The NFL is introduced to "Prime Time" Deion Sanders in '89 draft
When Deion Sanders was selected by the Atlanta Falcons with the fifth overall pick of the 1989 draft, everyone knew the Falcons were getting a special talent. How that would translate to the NFL was unknown, although hopes were certainly high. Whatever the expectations were, Sanders would go on to exceed them with a Hall of Fame career playing for the Falcons, Cowboys, 49ers, Redskins and Ravens.
What happened during the journey is now enshrined in NFL folklore, but, in truth, the moment Prime Time swaggered into the league on the back of his "low key" draft day interview, everyone should have known that this was going to be a fun ride.
The fact that he was still available at five when the Falcons were on the clock in 1989 would have been unimaginable, had it not been for two distinct reasons. Firstly, the top of the '89 draft was stacked. Chosen ahead of Neon Deion were Troy Aikman, Barry Sanders and Derrick Thomas, all of whom would go on to have Hall of Fame careers.
The only player taken ahead of Prime Time who did not reach Canton was Tony Mandarich, the second overall pick of the Green Bay Packers. Mandarich shot up the draft board on the back of what many consider to be the greatest Combine performance of all time.
Second, Sanders and his team made it abundantly clear during the pre-draft process that he only wanted to go to the Falcons. Since Sanders was a two-sports superstar, and a member of the New York Yankees roster, he had the leverage he needed to punch his ticket to Georgia. Sanders had the following to say, when asked about his relief at the Lions passing on him on draft day:
"I would’ve asked for so much money they would’ve had to put me on layaway."
Super Bowls and a World Series. Prime Time did it all!
Deion Sanders did nothing by halves. The elite cornerback who played special teams and wide receiver was a true one-of-a-kind. On the second play of his NFL career, he signaled his arrival by returning a punt 68 yards for a touchdown, giving fans their first glimpse of his famous highstep.
Prime Time would spend five seasons with the Falcons were their greatest team success came in 1991, when the Falcons made it to the divisional playoff round before losing out to the Washington Redskins. While in Atlanta, Sanders' MLB career continued to run in parallel with his NFL one.
Deion left the Yankees in 1990 to sign with the Atlanta Braves were he would have far greater team success compared to the Falcons. He was part of the Braves squad that made it to the 1991 divisional series. However, a clause in his NFL contract meant he had to report to training camp and subsequently missed the post-season.
That clause was adjusted prior to the 1992 MLB season, just in time for Sanders to reach the pinnicle of his MLB career as the Braves went to that year's World Series against the Toronto Blue Jays. Sanders was statistically the Braves' top performer against the Blue Jays, but that wasn't enough to prevent them from losing the series in six games.
During this time in Atlanta, Prime Time narrowly missed out on a small piece of history by becoming the only player to compete in an NFL and MLB game on the same day. After playing for the Falcons, he flew to Pittsburgh for the Braves game against the Pirates but, unfortunately, did not play in the game.
Sanders had achieved great individual success in the NFL, but had little hardware to show for his efforts. That would change in 1994 when Prime Time went to San Francisco. He only spent a single season with the 49ers, but that was all he needed as the Niners won Super Bowl XXIX, and Sanders was named DPOY.
That year would also see an infamous return to the Georgia Dome for Deion, as he got involved in an altercation with Falcons WR Andre Rison, before later taking a 93-yard interception to the house and taunting the Falcons sideline most of the way.
By 1995, his MLB career had taken him from the Braves and briefly to both the Cincinnati Reds and San Francisco Giants before he would miss the 1996 MLB season. Sanders returned for the 1997 season with the Reds and finished second in stolen bases that year. Despite still performing at a high level, Prime Time retired from baseball.
As he called time on his MLB career, Prime Time was still very much in full flow in the NFL. Following a career year with 49ers, Sanders was able to parlay those exploits into a record-breaking contract, as multiple teams vied for his signature in what became known as the Deion Sweepstakes.
The Dallas Cowboys stumped up a $35 million, seven-year contract to move Prime Time to Texas and, in the process, made him the highest-paid defensive player of all time. Jerry Jones' investment was instantly rewarded as the Cowboys went on to win Super Bowl XXX in his first season.
He would spend five years in Dallas, and in 1996, he would also take the field as a wide receiver, making 36 receptions for 475 yards and a touchdown. A year with the Washington Redskins would follow, and after missing the Pro Bowl for the first time since his injury hit in the '95 season, Prime Time waved goodbye to pro football, for now.
Having originally retired from baseball in 1997, Neon Deion made a one-season return to the Cincinnati Reds in 2001, and though there were some highlight reel moments, Prime Time could not recapture his old form, and was released after just 29 games. Finally, in 2004, Sanders would give football one last hurrah, spending two seasons with the Baltimore Ravens, and even at the age of 37, he was making plays.
The Ravens missed the playoffs in 2005, and that brought the curtain down on his legendary career. It is almost impossible to list all of the achievements of this gifted player, as you are bound to miss something. Players like Sanders are once in a lifetime, and it is unlikely we will ever see any dual-sport athletes again.
Kyler Murray's and Russell Wilson's of the world will continue to come along, but NFL contracts make it almost impossible to compete in a different sport, while playing football. If you missed Prime Time, you missed something truly special. Thank goodness for YouTube.