Sep 20, 2023 - Sports

Deion Sanders was the athlete 1990s Atlanta needed

A man in a suit shakes hands in front of an Atlanta Braves sign with an athlete wearing a red, black and white track suit and hat reading "I'm the boss"

Deion Sanders shakes hands with Braves general manager John Schuerholz after signing a contract in 1991. Photo: Courtesy of the AJC/Georgia State University Library

Before Deion Sanders became Coach Prime and made Boulder, Colorado, the improbable center of the sports world, he was Prime Time and Neon in Atlanta.

Driving the news: Sanders' remarkable start as Colorado Buffaloes' head coach — they are 3-0 after going just 1-11 under previous leadership last year — has captivated the sports and entertainment industries.

And the Prime excitement is particularly strong in Black households. Black teachers, with no previous connections to Colorado, on social media call Sanders an inspiration.

Why it matters: Here in Atlanta, it's all very familiar. Three decades ago, Sanders created a similar fever when he was a two-sport star for the Falcons and Braves.

Zoom in: "In this 'new age' of college football, he seems to be a one-of-a-kind draw — and hire — that may have more staying power than college football folks may have initially expected," Carl Suddler, an associate professor of history at Emory University, told Axios.

Flashback: From 1989 to the mid-90s, Sanders — a No. 5 NFL draft pick who was hard to miss stepping out of helicopters in trademark Emmanuelle Khanh shades and a Sergio Tacchini tracksuit, Louis Vuitton bag in hand — was the high-profile, trash-talking pro athlete that every city needs.

  • He joined the Braves in 1991, splitting his time between football and baseball, developing a reputation (unfairly, former teammates told The Athletic) as a cocky firebrand.
  • Off the field, he spent time with his family in their Alpharetta home with a football-shaped swimming pool, owned a hair salon, dined at Buckhead's posh Pano's and Paul's, and raked in endorsement deals.

In the process, he helped turn Atlanta's sports teams into winners. The Braves won the division three straight years from 1991 to 1994.

  • And the 1991 Falcons famously became the "2 Legit 2 Quit" team, advancing to the NFL playoffs with superstar rapper MC Hammer a fixture on the sidelines and in the locker room.

Of note: Sanders' spiritual counselor is Dr. E. Dewey Smith, the pastor at House of Hope Atlanta in DeKalb County, 11 Alive reports.

Zoom out: Sanders' trademark swag and boasting has drawn criticism from other college coaches. Yet that swag once displayed by Muhammad Ali, Jack Johnson and scores of Negro League baseball players is attractive to many Black Americans in the face of discrimination.

  • "So many people hold on to the misguided belief that there are 'right ways' to do something, to achieve the highest success in sports. And that 'right way' for Black folks ought to be as far from flashy as possible," Suddler said.

What they're saying: "I loved Atlanta. Atlanta was a chocolate city; they were an understanding city," Sanders told GQ in January about the day the Falcons picked him in the draft. "They were a city on the rise."

  • "They were a city I could ride with, and I knew they was gonna ride with me. I chose them, and they chose me, and it was one of the greatest days of my life."

What's next: No. 19 Colorado Buffaloes take on No. 10 Oregon on Saturday in what will likely be the weekend's most-watched college football matchup.

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