, sometimes watching game film just before kickoff to get ready. Sanders studied quarterback, wide receiver and offensive coordinator tendencies.
Work ethic played a major role in what people ultimately saw on the field in "Prime Time."
Deion Sanders: The man
Football was never the end all, be all for Sanders.
Growing up in Fort Myers, Sanders was embarrassed by his family situation.
He watched his mother, Connie Hicks, work as a cleaning lady at Lee Memorial Hospital every day. He wanted to change that for her.
"When I was 7 years old, I told her I was going to be rich one day," Sanders said. "She would never have to work another day in her life. That's what's important to me."
When Sanders received his first NFL check, he told his agent, Eugene Parker, he was going to build a house for his mother and make her retire.
"He's a thinker and he has a plan," Parker said. "He has incredible focus on whatever he was doing at that time. It took me awhile to understand it. When he was asleep, he was sleeping. When he was working, he was working."
His own retirement came prematurely. After the 2000 season, Sanders stepped away from the game and spent some time flirting with broadcast analyst work.
After three seasons on the sidelines, he decided to make a comeback with the Baltimore Ravens. Two seasons without a playoff berth resulted in a permanent retirement and sent Sanders back to TV work.
Sanders now uses his personality and knowledge of the game in his work with the NFL Network.
The Prime U foundation is another of Sanders' post-playing endeavors. Young athletes across the Dallas-Fort Worth area get the benefit of learning lessons about sports and life from somebody who has seen all the highs and lows.
He drives from his home in Prosper, Texas, to the southern sector of Dallas, at least 90 minutes, four days a week, to mentor kids.
Sanders holds youth football camps every summer and puts together elite teams to participate in various youth flag and tackle leagues across the Dallas area.
Sanders doesn't do it for the publicity. He feels this is a calling for him. He wants to be a mentor to kids. To help them avoid some of the mistakes he made while growing up and making it from a kid in Fort Myers to being an NFL star.
"On Sundays, we're going 'Prime Time,'" Sanders said. "Monday through Saturday, I will drive down to South Dallas, an hour, to [help kids]. It is who I am. It's who I've always been.
"When you think about it, 'Prime' was blinding the public so much, they never wanted to meet Deion. He couldn't sell. He was never a story. When I was in Atlanta, we did the same thing. I've always gone to schools and nursing homes during the week."
While critics have implied that Sanders must be getting something from these kids -- or even the current NFL players he mentors, such as Michael Crabtree and Devin Hester -- Sanders maintains he doesn't ask for anything in return.
He just wants young men to listen and get all the information they can before making the tough decisions in life.
Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, another player Sanders mentors, has increased his community efforts in the Baltimore area.
"You like to think you have an influence on people's lives off the field, that's the main thing," Sanders said. "But yeah, I've been doing it for years -- feeding the children, giveaways, all that. Now it's gotten to another level. That's really who you are."
Come Saturday night, the information will be presented to NFL writers to decide if Sanders/"Prime Time" is deserving of enshrinement into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
"I'm thankful and elated to be recognized," he said. "To be thought of even in that conversation, it's a wonderful honor. But the validation of men has never influenced me either way."
Calvin Watkins covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.
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