`Prime Time' turns down the volume

Ravens: Deion Sanders, viewed by many fans as an egotistical modern-day athlete, appears to have toned down his act.

September 05, 2004|By Jeff Zrebiec | Jeff Zrebiec,SUN STAFF

There was no high-pitched proclamation of "I'm baaaaack" to satisfy the throng of reporters, who were waiting for the ultimate quote from a player who has made a career of filling newspapers, every bit the way he has filled stat sheets and box scores.

There was no striking purple suit to match the three-piece burgundy and gold eye-opener that he sported when he signed with the Washington Redskins in 2000 -- just a black T-shirt and one gold chain.

Heck, Deion Sanders wouldn't even brag that M&T Bank Stadium is now His House, as he did when he was with the San Francisco 49ers and returned to the Georgia Dome in 1994 to play his former team, the Atlanta Falcons.

By all accounts, Sanders, 37, who was introduced as the newest Raven on Wednesday, finalizing an improbable return to the game after a three-year absence, is a radically different person from the two-sport star who wowed fans with his athletic ability and occasionally alienated them with too much personality.

"He is more mature now," said Sanders' mother, Connie Knight. "[Religion] changed his life."

When Sanders announced his arrival on the NFL landscape 15 years ago, he did so with all the subtlety of a game-breaking punt return.

After the Falcons selected him with the fifth overall pick in the 1989 draft, the brash cornerback and kick returner out of Florida State -- whose extravagance was exceeded perhaps only by his talent and athleticism -- strutted past media members and photographers and through Atlanta's Hartsfield Airport, clad in a jet black leather outfit and pounds of gold jewelry.

At that moment, "Prime Time," a nickname Sanders picked up in high school, started his ascent to the big time, an often glorious, sometimes contentious -- but always colorful -- ride that nearly crashed in 1997, as Sanders revealed years later that he tried to commit suicide by steering his Mercedes off a highway near the Ohio and Kentucky border.

"You got women everywhere and you still ain't happy," Sanders said in the Beyond the Glory documentary that aired on Fox Sports Net in 2001, chronicling his life and career. "You got clothes galore and you still ain't happy. You got everything you wanted, but you're still not happy."

On the surface, fame and fortune, things that defined the "Prime Time" persona that Sanders created as a collegian, don't appear to matter anymore.

The man, who rapped in a 1995 music video that "It Must Be the Money," and etched dollar signs in the dirt near home plate during at-bats as a rookie with the New York Yankees, claimed he is back for the camaraderie, the competition and the chance to win a third Super Bowl ring -- not the $1.5 million he will make this season.

Sanders, a future Hall of Famer and possibly the best cover cornerback ever in the NFL, will play nickel back (fifth defensive back) for the Ravens.

"He is a man that is chasing God, not man," said Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, who refers to Sanders as his older brother. "He doesn't let man dictate who he is going to be, how he is going to live. He lives by God and God only."

Behind the persona

Who is Deion Sanders?

To Ryan Schinman, the president of Platinum Rye Entertainment, a New York company that hires athletes to represent corporations, Sanders is a little reminiscent of Muhammad Ali and still attractive to marketers who are looking for a pitchman who is edgy and speaks his mind.

To some fans, Sanders has long been a symbol of the rich and egotistical modern-day athlete. The image of him dumping a bucket of ice water over the head of Tim McCarver in the Atlanta Braves' clubhouse -- after the announcer criticized Sanders' decision to play a baseball and football game on the same day -- could stand as Exhibit A.

The rap video in which Sanders pranced around, with a fistful of dollars and next to scantily clad women and hot cars, didn't exactly brighten the reputation of a man whose flamboyant style earned him another nickname, "Neon Deion."

Those who know Sanders assert that he has been misunderstood over his career, mistaken for the high-stepping, hip-hopping and trash-talking "Prime Time" persona that Sanders intentionally -- and marketers say brilliantly -- created.

"There's a `Prime Time,' and then there's a Deion," said Knight, who lives in the Fort Myers, Fla., home that her son bought for her. "The dancing, the high stepping -- all of that. That's `Prime Time.' He's not `Prime Time' at home. Deion is quiet, laid back, and he can be very low key. I wish all the time that people knew Deion. He is a good-hearted, giving person. `Prime Time' is just the way he sold himself."

According to Knight, Sanders purposely keeps certain things out of the public eye. In 1997, Sanders donated $1 million to help build a youth center for the Potters House Church in Dallas. For years, he also used his shoe contract at Nike to provide footwear and equipment for his alma mater, North Fort Myers (Fla.) High, said the school's athletic director, Chuck Jager.

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