'They Don't Pay Nobody To Be Humble'

So says Deion Sanders, the defensive back who has lit up the Atlanta Falcons with his gold chains and electric style of play. But there is more than glitter to Prime Time
November 13, 1989

ABOUT THE JEWELRY. Or as Deion SANDers pronounces it with an obvious bow to the only vowels not deserving enough to make it into his glorious first name, the "juray."

Discount.

Yeah, really. The juray is off-the-cuff, wholesale, deep discount. But you didn't really think Sanders just strolled in and picked up those twined dollar signs and crosses and initials and whoknowswhatelse the circumference of cantaloupes after breakfast at Tiffany's, did you? Let the man explain how he does it:

"Yo. The rings are L.A. The other stuff is Miami and Fort Lauderdale and L.A. again. Other cities, other places, I forget. I check out these big swap shops where the rappers and the dudes with the gold hang out. I go in there, all covered up. Yo, like this. Hands in pockets. Jacket closed. No juray, see. Nobody can get a load of my own stuff. They think. This is some chump. He ain't got nothin'. Then they lay out the prices. Whoa! Say what? They tryin' to dog me, bad. What time is it, kids? Yo, I whip open my jacket. It's Prime Time! I say: 'You guys think I'm some kind of fool? Now let's talk some juray." So much gold be flashin', those dudes about go blind!"

But in the matter of juray, his mama don't dance and his baby don't rock and roll. Carolyn Chambers, the striking Florida A & M graduate with whom Deion lives, couldn't care less about all those golden ropes, wrist manacles and knuckle knockers weighing down her guy. "But what it is, Deion wants me to wear them too," Chambers says. And the other woman in his life? "That glitzed-up stuff?" says Sanders' mother, Connie Knight. "When Deion's around me, he knows better than to wear that junk. He only likes to flash that mess for the pictures."

Deion Luwynn Sanders—a cousin came up with the names; Knight added the extra letters "because anything else seemed too plain"—does dress down on occasion, like when reporting to work for the New York Yankees or, currently, the Atlanta Falcons. His new Falcon teammate, guard Bill Fralic, pointed out why Sanders runs so outrageously fast: When he finally strips off the kilos of gold enveloping his body, Deion is as light as a feather.

"Why, when a brother wear a little juray, does everybody go off screaming about Mr. T or Sammy Davis Jr.?" asks Sanders. "When a white dude wear it, you never hear anything about Elizabeth Taylor or Liberace." Hold everything. In all their appearances at Caesars Palace, or in regulation civilization for that matter, the admittedly awesome, karat-bearing T, Sammy, Liz and Lee—combined...history...lifetime—never wore as much juray as Sanders did the night last April when he showed up at Atlanta's Hartsfield Airport after becoming the fifth college player chosen in the NFL draft.

Over, under and around his spectacular black-leather outfit emblazoned PRIME TIME with his own personalized logo, which resembles a stick man being electrocuted by a lightning bolt—soon to be on T-shirts, toothbrushes and power tools at your neighborhood K Mart—there was, somebody estimated, $7,000 worth of gold clinging to Sanders' sensational physique. Nobody asked if that reflected swap-shop markdown. But Mark Bradley of The Atlanta Constitution did conduct a thorough itemization for posterity:

"Right hand: A ring that spanned three fingers...and carried the word 'Prime.' Also a square pinky ring.

"Left hand: Matching three-finger ring with the word 'Time.' Plus a gold pinky ring in the form of a dollar sign.

"Right wrist: Almost barren. Just a chain link bracelet.

"Left wrist: A Gucci watch and another bracelet.

"Chest: The auditor needed Deion's help here, so thick was the golden cluster. Thumbing through the necklaces, Deion called 'em out: 'Dollar sign...Prime Time...dollar sign...Jesus on the cross...dollar sign...my number [2]...dollar sign.' That made seven. He omitted a simple choker."

Chump change, as they say. It was fortunate for the security folks at the Hartsfield metal detectors, who would have missed dinner, that Sanders had stashed most of his juray in his luggage before heading to Atlanta. Soon enough, he told everyone he hated the name Neon Deion. ("That just doesn't sound like me," he explains now.) He much preferred Prime Time. And he wouldn't discuss the money he expected to be paid by the Falcons except to say, "It's gonna be a lot of zeros in that contract. You're gonna think it's alphabet soup or something, all them zeroes in there." He grabbed a microphone. "Hello, Atlanta," said Deion, introducing himself. "This is Deion Sanders, Prime Time. Live. It's..." he checked the Gucci "...five minutes to eight. And the thrill is here. Later."

Later, a more sophisticated Deion would encounter the Atlanta media again and again at Hartsfield. One radio guy paged Sanders there and began a phone interview. "Wait," said Deion. "You TV?...No?" Click. In June, amid contract talks with the Falcons at the airport—this was during one of the seventh-inning stretches of his baseball season, which was spent mostly with Triple A Columbus between two stints with the Yankees—Sanders angrily stormed out of a negotiating session and, alternately leading reporters on a merry chase through the crowded terminal and speaking on one of his ubiquitous cellular phones ("You'd be surprised," he says, "people be callin' me all the time"), he created still another media extravaganza. "Get the cameras, get the cameras," Sanders said. "These all the cameras we got?"

"Anybody know a good talk show?" said his agent, Steve Zucker. "Deion's looking for one."

"We're all proud of you," said Florida Senator Bob Graham, who happened to be passing by.

"They must be crazy," Sanders was overheard spouting into the cellular. "They started out offering $400,000. So I just walked."

The parties were only about, oh, $7.5 million apart. Rankin Smith, the Falcons' owner, said he might have to take Sanders' advice and purchase him "on layaway." So it's a wonder that only 10 weeks later the Falcons were able to bring themselves to pay him $4.4 million over four years. And it's even more of a wonder that, 24 hours after slugging a home run in Seattle on Tuesday, Sept. 5, Sanders could strike out, high-five his Yankee teammates goodbye inside the visitors' dugout on Wednesday, fly the red-cornea to Atlanta and grab breakfast at the Waffle House on Thursday morning and then, on Sunday afternoon, run back a punt 68 yards for a touchdown against the Los Angeles Rams five minutes and 31 seconds into the first pro football game he had ever played.

From the Yankee outfield to the professional gridiron? Only one man had ever done that before, George Halas. Hit a major league home run and score a professional touchdown in the same week? No one had ever done that. And hit a home run and score a touchdown in the same professional ballpark? Bo Jackson had done it, in the Seattle Kingdome. Sanders did it too, almost. He hit his first homer as a Yankee on June 4 at Milwaukee County Stadium; then he returned a kickoff 96 yards there against the Green Bay Packers on Oct. 1, though the play was nullified because of a holding penalty. Picky, picky.

In his first nine weeks, Sanders also intercepted three passes, anchored Atlanta's kickoff unit, chased down Rams wide receiver Ron Brown—an Olympic 400-meter relay gold medal winner—from behind to save a touchdown, was consistently among the NFC leaders in punt returns and would have led outright in kick returns if that 96-yarder had held up. His remarkable speed—at Florida State, Sanders was once timed in pads at a stunning 4.21 for the 40-yard dash—has even gotten a rise out of the Falcons' 60-year-old coach, Marion Campbell. "A real doer. I like this guy," Campbell says. "He's a takeaway guy, a weapon."

Similarly, the Falcons' serene defensive backfield coach, Fred Bruney, has gotten past Sanders' jive style and loquacious audacity to recognize the new kid's work ethic, his communicable spirit and extraordinary will to win. "I've never seen a guy with such athletic ability. And Deion throws his body around like it was somebody else's," says Bruney.

Just as important, surely by now any fool for juray must realize, Deion Sanders—even when his black leathers are unzipped to half-mast and those snake-skin-striped sunglasses are tight below the oil-slick Geri curls and the five black-on-black vehicles, each equipped with a cellular phone, are lined up in the driveway with the personalized plate on the Mercedes reading JUS GOT PAID and the one on Chambers's new Bronco revealing MS. TIME—has turned into one of the greatest self-hypes on the planet.

What all the button-down NFL earthlings should do is sit back, relax and let Sanders, 22 going on 14, have fun. Let him swing and sway. Let him shuck and jive. Above all, let Deion be on. Let him get the ball in his hands and play. Of course, he's an act. Of course, he's two people. He's even got two languages, street and smart. Nobody could be so blatantly ridiculous au naturel. On this point, Deion is right-on.

"Hey, all my life I be the man," he says. "I mean, I've been in the spotlight at every level. It's just a bigger spotlight. I learned the system in college. How do you think defensive backs get attention? How do you think Jim McMahon made so many millions? 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. I'm a businessman now, and the product is me. Prime Time. I'm the first defensive back to make a million dollars a year. Set a record for a bonus. Cash up front."

In fact, Zucker insisted the Falcons add $10,000 above the signing bonus Green Bay paid tackle Tony Mandarich the day before Sanders signed. Sanders is also one of only a handful of NFL players—including William Perry of the Chicago Bears and Vinnie Testaverde of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers—who have individual licensing agreements with NFL Properties; he gets a percentage of every NFL novelty sold bearing his name or number.

"But the true me?" says Sanders. "You think Michael Jackson sit in that room wearing that white glove all day long? No he don't. You think Eddie Murphy go around cursing everybody out 24 hours a day? No he don't."

Privately, at home—a new, $500,000, pink-stucco Mediterranean-style house in a subdivision cut out of the cow fields of suburban Alpharetta, Ga.—with his shades off and his terrific teeth gleaming, Sanders is a child wondering if the neighbors will complain that he had a satellite dish constructed in the backyard woods. He goes fishing in a nearby lake with the kid next door. The first thing he shows a visitor is the skeleton of what will be his massive "toy room" in the basement. "I love toys," he says. "Model trains, those remote cars, all kinds of tracks." In his rhythm-pounding den, the featured accoutrements—next to the CD player and the TV—are four ceramic raisin guys and gals from the Saturday morning cartoons.

When Lynn Swann visited the Falcon camp for a Monday Night Football half-time interview, Sanders was in absolute awe. "I couldn't believe it," Deion said. "My mom and I watched this guy when I was little and here he was right there in the same room with me." Before the Falcons' game against the Indianapolis Colts on Sept. 24, Eric Dickerson came over to wish Sanders luck. Deion asked Dickerson to send him an autographed picture.

This from the same fellow who pretty much spit on propriety at Florida State. Sanders set records in Tallahassee for on-field trash talk. Regularly he critiqued opposing players' routes: "Boy, you keep runnin' that sloppy stuff, you goin' to Arena Football." At halftime of a 59-0 victory at South Carolina, Sanders told the Gamecock fans they should ask for their money back. He showed up for the game against traditional rival Florida, at Tallahassee, last year in a tuxedo and a white stretch limo. Florida receivers, he once said, "must think I'm God." He and Gator Ricky Nattiel—now a wide receiver for the Denver Broncos—engaged in a bitter competition that lasts to this day. "If I see him in the pros, I'll probably kill him," says Sanders. Preparing for a punt return on the road at Clemson, he pointed and shouted over to the Tiger bench: "This one's going back!" Then he toasted the defense, whirling 76 yards for the touchdown, after which he struck a long pose for the end zone fans and screamed, "How you like me now?"

Meanwhile, Sanders was establishing himself as one of the most versatile college athletes of this or any other age. Recruited out of high school in Fort Myers, Fla., where he was a lefthanded option quarterback, Sanders switched to defense at Florida State because the Seminoles featured a pro passing attack and, Sanders says, "anybody can play wide receiver: I wanted to be special."

The 6-foot, 185-pounder scored six career touchdowns on punt or interception returns. He was a two-time All-America, and as a senior he led the country in punt runbacks with a 15.2-yard average and won the Thorpe Award as the best defensive back in the country. Sanders played for a national championship not only in football (during the '87 season, when Florida State beat Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl 31-28 but wound up ranked No. 2 behind undefeated Miami), but also in baseball (the '87 College World Series, where Florida State finished fifth); and in track (running on the 400-meter relay team at the '88 NCAA track and field tournament, though the team failed to place). He once played in a Metro Conference tournament baseball game, ran to the track to help win a relay race while still wearing his baseball pants, then raced back to the diamond in time to get the hit that won the second game of the doubleheader. The victories clinched the 1987-88 Metro all-sports trophy for Florida State.

Sanders' favorite sport is, natch, basketball. Extra concrete is being poured just now in Alpharetta for a court, full-length. "If I'd wanted, I could have signed with the Lakers," he says.

Away from his athletic pursuits, Sanders usually is in the close company of "my boys, Heckle and Jeckle"—Jerry Ashley, a friend from Fort Myers High, and Aubrey Parrish, a crony from Florida State. With Ashley (the one in the metallic-braid shades) and Parrish (diamond earrings, gold tooth)—who now serve as sort of aides-de-campy—and with "my female," Sanders is thoughtful, caring, polite, quiet. So what if Ms. Female, Chambers, mostly impersonates a chambermaid, answering his phone, cutting his food, fetching his clothes? "C? Yo, C? What color tint did I tell you to order on the car windows?" Sanders called out to his mate the other day. Deion's in the NFL, not the NOW.

Chambers describes a courting that mirrors precisely Sanders' entire M.O. "He walked up to the car I was sitting in and asked my name," Chambers says. "He said his was Prime Time. I said, yeah, I really believe that! The only time I went to a football game was to watch the Florida A & M band at halftime, then I'd leave. I'd never heard of him. If I had, I know I'd have thought he was some awful jerk. I didn't give him my phone number, but I called him that week. Our first date we just talked all night. We've been together every single day. Hey, I'm no bimbo hang-around. I've modeled in Miami. I cook for my baby [uh, that's Deion]. I chose this life. What I love about Deion is he is always a perfect gentleman. You like this leather coat?"

Sanders' mother still lives in Fort Myers with her second husband, Willie Knight, and Deion's 13-year-old sister, Tracie. "Deion's always been a shy boy," says Connie Knight. "And sure enough, mannerable." Knight and Chambers haven't always gotten along. In a recent issue of Special Reports magazine, Constance was quoted as saying, "When a boy can't bring his girl home to his mama, you know she must be trash." But they've made their peace since.

"Deion's first girlfriend was so close to the family, but because she was white, I didn't see any threat," says Connie. "I still think the boy's too young to be settled in, he should date more. But there's so much out there...you know, it's dangerous. I worry about gold diggers and such. You know, nobody's good enough for your baby. But I've prayed to God to let me find a way to like Carolyn. I think she's O.K. now."

"We were out eating the other night with Deion's mom," says Chambers. "She's very sweet. She said she orders from the menu for her man too."

Putting on the world takes a toll, of course. Before Florida State's 20-17 victory over Auburn in last season's Sugar Bowl—which Sanders would save with an end zone interception with five seconds remaining—Deion was arrested for causing a disturbance in, wouldn't you know it, a juray shop, was carted off to jail and had to pay an $800 fine. He says a salesgirl "thought I was a drug dealer because of my clothes." The salesgirl claimed he tried to steal a pair of $25 earrings. "Sure," says Sanders. "There's no way. I'm Prime Time. I was carrying a thousand in my pocket."

Then one night last summer, admittedly frustrated by his status in Triple A baseball and by the stalled negotiations with the Falcons, Sanders went after a couple of fans in Richmond, Va., who he said were harassing Chambers. Claims of assault, and later lawsuits, flew back and forth. Sanders was arrested briefly and forced to put up a $5,000 bond before all charges were dropped.

Sanders' Atlanta teammates were understandably concerned about the flamboyant new Falcon. It didn't help matters when Sanders announced that those players who were suspicious of him "hadn't had the privilege of knowing me."

"Some people around here thought Deion was a loudmouth, selfish, egotistical fool," says Falcon cornerback Bobby Butler, the respected nine-year veteran from Florida State who knew Sanders from their school connections and whose job Sanders would take in Week 6. "I had to reassure them he was a good guy, just the opposite of the image."

"It wasn't that Deion was actually any more serious than the hype," says Falcon guard Jamie Dukes, who played with Sanders at FSU. "Just that he wasn't the president of the jerk-of-the-month club or a major——like Brian Bosworth still is. I knew he kept that Prime Time crap out of the locker room. But I had to do a selling job with the guys. I told them, 'If Bosworth can make a million off a haircut, why can't this kid do it with his jewelry and his clothes?' "

Given his obnoxious, thundering-rap rep, Sanders has bent over backward to ingratiate himself with his new teammates on the Falcons, as he did with the Yankees. The punt return for a touchdown right out of the box helped. His gifts of Gucci watches to the 10 other Falcons on the return squad didn't hurt his cause, either.

The Boz? The truth is, Sanders is the real Boz; a Boz with the goodz, a Boz who can play. Sanders is an electrifying presence. He is a Gretzky, a Bird. "In 27 years in this league I've never experienced the buzz that goes through a stadium when this guy gets near the football," says Campbell.

Sanders bristles at suggestions of a Bosworth parallel. "I am not to be compared to no Bosworth," Deion says. "I've never copied anybody. I've been a star all my life. Why, I was Prime Time in high school. A buddy [Richard Fain, now a cornerback at Florida] named me that after a basketball game. I got 30, dunkin' over everybody. I had 'Prime Time' on my license plate the first day I arrived in Tallahassee. I said I wanted my own poster right then. I was scoring touchdowns in Pop Warner ball at eight years old! I got the films to prove it. Don't go talkin' no Bosworth bulljunk around here."

So if not Boz, Deion, then who?

"I'm real. Like the Godfather, the legend, James Brown. We're talkin' real. Like James...I'm real."

Kids have the darndest role models.

In fact, it was a shadowy adult figure back on the streets of Fort Myers who first got Sanders into all his glitter. This "uncle," says Sanders, was a fashionably dressed, glamorous, jewelry-laden guy from "the other side" who showed Deion right from wrong and kept him away from drugs. "See, in my hometown, that was the community job," says Sanders. "You graduated from high school to the streets and became a drug dealer. But this was a great dude, man. He showed me all about the juray." Only later does Deion's mother confirm that the family friend was himself a drug dealer who has spent time in jail.

"See, though, the only things kids from the streets look up to are fancy clothes and cars and juray," says Sanders. "So they look up to drug dealers. But I'm showing them something else. I got all three, and I'm proving you can do it on the right side."

Which is why Sanders becomes embittered and confused when he is criticized by the press or burned by the law. Both are institutions toward which he manifests a racially sharpened edge because he suspects "they have it in for the brothers like me who earn a lot of money and speak their own mind." Sanders was furious with his treatment after the incident with fans in Richmond. "People get caught with crack and don't get $5,000 bond," he says. "Virginia is the state where slavery started. I didn't have a chance. It's tough being a brother who isn't scared to open his mouth or doesn't have to get up at 6 a.m. to go to work."

Moreover, in Atlanta—which has a 65% black population, a black mayor and, Sanders concedes, "a terrific comfort zone for a black dude like me"—Sanders already has an "enemies list" of local media types, including one troglodyte who recently described Sanders as wearing a "little black hat [that] reminded you of the days when tap dancing was in force."

Not so ironically, the disparate poles at The Atlanta Constitution on Sanders have been represented most vociferously by a black man, editorial columnist Chet Fuller, and a white, sports columnist Bradley.

But it was Fuller who described Sanders as "the latest in a disappointingly long line of hype-mongering sports stars...[who] sickeningly glorify the flashy, quick-success, easy-money lifestyle...cheating thousands of young kids who hang on their every word and can't wait for the day when they, too, sign the multimillion dollar contract and have their chests gold-plated."

And it was Bradley who answered: "If Deion Sanders is a symbol of the young black male, why isn't Troy Aikman a symbol of the young white? Why must prominent blacks have a constituency when prominent whites are free to be regular guys?...[Sanders] is a young man who started out trying to do the right thing, admittedly in a garish way, and who has gotten some of it wrong.... But to overdo isn't a crime, else every teen with spiked hair would be behind bars.... If you don't like Deion Sanders, you're legally dead."

Sanders has even been criticized by a childhood idol, namely the Raiders' former Pro Bowl cornerback Lester Hayes, who last summer attributed Sanders' college success to "chasing down Caucasian Clydesdales" and predicted "his destiny is to spend some time in the penitentiary."

Sanders can only shake his head in dismay. "And I used to have a new Lester Hayes poster in my locker every year," he says. "Hayes is now off my list, along with Bo Jackson, who was never on. Jackson's always ripping me, says people will cut me in half. I've had just the opposite reaction. Dickerson came up and was nice to me. [Cornerback] LeRoy Irvin of the Rams wished me well. All I can say is, this Bo Jackson is one sorry dude who must be jealous another brother is sharing his limelight. I have nothing good to say about him."

It is unlikely that Sanders—who hit .278 at Columbus and .234 for the Yankees—will match Jackson's achievements on the diamond. He has another season left on his two-year, $428,000 Yankee contract (which permits him to leave again next July for the Falcons' training camp). But Deion says, "I'm married to football, baseball is my girlfriend." He even refuses to sign "Prime Time" when autographing baseballs. "Because I'm not Prime Time in baseball," he explains. "One guy just can't dominate over there unless it's my man, Rickey [Henderson, with whom Sanders is often compared as a ballplayer]. But you can't jump around and get excited and go crazy in baseball. Nobody ever masters that game."

Says Campbell, "I told Deion he'll never really love baseball until he can make a tackle going down to first base."

So for the present Sanders must be content with learning Atlanta's intricate defensive schemes. "I wish we could just all pick out a man and guard him," he says. "That way, if you get beat, you know who got beat. Everybody knows. But I tell you what. It ain't gonna be me."

Early in the season Sanders complained about his lack of snaps and volunteered to play offense if it would get him more playing time. Nobody snickered; rather, a newspaper poll produced overwhelming support for playing him at wide receiver. And in Sunday's 30-28 victory over the Buffalo Bills, Sanders in fact lined up at wide receiver for two plays. He was thrown to both times, but the passes fell incomplete. Current Falcon offensive coach Jim Hanifan is the freethinker who, as head coach of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1981, played the versatile Roy Green at both cornerback and wide receiver. "I hate to say it because this guy hasn't even learned defense yet," says Hanifan, "but hell, yes, Deion could do both."

Forget whether Atlanta loves him or hates him or can't live without him. Or even if the NFL is really ready for Prime Time. The question may be: How would pro football like two of Deion Sanders?

PHOTOLEE CRUMNeon's team: Sanders, bracketed by "my boys, Heckle and Jeckle"—Ashley (left) and Parrish—nuzzles his "female," Chambers. PHOTOJOHN BIEVER"I'm married to football," says the part-time Yankee. "Baseball is my girlfriend." PHOTOJOHN BIEVERNot a fan of fancy defenses, Sanders wishes he could "just pick a man and guard him." PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYERGreen Bay's Mandarich was drafted ahead of Sanders but hasn't made the same splash. TWO PHOTOSBefore Prime Time: By the time he was eight years old, Deion was a two-sport threat. PHOTOBUD LEESanders' family gathers on the porch in Fort Myers: (from left) cousin Carsi; mother, Connie Knight, with her godson Andrey; stepfather, Willie Knight; and sister Tracie.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)