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[h1]The curious case of Deion Sanders[/h1][h3]He's found his calling as a mentor. But critics wonder if he's too good to be true.[/h3]
By Seth Wickersham
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ESPN The Magazine
[h5]Deion Sanders Photo Shoot[/h5]
Go behind the scenes with Deion Sanders at his photo shoot for ESPN The Magazine
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Deion Sanders Photo Shoot
This story appears in the March 22 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
Earlymorning, around 6:30, is the most peaceful time of Deion Sanders' day.As light warms his 142-acre estate in Prosper, Texas, just north ofDallas, Sanders lies in bed with his cell phone open, preparing a textmessage. This text is important. Since Sanders retired from the NFL in2006, he has focused on his unofficial, often controversial career as amentor to hundreds of football players, ranging from Pee Wees to pros.The guidance begins each morning with a text -- not always novel, notalways in decipherable English, but as regular as the sunrise -- toabout 100 players. Many of their names are stored in a group calledKids.
Nancy NewberryWhen it comes to being a mentor, critics wonder if Prime Time is too good to be true.
You'refamiliar with a lot of these men. "Ray" is Ray Lewis; "7" is MichaelVick. You've become more familiar with others simply because theypopped up on Sanders' radar: "Noel" is Noel Devine, the West Virginiarunning back whom Sanders once tried to adopt; "Dez" is Dez Bryant, theformer Oklahoma State receiver who was suspended for most of this pastseason after lying to the NCAA about his interactions with Sanders;"Crab" is Michael Crabtree, the 49ers receiver who, with Sanders notobjecting, staged the longest contract dispute in seven years (71 days)after the 2009 draft. And then there are the names you don't know, suchas the preteen players from eight youth football teams that Sanderscoaches. No matter, they are all kids to Sanders.
Whatvalues should today's text impart? Sanders has a self-help book crackedopen next to his bed, and one passage has him thinking. He tapsfeverishly, gives the message a once-over, and it's off: "2day let'stake da high road all day. we will LOVE, LAUGH, n LIVE! No drama nogossip no pity party no nothing! Look 4 da best n every1 n everything2day."
In his world, where Sanders is constantly painted as a shameless opportunist, these texts might be his purest act of the day.
Sanderssays two hours after sending his morning text: "I give unconditionally.I'm not looking for nothing back." So do we believe him? It would bemuch easier if the answer were yes. But it's not that simple, for himor for us -- not after the decade we just endured, when so much of whatwe thought was real in sports turned out to be bogus. And when yournickname is Prime Time, the skeptics are always ready to pounce. Somebelieve Sanders mentors for ego. Or money, as the NCAA suspected withBryant, who ultimately signed with Sanders' friend and former agent,Eugene Parker. Or power, say NFL insiders who finger Sanders as thedriving force behind Crabtree's contract dispute.
Sandershas a strong denial for every accusation. And the NCAA inquiryconcluded that he did nothing wrong with Bryant. In a different era,maybe those details would have quelled the cynicism. But not today. Inthis jaded moment, Sanders can have his name cleared and spend all dayevery day trying to help people, yet still attract suspicion. Is hisadvice really messing up lives -- or has the sports world lost theability to take anything at face value?
Hisphone rings. It's not an NFL star this time; it's a single mom.Sanders, who is driving on Dallas' North Side, listens as the womanexplains that her 10-year-old son, Kirby, a linebacker/tight end on oneof Sanders' youth teams, has lost two winter jackets that she couldbarely afford. Worse, when pressed about what happened, Kirby justshrugged. Maybe Sanders could talk to him?
"Mama, I'm onmy way," he says as he hangs a hard right and heads for Kirby's school.This is Neon Deion at 42: dressed in white warm-ups and driving asoccer-mom van. His eyes are wrinkled, posture slightly bent, whiskerswhite as snowy branches. He has always been so slick, so primped, soloud -- history's greatest cover cornerback and two-sport star! -- evenafter becoming a born-again Christian. In his current day job, as ananalyst for NFL Network, he still moonlights as Prime Time. But whenworking for his passion, he's Deion, or Mr. Sanders, or simply Coach.
SANDERS AND HIS COACHES TAKE A TOUGH-LOVE APPROACH WITH THEIR PEE WEE PLAYERS. YOU CRY, YOU RIDE THE BENCH.
After arriving at the school,Sanders is led to the classroom by a receptionist. Kirby, in the frontrow, sees his coach and knows he's in trouble. He follows Deion to thehallway, then stares at the ground as his lower lip quivers and tearsspill down his cheeks. Sanders sits on a bench, props the boy on hislap and leans into his ear, whispering for a few seconds. They hug, andKirby goes back to class. A few minutes later, after posing forpictures with the receptionists, Sanders calls Kirby's mom: "Hey, Mama,how you doing? Kirby was scared to death. And don't worry, I'll buy hima new jacket."
He hangs up. "That's why I do this," hesays with conviction. "Knowing that boy is going to apologize to hismother. And that his mama is going to call me and say, 'Baby, I don'tknow what you said, but it worked.' That's what it is."
Ofall the mentoring that Sanders does, youth football is where his impactresonates most. Six days a week, buses that he pays for transport 400boys, ages 5 to 12, from the rough, poor South Dallas area to practicesand games in the more upscale West Dallas. About 75% of the kids comefrom single-parent households. Sanders provides the equipment anduniforms. But to play, the kids must follow rules: all A's and B's ontheir report cards and no trouble outside the classroom. That also goesfor Sanders' sons, 10-year-old Shilo and 8-year-old Shedeur, who bothplay quarterback.
And yet when kids who've grown upwithout any advantages suddenly have some, eyebrows arch. Sanders isn'tscrutinized just by the NCAA and NFL, but also by coaches and parentsfrom other teams. On a fall afternoon, the father of one opponent pacesthe field, then yells, "This is youth versus professional here! Theseguys have a payroll!"
Anthony Parker, who runs the league, approaches like a bouncer. "What's going on?"
"Listen," the man says, "when my kids get older, I'm going to tell 'em about what kind of guy Deion is."
"What do you mean?"
"Don't worry about it," the man says, walking away. "Don't worry about it."
"Myinfluence is real," says Sanders, driving his van on a Dallas freewayafter setting Kirby straight. "So you've gotta be careful. It can be apositive or negative influence. You gotta never compromise yourself.Can't have no hidden agendas."
Sports, of course, brimswith hidden agendas. Players, coaches, owners, agents, journalists,trainers, mentors, even fans -- everyone has something to gain. And fewin sports have gained as much as Deion Sanders. He made millionspromoting his Prime Time persona, playing pro baseball and football,recording a rap CD, shilling for Pizza Hut, Pepsi and many others. Buthe has admitted that the act left him feeling alone and suicidal. Andwhile finding God helped him, he says it might have been easier if he'dfound a mentor. Without anyone to guide him, Sanders wasted money andenergy on partying, women and, most of all, living up to his image. "Ifsomeone I respected had been there to check me," he says, "I'd be $10million richer and would have saved a lot of time."
David Banks/AP ImagesAtlanta made Sanders the fifth pick in the 1989 NFL draft. His first punt return went for a 68-yard score.
In2001, a few months into his first retirement (he would come back toplay in 2004-05), Sanders started an off-season workout program calledPrime U, with stars like Chad Ochocinco, Champ Bailey and DeAngelo Hallin attendance. For a week, Sanders advised players on topics rangingfrom defending the West Coast offense to handling family requests formoney. When camp broke, he called his students every few days to checkin, and soon a network was born. Today, the group numbers roughly 100NFL players, a lot of them on the Kids list. But his flock is spreadamong different text groups. "My ministry," Sanders says.
Whenhe boasts about his reach, he sounds like a gratified parent -- or acult leader, depending on your perspective. But his ministry isn'tbased on religion; not every member is born-again. Nor is it exclusive;many members aren't superstars. And it's seemingly not a business;Sanders says he advises for free. "He really just wants to helppeople," says Patriots cornerback Darius Butler, a Deion disciple.
Howdoes one join that club? Sanders meets some of his guys while workingfor NFL Network, but he actively seeks out other players. When he sawthat Titans running back LenDale White was moping about playing time,Sanders tracked him down and told him, "Keep your head up." Other guysask in. Raiders defensive back Chris Johnson cornered Sanders at aparty, and within weeks he was in a film room talking shop with thefuture Hall of Famer.
Sanders loves this -- being back inthe game, mattering. He loves that Vikings running back Adrian Petersoncalls after press conferences to ask if he looked professional enough.Or that Browns cornerback Eric Wright dials him up to vent when a lossboils over into his family life. Sanders answers the phone at any hour.One night in 2008, Cowboys cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones, fresh offhis yearlong suspension, was involved in an altercation at a hotel. Anenraged Jones called Sanders, who went to his house and stayed until 7a.m., when Pacman finally fell asleep. The Cowboys later releasedJones, who hasn't played since, but he's proud that in two years onSanders' speed dial he has had no other run-ins. "He's the first personwho I felt really cared about me," Jones says. "He's a great teacher."
Ifthis sort of guidance seems like something sports could use, well, noteverybody agrees. Sanders has been called a con man in the media andwarned by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to be careful about conflictsof interest. And while he was in the midst of mentoring Devine inDallas, this 911 call was placed in Florida: "I am calling for thepossible abduction/kidnapping of one Noel Devine. The person who iskidnapping -- and this is not a joke -- is Deion Sanders, the one andonly, famous Deion Sanders."
It'sa wet, late-October day, and Sanders is coaching his teams throughtheir final practice before tomorrow's games. He has moved them fromsoggy fields to a parking lot ("Deion's wearing white shoes and doesn'twant to get them dirty," says an assistant coach), and now he'sroaming, giving pointers. Sanders' coaching staff is loaded with formerCowboys, including Emmitt Smith, Omar Stoutmire and George Hegamin.They grade game tape of the kids, and they're tough. While there's nocussing, there is plenty of yelling. Cry, they warn the youngsters, andride the bench. It's militaristic, but Sanders believes it's exactlywhat these players need -- a hard-$** with heart. And their parentsagree. Moms and dads on Sanders' side of the field see a legend who'sdedicated to helping their kids, who's willing to invite a dozen of hisplayers to live with him and his family every summer. (Deion and hiswife, Pilar, also have a 6-year-old daughter, Shelomi, and there aretwo other kids from Sanders' first marriage: Deiondra, 19, and DeionJr., 16.)
ADOPTION? KIDNAPPING? SANDERS AND DEVINE HAVE RAISED PLENTY OFEYEBROWS, BUT THE PLAYER'S COACH SAYS DEION HAS BEEN "NOTHING BUTPOSITIVE."
But others have a different view.Devine was a rising sophomore at North Fort Myers (Fla.) High in 2004when a school official asked Sanders, an alum, to mentor the starrunning back. After losing both of his parents to AIDS, Devine firstlived with his grandmother, then moved in with Liz and Robert Harlow,the parents of one of his best friends, and he was struggling inschool. So Sanders flew the teen to Texas for a week, and not longafterward he asked Devine's grandmother for permission to legally adoptNoel -- a request that raised red flags for Liz Harlow. She rememberedSanders from decades before, when their fathers had worked together ata Fort Myers lumber company. Liz will never forget Deion as a teenager,proclaiming future greatness. She recalled Deion always being aboutDeion. Now, suddenly, here he was again, and it all felt calculated andself- serving. Liz thought Deion swooped in so he could one day brag"that it was because of him that Noel changed," she says.
Meanwhile,Devine wasn't quite sure what to make of the situation. After moving toDallas in July, he started having second thoughts. Working out withSanders was all good, but living together proved more of a challenge.Sanders says Devine (who declined to be interviewed for this story)chafed at rules, such as no rap music. "He didn't have any structure,"Sanders says, "and he wasn't used to it."
Devine toldfriends he wanted to go back to Florida, prompting a concerned fatherto make the 911 call. When the police phoned Sanders, he was at dinnerwith Devine, who said he was there by choice. And when Sanders went totraining camp in Baltimore, Devine joined him for a week. But shortlyafter Devine returned to Dallas, he drove Sanders' Escalade to theairport one day, left the keys inside and flew home to Florida. Sanderswas angry. He canceled the adoption plans and repeatedly called Devine,who didn't answer. What happened next depends on the source. Accordingto Harlow, a family friend eventually picked up Devine's phone, and thefriend claims Sanders told him, "Does Noel know who I am? He's nevergoing to play football in the state of Florida again!" But Sandersinsists he said no such thing. "That's stupid," he says. "That's not mycharacter."
Sanders and Devine eventually reconciled, andDevine has become a star Big East running back. When he sought Sanders'advice about turning pro after his junior season, Prime Time told himto stay in school. And Mountaineers coach Bill Stewart says Sanders hasbeen "nothing but positive."
That didn't stop NCAAinvestigators from calling Sanders last year to ask questions about histime with Devine. They suspected ... well, it's hard to know what. Thequestions were benign in tone, no wrongdoing was found, and no one atthe NCAA is talking. So we're left with a bunch of whispers. What wereSanders' true motives? Coaches and scouts don't know, but as far asheadaches go, Sanders is three-for-three with star draft prospects inthe past 12 months. When an NFL scout who has researched Devine isasked whether the player's character should be a concern, he cites onlyDevine's choice of mentor: "If his relationship with Deion is aproblem, then it'll drop him."
The scout has no specificsto share. It's just that he's been around and seen too much to allowhimself to believe that something like this can be pure.
Asmuch as he enjoys being a mentor, Sanders also loves being a connector,solving problems by bringing people together. On a fall afternoon, he'ssitting in a banged-up community center in Fort Worth, listening to thedirectors' ideas about after-school programs to keep kids off thestreets. They need better facilities, for one. And maybe a big name tocreate buzz. Sanders doesn't take notes; he simply nods. He says he'son it and mentions possibly involving his old friend Tom Leppert, theDallas mayor. Afterward, sitting in his van, Sanders is pleased. "I canput on a suit and go meet with the mayor, or I can wear this" -- sweats-- "and go to the hood," he says. "How many people have that type ofversatility?"
The problem, of course, is that a lot ofpeople don't think his versatility comes for free. Not from a man whoonce recorded a rap song called "Must Be the Money," and who launchedDeion Sanders Hot Dog Express, and who starred in the short-livedreality show Deion and Pilar Sanders: Prime Time Love. Before lastseason, the NCAA began an investigation into Sanders' relationship withDez Bryant. The two had met in January 2009 through Michael Crabtree, amutual friend. At the South Dallas Cafe, Bryant cried as he talkedabout his tough upbringing. Sanders hugged him, and they parted ways.The morning texts started the next day and have arrived every day sincethen.
Al Bello/Getty ImagesPrime Time has always given the people what they want: a good show.
WhenBryant returned to Oklahoma State, he started asking his coachesquestions about agents and his pro career -- the kind of questions thesophomore had never asked before. His coaches wondered, Why now? WasSanders helping Bryant out of kindness? Or was he steering afirst-round talent to his friend, agent Eugene Parker?
Suspectingthe worst, OSU receivers coach Gunter Brewer and then-compliancedirector Scott Williams ordered Bryant to limit his interactions withSanders to texts and phone calls. Bryant agreed, but there was stillcause for concern; he was notoriously unreliable, and getting him tofocus on even simple tasks like attending class was a daily struggle.
OSUofficials say they tried to set up a conference call with Sanders,hoping to guard against any rules violations, but they never connected-- although they did exchange several text messages with him. Over thesummer, Williams got the call he feared, when the NCAA asked tointerview Bryant. On July 24, the wideout answered questions aboutSanders and Parker for two hours. Bryant told investigators the samething he says now: "Deion never talked about Parker."
TheNCAA didn't buy it. Bryant was interviewed again in August and oncemore in September. "I answered all the questions the best way I could,"he says. "But they'd say, 'I'm going to ask you one more time' ...making me think I'd done something wrong." So Bryant lied aboutvisiting Sanders at Prime U and dining at his mansion. Neither of thosethings was a violation. The trouble came when the NCAA interviewedSanders, who repeatedly denied being a runner for Parker but who alsotold the investigators that he had hosted Bryant at his house. Bryant'slie -- not anything Sanders did -- ultimately resulted in a suspensionthat caused the receiver to miss all but the first three games of the2009 season. "I don't feel like Dez's suspension was Deion's fault,"Williams says, adding that Sanders was "extremely cooperative and open"throughout the process.
The NCAA has closed itsinvestigation, but suspicion lingers, especially after Bryant, thetop-rated receiver heading into April's NFL draft, signed with Parkerin January. "Why does Sanders want to mentor only the star players?"asks a college assistant coach. "I've got a backup guard who could useguidance. It can't all be innocent."
Then again, Parkerrepresents only a few of Sanders' Kids. The agent didn't need Sandersto land star clients like Cardinals wideout Larry Fitzgerald andPackers counterpart Greg Jennings, guys who barely know Sanders. "Itdoesn't make sense for him to recruit guys to an agent," says Hegamin,a friend of Sanders' since 1995. "He doesn't need anything. He doesn'task anyone for anything. He doesn't need to work for anybody."
Sanderscan only shake his head and laugh as he says, "Being accused of workingfor an agent? You've got to be kidding me!" He rolls his eyes when hehears Colt McCoy, the former Texas quarterback, talk about working atthe Manning family camp and texting Peyton and Eli all the time. TheNCAA doesn't investigate those relationships, Sanders points out. Yes,he admits that if a player asks for advice while picking an agent, hehappily vouches for Parker -- even if that endorsement is a gotchamoment in the eyes of his critics. But should it be? Is it wrong for anadviser to recommend a trusted friend and successful professional?After all, the NCAA and the NFL Players Association do zero to protecta player who gets swindled by a bad agent. In any other field, Sanders'advice would be seen as a matter of course. In sports, it's seen asanother reason to shake your disbelieving head.
Nowwhat is he doing? That's what NFL folks wondered when Sanders insertedhimself into Crabtree's contract dispute with the 49ers last year. Thetwo had known each other since Crabtree showed up at Prime U as a highschool senior. Sanders became an adviser after Crabtree, a two-timewinner of the Biletnikoff Award as the nation's best receiver, leftTexas Tech. Once considered a top-five draft pick, Crabtree fell to SanFrancisco at No. 10 because of a broken foot. He and his agent, Parker,quickly made it clear they still wanted top-five money.
Crabtree'sstance seemed foolish and lacking leverage, but Sanders spentconsiderable airtime supporting the Crabtree camp, perpetuating thebelief that he himself was a member of the camp. And yet when NFLNetwork producers asked Sanders to arrange an exclusive interview withCrabtree -- after Goodell had warned Sanders about conflicts ofinterest -- Prime Time said no. "If you're a black man in Americatalking about money," he says, "you don't win."
SANDERS ROLLS HIS EYES WHEN COLT MCCOY TALKS ABOUT WORKING AT THE MANNING FAMILY CAMP -- THE NCAA DOESN'T INVESTIGATE THOSE RELATIONSHIPS.
Outside observers are quick to saythat Sanders has given bad advice to Crabtree, Devine and Bryant. Butin fact, the three players largely ignored it. Devine went back toFlorida. Bryant stood up Sanders so many times early on that Deiontexted Brewer to say, "Im done w him." And according to Crabtree,Sanders "didn't say much" about his contract issues, just to keep hisnose in his playbook and stay in shape. "I don't let people makedecisions for me," Crabtree says.
The sad truth aboutSanders' mentoring is that his influence is often overestimated -- notleast of all by Sanders himself. Sure, he's admired and respected;players feel flattered that Prime Time has taken an interest in theirlives. But he's often more uncle than father figure. "His heart is inthe right place," says one NFL GM. "But he likes to get with the stars,who don't need his advice much."
So why do all this? Ifthe jocks barely listen and the public won't hear anything but the bad,why bother? Sanders says mentoring is his calling, but maybe he needshis guys more than they need him. Maybe he sends those morning textmessages for the same reason that Hall of Fame cornerback Darrell Greenrecently ran a 40-yard dash to celebrate his 50th birthday, or thatMichael Jordan talks about unretiring for his 50th, or that former PGAmembers show up at Q-School every year.
Maybe he simply still wants to matter.
Aboy fumbles. It's the fourth quarter of a game that Sanders' youth teamleads 38-12. So far, it's been a good afternoon, with Deion cajolinghis players, hugging them after big plays, giving them hope. But thenShedeur, Sanders' youngest son, coughs it up on a sweep. As the boywalks to the sideline, Sanders gets in his face. "I give you the ball,and you fumble?" he says. He crouches to make eye contact, thenexplodes backward in disgust. "Are you crying? You're crying!"
Sandersdoesn't coach criers. Cry on the field, you cry in life, he believes.Shedeur tries to walk away, but his father grabs him and pulls off hishelmet. Face the crowd, he insists, so everyone sees those wet cheeks.The boy is humiliated, his teammates are scared, and other parentsnervously watch. Is this discipline and structure, in the form of toughlove? Or is this a well-intentioned coach with poor methods?
Sanders looks at his son and shakes his head. "Go back to your mama."
The boy walks off, leaving everyone to wonder.