When I was a kid in the early 1990’s, the professional athlete pecking order went a little something like this: Michael Jordan was the greatest; Ken Griffey Jr. (and his backward hat) was the coolest; Mike Tyson was the scariest; Shaq was the biggest; Pete Sampras the most mysterious; and Michael Irvin the loudest, with a few other non-descript guys (Emmitt, Marino, Elway, Ewing, Malone) mixed in too.
Then there was Deion Sanders, a guy who was basically in a class all his own.
With Deion, you never knew quite what you were going to get on a day-today or even hour-to-hour basis, but at the very least, you knew it’d be interesting. He was the brashest, most talkative and occasionally mean-spirited guy in sports, who could also “flick a switch,” on the field when the lights came on like no one else. In a weird way, all of Deion’s talking took away from the fact that he was far and away the best cover corner in the game of football, not to mention a damn good baseball player too. There aren’t many people who can say that they played in the Major League’s as a part-time summer job. But that’s exactly what Deion did at the time.
Still, despite all the athletic exploits, it hardly meant that everyone liked the guy. Not at all. With Deion, you loved him or hated him, embraced him or loathed him, but there was no middle ground in between. No one “kinda liked,” Deion Sanders or “thought he was ok.” If I had to describe Deion in one word (Like I did the athletes above), it’d probably be “polarizing.”
That was definitely the case in the house I grew up in. Now in my defense, I was too young at the time to formulate my own well thought out opinions, so I relied heavily on my parents to do it for me. I took their word as gold, and when it came to Deion Sanders, they couldn’t stand him. The way they’d been raised, and raised us kids was essentially the opposite of everything Deion was about. We were taught to be quite, courteous and respectful of authority. We were told never to discuss ourselves. The one thing my parents never tolerated was arrogance.
It’s because of that, that you can probably understand why a guy like Deion didn’t go over well with them. He wasn’t just arrogant, but an entirely different, not-yet-created word all together. There were the gold chains and bandanas. The trash talking and high-stepping. He even once famously dumped a bucket of ice water on Tim McCarver during a Braves locker room celebration, an act that pissed off my parents to no end. Basically, Deion stood for everything my parents never wanted their kids to be.
(For those wondering, yes, I do understand the unintended irony of my family taking McCarver’s defense after the incident with Deion. But at the time, you have to understand that was the public sentiment, not just my own.
I also wonder what the reaction would be today if someone did the same. The early 1990’s were a different world, and I don’t remember anyone loathing McCarver nearly as much as they do now. Hell, I feel like if someone dumped a bucket of water on McCarver’s head in 2011, they’d probably receive a Presidential Medal of Honor or something.)
Anyway, back to Deion, because I’m going to defend myself here for a second. I speak for a lot of people when I say that during his career, he wasn’t a totally likeable guy, but again, I was young at the time, and now as an adult I see things differently. Really Deion wasn’t all that different from any other person (be it an actor, a musician or athlete) who finds success and fame at a really young age, and doesn’t totally know how to handle it. When you’re in your early 20’s and everyone is constantly saying how great you are, my guess is that after a while, you start to believe it (If you’ve ever read my writing, you obviously know that’s definitely not an issue for me). Clearly that happened with Deion. Earlier I called the 1990’s Deion Sanders “polarizing.” Knowing what I know now, if I had to do it over, I’d probably prefer “immature,” instead.
And interestingly, that immaturity was never more evident than on Saturday night during Deion’s Hall of Fame induction speech. Because for those of us who remember Deion Sanders as the immature guy from our youth, seeing the transition to the mature man he is today was striking. Simply put, everything that Deion Sanders wasn’t 15 years ago, he is now. He’s a family man. A contrite and appreciative one. But above all, he’s just simply a man.
Now obviously when we reflect back on Deion’s speech in a few years, the part we will most remember most will be the discussion about his mom. How at times as a child he was embarrassed by her, and how he decided at an early age to figure out a way to get them to get out of poverty. It’s because of that, that “Prime Time,” was born; a brash, egotistical, arrogant alter-ego that allowed Deion to stand out from the crowd, make himself rich, and get his mom out of the rut she was in, and into the life she deserved. Deion even joked during his induction speech, that to all his critics who accused him of never tackling, “Since 1989, I’ve tackled every bill my momma gave me.”
But while that’s the message everyone will remember, it shouldn’t be. That message makes Deion’s speech about…well, Deion. Instead, listen again closely to the speech. Do that, and you’ll realize that in actuality, the speech had nothing to do with Deion at all. Really, it had to do with everyone besides him.
Deion’s speech was meant for the bus loads of kids that he paid to bring to Canton, and the hundreds of others he mentors (some in the NFL, and some who won’t ever play beyond high school). It was about the people in the crowd Saturday night. And it was about you and me watching at home.
No, Deion’s speech wasn’t about him. It was about using his story, those times when he doubted his mother and practiced the “Prime Time,” routine in the mirror, to inspire us. As he said, “If you don’t believe in yourself, why should anyone believe in you?”
Admittedly, I’m a sap for stuff like this. Again, I grew up in a house where I was taught to stay positive and work hard, and good things will happen. It’s something that I believe to this day.
That’s also why Deion’s speech touched me so much, and why to me, his words brought home a larger point.
Looking back on his career, we remember Deion for his brashness and arrogance, but what we forget is that all the talk doesn’t mean much if you can’t actually play the game (Just ask Brian Bosworth). And as easy as it is to forget now, Deion was a really good football player. The whole Prime Time persona, the gold chains and bandanas, the ego that people couldn’t stand, that might’ve been a way for him to get a bit of attention he wouldn’t have otherwise, but it wasn’t what made him. Football brought a lot of material things, but it was never more important than the football itself. That was best summed up, when he mouthed the words, “If your dream ain’t bigger than you…there’s a problem with your dream.” He’s right. And I got chills when he said it.
Of course again, some people took that quote at surface level. Some were critical of Deion, arguing that while it’s great to have a dream, not everyone can run a 4.4 40 like he could. Not everyone is going to play in the NFL.
Really though, that attitude is just ignorant. Understand that the dream Deion was talking had nothing to do with playing in the NFL, as much as it did setting goals, and working hard to accomplish them. For Deion, the dream was playing in the NFL. For me it has something to do with writing, and for you something entirely different all together. But what’s wrong with having a dream? What’s wrong with trying to accomplish something that someone tells you that you can’t do?
My favorite part of Deion’s speech though, was when he said, “What do we do with our platform?” It was one sentence, and hit me like a ton of bricks.
What do we do with our platform?
Obviously that’s a question that we are constantly asking of our athletes. Some do more than others, and plenty do things discreetly, when the cameras aren’t rolling. But given the platform athletes have, is it enough? And understand, I’m not just talking about writing a check, although obviously that’s important. Still, it’s one thing to write a check, and quite another to be on the ground, getting to know people and connecting with them. It’s something that Deion has done since he retired. But what about everyone else? What do we do with our platform? Not just athletes, but you and I too.
And that’s the thing I will take out of Deion’s speech.
Understand that I certainly enjoyed what everyone else had to say. I enjoyed Marshall Faulk’s story of going from an under-recruited defensive back to All-American running back at San Diego State. I really enjoyed Shannon Sharpe’s emotional comments about his brother, who he believed to be the best football player in their family.
But only Deion’s speech made me stop what I was doing all together, sit down and listen. Only Deion’s speech made me evaluate myself as a human being, and question if I could, or should be doing more.
He was one of a kind as a player, and the same was certainly true Saturday night.
Also for his continued take on all things sports, and updates on his articles, podcasts and giveaways, be sure to follow Aaron on Twitter @Aaron_Torres, or by downloading the Aaron Torres Sports App for FREE for your iPhone or Android Phones)
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@LFJeremy J-So glad you shared your story.As I said yesterday in the column, the one word that stood out to me with his speech was "mature." We always want our athletes to grow up, to do more for the community, to act like they appreciate what they're blessed with, and I couldn't help but think that when I heard Deion speak. This was a man who spent most of his speech talking about himself...but only as a metaphor for what we could all achieve as people. Granted, I'm a sucker for this inspirational crap. But it still hit me in just the right. And if you can find it online, I definitely, definitely encourage you to find the clip on Youtube. Well worth your time.AaronAaron