As the conversation winds down Deion Sanders tries to wind
himself up, like a watch. "Prime Time keeps ticking!" he says,
searching his Louis Vuitton valise like a Let's Make a Deal
contestant. "That's a good title for your article." He produces
a cellular phone the size of a makeup compact. "That needs to be
the title of your article," he continues, gamely dialing a
number. "Prime Time Keeps Ticking."
Trouble is, Prime Time isn't ticking smoothly these days. He
didn't play baseball for six weeks after severely spraining his
left ankle while sliding into third base on May 31. Adding
insult to injury, the Cincinnati Reds--sorely in need of
pitchers--abruptly traded him last Friday to the San Francisco
On this midsummer evening, weeks before the trade, Prime Time
isn't even walking, much less ticking. Sanders's injured ankle
is immobilized in ice. His heavy eyelids droop, as does his
hair, which he wears like a foolscap without the bells. On the
whole, Prime Time barely looks alive. It is only briefly, and
with a weary sense of duty, that he acts out his cell-phoning,
self-promoting image. It is only then that Sanders appears, in
the words of friend and Dallas Cowboy receiver Michael Irvin,
"cooler than a cat on a marble table."
More often--as Sanders's diamond Rolex sweeps on silently--the
only ticking comes from his biological clock. He looks old. "I'm
not young," he sighs while slumping his 27-year-old body beside
a locker at the Astrodome in Houston, where his Reds are playing
the Astros. "I feel old all the time. Playing two sports doubles
your age." He yawns gapingly. "Doubles it."
By this math Sanders is 54 years old, which explains all his talk
of retiring--from one sport, anyway. "That time is definitely
coming," he warns apocalyptically. "And it will be football that
goes first. Football will definitely go before baseball."
But time passes--it's all that passes on the best cornerback in
football--and scant weeks after that conversation, Sanders tells
his teammates that he may indeed soon retire. From baseball. Or
so reports Red infielder Lenny Harris. Sanders publicly hinted
as much after the trade. "All I'll say is that I told the guys
the other day that I had a few things on my mind, and they
involved possibly not playing one sport," said Sanders. "I'm not
going to say which one."
Sanders is under contract to play baseball through this season.
He is a free agent in football and has the San Francisco 49ers,
the Dallas Cowboys, the Philadelphia Eagles, the Denver Broncos
and the Miami Dolphins waiting impatiently for him to decide
which team will have his services come October. Sanders was
recently photographed in each of those teams' uniforms for the
box art of a forthcoming video game. So not even Sega knows with
whom he will sign.
Prime Time won't tip his hand ("Football's the last thing I
think about in baseball season," he says), except to proclaim
that the team must be a serious Super Bowl contender. Only
that's not how he puts it. What he says is, "You don't go from a
Yugo [the Atlanta Falcons] to a Benz [the 49ers] back to a
Yugo." Sanders's agent is seeking $3 million for a 10-game
The Niners are encouraged that Sanders is playing baseball in
San Francisco, and according to a Giant executive, gave him a
ringing endorsement when the Giants called Friday morning
looking for references. "I think chances are better than 50
percent that we'll sign him," says 49er president Carmen Policy.
Bronco coach Mike Shanahan, who had lunch with Sanders in June,
seems to concur: "I got the impression that if he could have
financial security and play on good teams, both in one town,
that would appeal to him."
Sanders had hoped to finish this season trying to help the Reds
win a World Series title. Instead, he now gets to share the
spotlight and earrings with Barry Bonds.
"Baseball is a business," the Reds' general manager, Jim Bowden,
said in announcing the deal through quivering lips (the man has
a dog named Prime Time, after all). "Believe me," responded the
understanding Sanders, "if anyone in this world knows business,
This is true. In private, Sanders is one part Prime Time, nine
parts Nap Time. His high-stepping, jewelry-schlepping alter ego
still sells sneakers and CDs--Prime Time Keeps On Ticking, it
turns out, is a song on his rap album--but in unscripted
conversation Sanders is an easy-listening radio station that
rarely crosses into rap. In other words, he's almost entirely an
act. "I always wanted to accumulate enough money to take care of
my family. That's why I created that image in college," says
Sanders. Ever since then, I've been chillin'."
Ever since when you've been chillin'?
"Ever since I signed/On that dotted line/In '89," rhymes Prime,
unable to help himself.
Sanders is quoting from his rap single Must Be the Money, a song
that inventories most of his considerable possessions. "Hey," he
sings at one point in the cut, "my library card gone change into
credit cards." Somewhere Senator Bob Dole is rotating like a
chicken on a spit, contemplating the message this sends to
"Listen," says Sanders, suddenly animated--agitated. "People are
so ignorant. Let me explain the lyrics to you. That song is
called Must Be the Money, and the whole feel of it is: People
didn't make me out to be nobody until I made money."
Which helps explain why he signs his name Deion $anders, and why
he toured last spring rapping Must Be the Money in a money-green
suit festooned with dollar signs. It is, in short, why Sanders
nurtures the elaborate fiction of his Prime Time persona, even
though others now realize that it's all Prime Time jive.
"He was not always this cool Deion Sanders," recalls his friend,
Kansas City Chief linebacker Derrick Thomas. "He was a nerd. He
was the ROTC commander in high school. He was a nerd! Deion, I
love you and I'm sorry for telling everybody this, but you were
Still is. Bedtime for Prime Time, Sanders says, is 10 o'clock
during the football season. He refers to San Francisco, where he
played a fair cornerback for the 49ers last season, as Frisco--a
sure sign of rubedom to Bay Area natives. In fact Sanders is
about as gangsta as Tipper Gore. "Snoop and the Dogg Pound,
they're good friends of mine," says Sanders. But does Snoop
Doggy Dogg fine himself $50 every time he swears? Deion
does--damn and hell excepted.
But what the hell: Nobody gives a damn. "People don't care about
what I do right," Sanders says. "People focus on what I do
wrong. It's like football: People say, 'He doesn't [like to]
tackle,' instead of saying, 'He doesn't miss tackles.'"
Of course, tackling is unnecessary when teams can't complete a
pass against you. And in becoming the Defensive Player of the
Year last season, Sanders began to see fewer passes than the
girl who wears glasses. Which is evidence of one reason that
Frisco signed Sanders as a free agent. Sanders had worked his
Prime Time act for five seasons with the Falcons, but the Niners
saw through it like Crystal Pepsi. "I remember Deion being a
working man's football player," says quarterback Steve Young.
"The hype wasn't the gig, you know?"
But the hype, Sanders concedes, "always overshadows what you do.
A lot of things overshadow the person you are and what you've
accomplished on the field. I've done some things that have
really been overshadowed." And yet, he created the hype. Can a
man be lost in his own shadow?
Apparently so. Thomas recalls a conversation at Sanders's
kitchen table in the small hours of a night five years ago. "At
that point, the media portrayed Deion as just another flamboyant
player," says Thomas. "He hadn't developed into the best corner
in the National Football League yet. Deion had to make a
decision as to whether he wanted to be known as just another
flamboyant player or the best player, whether he was flamboyant
or not. He made a decision to be the best."
Many still can't see it. A newly minted Super Bowl champion, and
perhaps the best player in the NFL, and what did Sanders hear at
the Pro Bowl in February? In Honolulu? "I heard some guy
screaming out, 'Deion you suck, you suck, go back to Atlanta!'"
recalls Niner defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield. "You could
hear it plain as day. Deion just turned around like, O.K., O.K.,
whatever. A lot of people hate Deion Sanders. Hate him real bad."
Ask him why, and Sanders sits blinking like a bullfrog. "I don't
think people hate me," he says at last. But his teammates will
tell you that Sanders reads his hate mail aloud to them in the
locker room. "I don't care what people think," says Sanders
unconvincingly. "That doesn't bother me."
And, anyway, his colleagues know what a million poison-pen pals
do not: Sanders's swagger can be so cartoonish--for instance,
pulling a hammy while hamming it up in the end zone--that he's
actually endearing, if he does say so himself. "You can't
accomplish some of the things I have if you're a nasty, ignorant
person," he notes. "The Lord doesn't like that."
Lord knows, then, that Sanders deserves to drive a $250,000
Lamborghini Diablo, which he has called a "gift from me to me"
for reaching last season's Super Bowl. He did not enclose a card
reading, "To Me, With Love." That would have been gauche. And
understand, Sanders is no nouveau riche superstar.
"See, I've always had things," he says. "None of this stuff is
new to me. I had jewelry before I signed. I had money before I
signed. My mother and father combined probably made $30,000 a
year. But I was still best-dressed. Still had jewelry. I had a
car when I turned 16. So I always had. My family always stuck
In fact Deion's father, Mims (Daddy Buck), abandoned the
family's Fort Myers, Fla., household shortly after Deion's
birth. "He wasn't there with me," Deion acknowledges. "But he
was around the corner."
Deion remains fiercely loyal to Mims, for reasons he cannot
articulate. While his mother, Connie, cleaned hospital rooms for
a living, Mims was an itinerant drug addict. Everyone in the
neighborhood was selling or using. "My childhood friends, all my
boys, 90 percent of them are in jail doing time for drugs," says
Mims died of a brain tumor in 1993. Deion left the Atlanta
Braves to attend the funeral and did not return to the team for
three weeks. To this day he wears MS on his wristbands. "Deion
thirsted to have his father there," says Thomas. "I don't care
what kind of a relationship you have, how bad or good it is,
when you are a young man and you're participating in athletics,
you really want your father there."
Which is why Sanders agonized this year over missing his
daughter's first T-ball game in Cincinnati. (Deion and his wife,
Carolyn, have two children, named--per the grand tradition of
superstar athletes--Deion Jr. and Deiondra.) "They're camcording
the game for me," he said. But he knows it's not the same. His
father's absence has taught him "to always be there," he says.
"I don't care what they say about me when I'm through with
sports, I don't want to be known as anything else in life but a
So he is building his dream house on 85 acres outside Atlanta,
and when he finishes playing games he will never leave it. Or so
he says. The only traveling he cares to do is with a sports
team. "I'll just fish all day," says Sanders. "I'll have
everything I want at home. There's a lake, and I'll stock it
with bass. I'm going to have a football field, a baseball field,
a full-sized indoor basketball court, a putt-putt golf course, a
playground for my kids. All I'll want to do then is take my kids
to school and make sure they get a proper education."
"He says when he's through playing sports, he's just going to
sit on his ass," says Irvin. "He won't do it. No way. Everything
is the ultimate. I don't know that he does anything in
So when he wearies of requests for money from "friends," Sanders
supposedly uproots his answering machine. True story? "People
think you have money to burn," says Sanders, nodding in the
affirmative. "And you don't. I have a family. I have kids. I can
only play sports till I'm 30-some years old, and I've got to
maintain my present lifestyle the rest of my life, man.
"People think that athletes owe them something. People think you
owe your hometown. You don't owe them anything. If you want to
do something for them, do it out of the goodness of your heart.
But you don't owe anybody but the Man Upstairs, who is
responsible for all this. And your parents, for giving birth to
"All this" includes an array of watches unmatched outside of
Zurich, earrings that would be the envy of Elizabeth Taylor and
a comic-book hero's collection of capes, reveals Niner guard
Jesse Sapolu. "Did you know he has capes?"
Appropriately, Sanders treats these expensive possessions as his
only true vice. "I like diamonds," he says with a sigh. "I wear
a Rolex and earrings. But I don't call attention to myself. I
wish I was never recognized, to tell you the truth. All my
teammates know that. I hate to go places with them, even just to
dinner, because then people are all over us."
He wishes he were never recognized? He doesn't call attention to
himself? Prior to the trade, Sanders's voice was the butt of the
Reds' clubhouse humor. "They joke about it all the time," he
says of his teammates' reaction to his CD. "But I think"--he has
waited until the rest of the Reds have taken the field before
even beginning this interview, and now he scans the empty
clubhouse before completing the thought--"I think they're proud
And there it is. Sanders, who says his daughter "knows Daddy is
somewhat special," is actually insecure. Sanders--who said after
the baseball strike, "If we paid fans five dollars to come to
the games, they'd want ten dollars and complain about their
seats"--really does want your love.
"I think that Deion wants to be liked and loved by everybody,"
says Thomas. "The showmanship and the hype and attention push
him in a different direction. But one day when Deion steps away
from this game and the game of baseball, and he has his house on
his 85 acres outside Atlanta and he goes fishing whenever he
chooses, you will then begin to see the true Deion Sanders.
Because then he will be totally at peace with himself."
"Fishing's relaxing, man," says Sanders. "Most relaxing thing in
my life. It's straight-out therapy for me. I don't think about
business, sports--all I think about is catching the next fish."
He smiles dreamily, mentally adrift in a boat. "When I'm
fishing, the phone and the pager stay home."
For a man who never goes phoneless, who is seldom Louis
Vuitton-less, this is quite a statement. There's your headline:
PRIME TIME STOPS TICKING.
"Well," says Sanders after a long pause. "I may bring a phone.
You know, in case of emergency."