As eventual winners of three Super Bowls in four seasons, Troy Aikman and the early-1990’s Dallas Cowboys rarely backed down from a challenge. Yet as I sat in the passenger seat of Aikman's truck talking with the quarterback about the Cowboys gameplan for the 1994 season-opener at Pittsburgh, Aikman privately conceded to me that there was one NFL obstacle he preferred to avoid altogether.
No, it wasn’t 1993 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Rod Woodson, future holder of the NFL records for career interception-return yardage and interception returns for touchdowns and inductee of the Class of 2009 of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“No, we’re not afraid to throw at him,’’ Troy said of arguably the second-best cornerback of his generation. “There’s only one guy who we don’t throw at. Who we really don’t bother trying to succeed against. …
Deion Sanders ascended into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this week, joining Woodson and Aikman and the rest of the sport’s all-time greats. But Aikman’s scouting report on Sanders – at that time with the 49ers, a year away from coming to Dallas and becoming one of the league’s first mercenaries – speaks volumes:
There is a vast gap in talent and performance between Deion and whomever you believe is the second-best cover corner in NFL history.
Sanders is a two-time Super Bowl champion, having starred for San Francisco and Dallas after beginning his flamboyant and controversial career with Atlanta and ending with stints in Washington and Baltimore after 14 NFL seasons. He was an eight-time Pro Bowler and a nine-time first-team All-Pro. He followed up Woodson’s ’93 award with his own NFL Defensive Player of the Year trophy in ’94. On the relatively rare occasions when quarterbacks violated Aikman’s tenet and did challenge Deion, he frequently punished them with scores in the other direction. Sanders, who was also a brilliant punt returner and a compelling part-time receiver when with the Cowboys, scored touchdowns on punt returns (six), kickoff returns (three), interceptions (nine), fumble recoveries (one) and receptions (three). Sanders is a member of the NFL's All-Decade team of the 1990s as a cornerback and punt returner.
But the decision he made while at Florida State to consciously market his flashy side made him a lightning rod for critics. Especially with Aikman’s Cowboys – a team built on the harmony that came when the club’s stars were its hardest workers – Deion’s personal style ruffled feathers.
“How do you think defensive backs get attention?" Sanders once said, uttering a credo that serves him well even today. "They don't pay nobody to be humble.’’
In his very first press conference as a Cowboy in 1995 after having jumped archrivals from San Francisco to Dallas while receiving “quarterback money’’ (a seven-year deal worth $35 million, including a $13 million signing bonus), Sanders broke an unwritten team rule.
The Cowboys players never discussed their salaries in public, and tried to avoid the topic privately, too, Aikman, Michael Irvin and other team leaders believing money talk would be divisive.
“Are you mad about the money?’’ Sanders rapped, tauntingly, into the microphones as a DFW and national-TV audience watched, some amused, some horrified.
Sanders was a rapper (in Atlanta he’d released the album "Prime Time" featuring the single "Must Be The Money’’), a preacher, an artist, an aspiring movie star (I remember being in the theater thinking his cameo at the end of “Celtic Pride’’ suggested some promise in this area), a businessman, a showman … it would be easy to close this paragraph with the cliché, “but mostly, he was a football player.’’
But that would not be true. Because he was also a baseball player and he seemed to savor the leverage that his many talents allowed him.
Sanders, simply, was always too talented to ever hear the word “no’’ – or maybe to ever even be told the word.
So he showed up at Dallas’ training camp with a Mercedes-Benz golf cart. He held the Cowboys “hostage,’’ in a sense, by constantly teasing that he might leave football for baseball – and when he did jump back to baseball, he sneaked up behind broadcaster Tim McCarver and dumped a bucket of water on him as punishment for daring to criticize Sanders’ play. He refused to engage in the barbaric art of tackling, insisting that his status as a “cover corner’’ (maybe the first to ever wear that tag) put him above such hair-mussing involvement. As his career in Dallas wound down, he seemed to participate in practice only occasionally, maybe injuries and attitude combining to take their toll. While Barry Switzer was his head coach, Sanders involved himself in a racially-charged controversy, allegedly helping to flame assistant coach and Switzer lieutenant John Blake’s accusations of bias on the part of organizational centerpiece Aikman.
Deion wanted headlines. Deion got headlines.
His autobiography garnered attention when Sanders detailed his contemplation of suicide. His Yankees career got attention when he responded to criticism for not hustling by responding, “The days of slavery are over.’’ His wardrobe (highlighted by dollar signs) helped net him national advertising campaigns with American Express, Pepsi and Nike.
Sanders’ crafty intellect is almost as unique as his athletic skill. He didn’t just score; he high-stepped it into the end zone, ball held arrogantly behind his head, a foolish football move but a brilliant marketing move. Two generations of kids now celebrate breakaway backyard TDs in exactly that fashion. Had you ever heard of a “do-rag’’ before Deion wore one? And the Atlanta Braves fans still do the “Tomahawk Chop,’’ a gesture some say Sanders helped move from Florida State to the Braves.
Deion’s smile is also among his signatures, as is his sing-song verbal delivery, now a part of the NFL Network’s coverage. His personality can be infectious, and is put to good use with his extensive charity work with kids – work that in some cases, probably not coincidentally, puts him in direct contact with potential football stars of the future.
"You like to think you have an influence on people's lives off the field, that's the main thing," Sanders recently told ESPN, in a way deflecting the notion that his work with kids is also part of working every angle. "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."
Who is Deion Sanders? That’s a complex question. But one answer is beyond dispute: He’s gotten to another level. He’s a Hall-of-Famer.