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Thursday, December 26, 2002
Past his Prime (Time)

By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist

Prime Time Redux! Well, almost. This is the story of how I learned to stop worrying and love Deion Sanders, even though he almost came back with the Raiders, and semi-embarrassed himself.

... maybe.

With Deion, you never know. He always ends up golden.

Or at least silver.

Deion Sanders
Prime Time has always been more than meets the eye.
Deion always was more shrewd than he looked at first glance. The game gods always seemed to smile on him. Maybe the game gods knew Deion had a plan. I didn't know it at first. I underestimated him. At first, I thought he was a walking caricature with an afterburner who could cover.

Wrong. Big-time wrong.

Just last Sunday on CBS, Deion said he was mulling over a comeback with the Raiders for this season's playoffs. That was before he was taken off the pre-waiver wire by, let's see, the Chargers, the Steelers, the Colts, the Chiefs ... any AFC playoff team that might face the Raiders in the postseason. Why was there a rush to illegalize Deion? Nobody minded Cris Carter going to the Dolphins from HBO. So why would Deion in Silver and Black seem to be unfair, or at least aggravating?

Myself, I was kind of glad he didn't mount a mini-ressurection. No. 1, I don't like seeing legends crap all over their reps; and No. 2, I would have missed him in studio, on air.

So would CBS.

How? Long story. Years ago, Deion became the gold standard of cornerbacks, an underground industry cultural icon who had all DBs building themselves in his image, until this very day.

And until this very day, he's still news, he's still hot, he's still happenin'. He made big money and fame for himself, something DBs, particularly ex-DBs, just don't make a habit of doing.

Now he's channeling Al Davis. Or David Blaine.

Bill Parcells holding hands and having his fingers played with in errogenous fashion by Jerry Jones, I can understand that. Parcells isn't going to have to run anywhere, even if he does come back.

Deion Sanders
Deion wouldn't have trouble with the limelight if he came back.
But Deion coming back ... one shudders at the thought. On the field anyway. Oh, he'd have been great in the locker room, the sideline, mugging for the hand-helds, maybe even with a full-game audio hookup, babbling between plays as he's bantering. But when the ball was snapped, he'd be Mays in '73. And that's unacceptable.

Why? First you have to know some history on Deion. When he came to my attention, he was a sophomore at Florida State, when Bobby Beathard and his personnel sidekick, Dick Daniels, said on separate occasions that athletically they had never seen anything like Deion Sanders. It was like he was different species.

When I finally saw him, I saw what they meant. Unbelievable ability. He played big-league baseball, he was an All-Time corner, could've been an Olympic medalist in the decathlon. He was Olympian as a self-promoter even in college. I was asked to get inside his head; see what was under his fingernails, but I passed, thinking, wrongly, that there must not be much there. There he was, from then on, Prime Timing, It's My Housing, Buck-and-Winging, really full of joy. I'd thought he was running off at the mouth rather mindlessly back when I'd decided to avoid him. Wrong. Big-time wrong.

Deion always did have a plan behind his trickerations. He knew DBs didn't get paid like offensive skill players at the time. He knew DBs didn't get attention. He knew DBs didn't become national or positional icons. So he did something about all of it.

Meanwhile, I was tricked into publicly saying Deion was "a 4.2 body and a 5-flat mind," by Roy Firestone, who was quite good at enticing you to put your foot in your mouth, Wrong. Big-time.

Deion was actually an exemplar, the great and powerful Oz of DBs, as you can see today when you watch Dre Bly or any one of an entire generation of DBs attempt to imitate him, most tellingly with the bent-at-the-waist, hand-check, turn-and-go, shadowlands press coverage that Deion took to the level of art. You can see his influence even in Wood, Charles Woodson, today's best corner by far, when he isn't broken up.

So it was no surprise that when Deion came out so very modestly and prematurely last Sunday and said he was maybe going to sign on with the Raiders for their Super Bowl push -- but only after they'd clinched the AFC West and maybe home-field advantage, at which point, of course, they'd be more deserving of him -- Charles Woodson said he'd have no problem with it, because the Raiders need help at corner. Plus, he owed Deion. Deion's play had shown him how. Wood took it from there.

By now I am convinced Deion has a 4.2 mind. I am also convinced it is by now housed in a 5-flat body. I'd underestimated him in the past, not as an athlete, but as an entertainer, and as a shrewd businessman. He was football's Charles Barkley, with a plan. He could lead men. In that HBO "Hard Knocks" special this year, when Deion showed up in San Antone at the Cowboy camp, I thought the young Cowboy DBs would pee on themselves. It was like the Second Coming had appeared in a bucket hat and warm-ups.

And if you want to get right down to it, Deion is by far the best thing on any network pregame show, save this one's, of course. Not only does he have the real poop on the players and who should win games and who's what -- listen to him on, say, the Barry Sanders-like abilities of Charlie Garner; the man is prescient -- Deion's is a fresh, confident personality, from his "Sanders Clause" yo-yo-yoing to kicking-out with the Rockettes.

Deion is like the Michael Vick of the mike, in studio; he's just too quick for them, unintimidated. I think at first Nantz and Esaison thought they could use Deion for comedy relief only, winking at the audience at this clown, while they were hiding their own knowing smiles over Deion's wardrobe, demeanor and verbiage, or lack thereof.

Deion Sanders
Move over Boomer, TV was made for Deion Sanders.
Oops. Joke's on you, guys. Deion was not a bit self-conscious, and that's half the battle. The other half is knowing what the hell you are talking about. Deion took to TV like a duck to water, if the whole idea is to rouse a smile out the audience, and most of all to give a better idea about personnel and situations in NFL football.

Deion on TV and football turned out to be entertaining as hell.

Deion can give you a good idea right away, wrapped in schtick though it might be. It's not so dissimiliar to his on-field kick-outs after his long breakaway kick return and pick return TDs with the Falcs, Ninos and 'Pokes, hand held to the side of his helmet like he was picking up radio transmissions from God, Whom, by the way, Deion found to be on his side in intervening years, courtesy T.D. Jakes, the Dallas preacher who gained national fame through his presentation, "Woman, Thou Art loosed!"

Deion art loosed in the studio. He really doesn't need to pull a Cris Carter now.

Maybe Jerry Jones should consult with T.D. Jakes on who should coach the Cowpokes next. Deion might end up wearing headphones then. Hey, don't laugh. They'd leave it out there for him, at least.

So Deion Art Loosed as well, just not with the Raiders. What a career in football he has had. Is still having. As long as he doesn't step on the field in Silver and Black, which he won't now, thanks to the Chagrins and Marty Schottenheimer, no charter member of the Deion Sanders Fan Club he.

Still, Deion made the best use of the new world of free agency of any NFL player up to this point (maybe that's why I couldn't appreciate Deion properly at first, since I was busy helping the world of NFL free agency get here in the first place, but that's another story, too long of one at that).

Deion was drafted by the Falcons, self-promoted his way through ATL, although he couldn't really make them better. He studied his opposing icon, WR Jerry Rice, didn't take him one-on-one at first, waited, watched as teammate Charles Dimry got five TDs put on him by Rice at the Georgia Dome in one game early in his career. Deion offered nothing but a shrug and a hmm.

A couple of years later, Deion covered Jerry for an entire game at the Dome, and Jerry, although he had 90 yards on four or five catches, didn't score, and Deion got a pick off Steve Young in front of Jerry in the end zone and the Georgia Dome exploded like it hadn't since ... until Vick arrived ... and thus the Legend was a made man. Later in the locker room, Deion said, "(Rice) is a bad man. That's a bad man, right there. If I was a cursing man, I could describe him better ..."

So there was humility in Deion, after all. This self-realization on top of self-actualization could and did take him a long way.

Deion Sanders
When all is said and done -- Deion will always be a Cowboy.
Deion later signed with the 49ers and was Defensive Player of the Year as the El Ninos fielded one of the best teams in history in the 1994-95 season and won the Bowl over the San Diego Chagrins and Beathard with relative ease. Then Deion moved on over to the Dallas Cowpokes, where he won another ring, and when he goes into the Hall of Fame, he'll probably go in as a 'Poke.

It would have been nice to see him dressed out as a Raider at 35.

It might not have been nice to watch him play as a Raider at 35.

Deion was one of those athletes whose game was so much based on blinding, otherworldly speed, and he was a generation ahead. That 4.2 that Vick runs? Deion ran it back then, him and Bo and the young Rock. Deion outran pursuit, thrown footballs, his own mistakes with a Pattonesque swagger. He was a sight to behold. But then he started to play on offense, got busted up, aged quickly and by the time he went to the Washington Redskins as an $8-mil-bonus free agent two years ago, he was done. No more burst.

Marty wanted Deion to come in to training camp and participate in Oklahoma drills. Deion checked his watch -- it's a Rolie -- and said he'd just as soon keep whatever tread was left on his tire for the regular season. Deion had 'em shazamed in D.C. He was basically shot, but he made one last play, a punt return he took to the one, then on air giddily -- and entertainingly -- compared himself to a overdue pregnant woman finally delivering. "And it was a big one, wunshe (wasn't she?). Wunshe?" I cracked up. Kornhesier gave him so much love I thought they were going to elope.

All this while, Dan Snyder dropped eight big ones on him. I'll never forget Deion, in Redskin dress, warmly embracing Jerry Jones before a game at FedEx Field, Dan Snyder waiting at the perimeter of the hug, wanting in on it, like a small hungry boy outside a bakery window, looking in forlornly. It was worse than that, because the bakers and window dressers had taken the little boy's money without telling him the real goods had already been loaded on the back of a truck and shipped off to Canton, Ohio.

Having said all that, Deion is now a 4.2 mind in a 5-flat body.

Al Davis is not Dan Snyder. But would he have signed Deion Sander? People in Oaktown say, "yes," just not for eight big ones.

Deion could maybe guard some third receivers as a nickel back.

But D, at 35, saying, "Me and Michael Vick ... Michael Vick and myself ..." Or "I could get up from behind this desk right now and cover," is like Michael Jordan saying, "Don't ever underestimate my scoring, I can still score the basketball," at 40. Worse. Deion can't play press corner anymore, but he'll always be able to play the game. Stay in studio, Deion. That's where you can make noise.

Deion Sanders
Deion received an $8 million paycheck, but gave a minimum wage performance.
Yep, the Raiders are that desperate for corner help. The Raiders hid their corner deficiencies fairly well against the Denver Broncos by blitzing off the edge with their glorified practice squad corners and dropping their devastating wrecking crew of a linebacking corps into coverage. If it wears a number in the 50s for the Raiders, it is wicked. One shudders to think how good they would have been if Wood had not broken a shoulder and a leg, and if they had not rather inexplicably put the impact rookie Philip Buchanon on IR over a shattered wrist back in Week 5. Now Buchanon, out for the year on IR, is healthy enough to play pick-up hoop one-handed.

Philip Buchanon is a devotee of -- guess who -- Prime Time.

Would Al Davis have offered Deion a short contract for another bracing shot of Prime Time promotion and no press coverage? Well, Deion can't play press anymore, and man-to-man press is Deion Sanders. So, knowing Al, I would tend to doubt it. But maybe he would've. Maybe he did. Wunshe?! Wunshe?!

It's moot anyway, for now. Deion's stuck on studio. He knows enough about the position to lay back in coverages, gamble, and for all I know still make a play or two. Whether he could actually guard Derrick Mason or Hines Ward is another issue. We know he can't guard Marvin Harrison, that's who exposed him four years ago, when Marvy hit him with a stop-shake, had Deion standing facing the other way in his bent-at-the-waist hands-on-air press coverage while Marvin streaked to the zone in the other direction.

Deion didn't even bother to turn around.

And he shouldn't now. Don't look back, D. You might turn into a pillar of salt. Deion has one of the best forums in the world right now, on the CBS pregame show. He's the best thing they've got.

So don't go, Deion.

Deion, stay right where you are.

Either way, I'll never underestimate you again.

Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."