'Prime Time' turns down the volume

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

Sanders, a seven-time Pro Bowl selection, also was generous to his teammates, buying members of the Falcons' return team leather outfits and Gucci watches after he returned a punt for a touchdown. Sanders owns the NFL record with 18 touchdowns on returns (fumbles, kickoffs, punts and interceptions).

"He certainly is not one of those guys who has a lock on his wallet, and he spreads it around," said former 49ers teammate Brent Jones.

When the 49ers signed Sanders as a free agent in 1994, Jones was expecting the player who breezed through practices, choreographing end zone dance routines with rapper and friend MC Hammer. What he got, Jones said, was a guy who was constantly working hard, studying videotape and helping younger teammates. Jones said Sanders was extremely popular in a veteran-laden locker room.

"Prior to him being on our team, I was a Deion dissenter," said Jones, now an analyst for CBS. "But it was a clear case where the perception was not reality. He is an introspective guy and a very detailed and focused individual. And he is a fun guy to be around."

Even on a veteran team like the Braves, former pitcher Mike Bielecki, a Dundalk native who was Sanders' teammate for three seasons, recalls the center fielder fitting in perfectly.

When the Braves were in New York, Sanders would take Bielecki to chic clothing stores and "get me all of his good deals. ... I just hoped the clothes weren't coming from the back of some truck."

But most important to Bielecki and the Braves, Sanders "was a good team guy and he wanted to win."

After retiring from the Redskins, Sanders became a commentator for NFL Today. He was praised by some media critics for his candor and amped-up style.

But Sanders and CBS parted ways in May as Sanders reportedly asked for a contract extension worth $2 million, telling USA Today after the split, "I don't think anyone in the profession did as much as me."

"He never got the credit as a television performer that I believed he deserved," said Jim Nantz, who was the host of NFL Today and developed a close friendship with Sanders. "No one outworked him. He was determined to become the best analyst ever."

The night before the show, Nantz said that he and Sanders would talk on the phone for hours, exchanging ideas and planning different segments.

Sanders' next venture in television -- as host of ESPN's The New American Sportsman -- went belly-up when the network decided it wanted a host who could both hunt and fish.

"People think things come so naturally for Deion, whether on the field or in broadcasting, that he just breezes through everything, but there's a lot of hard work behind him," Nantz said.

Nantz described the news that Sanders would not return to the show as "wrenching."

'I just prayed for him'

Ron Hoover, Sanders' football coach in high school, can tell dozens of stories about Sanders' three-sport (football, baseball and basketball) legacy at North Fort Myers, where Sanders became "Prime Time" after burning a local basketball rival with a flurry of dunks.

"In high school, he wasn't like what you saw later," Hoover said. "You get him by yourself and Deion is down to earth, but of course, you put TV cameras around him, and you are going to get something totally different."

Hoover's favorite Sanders story?

That's easy. It was the time Sanders, who was a left-handed option quarterback, and three other players challenged the school's vaunted 400-meter relay team to a race. The boys of the gridiron beat the track stars by nearly 10 yards. Sanders didn't break a sweat.

Hoover and Jager, the school's current athletic director who was then one of the small, skinny phenom's baseball coaches, remember Sanders as a mild-mannered and often quiet kid who played three sports because it kept him off the dangerous streets of his Fort Myers neighborhood, where he lived in a public housing project.

"You never had to look where he was because he was always on the field," said Knight, who raised Deion and his younger sister after Sanders' father left the family.

Beyond the Glory documented the father's problems with drugs, which Sanders cites as the reason that he doesn't drink or smoke.

"When [Deion] was here, he wasn't one of those smoke-and-drink guys," said his football coach at Florida State, Bobby Bowden. "He's always been pretty clean physically."

That's not to say that Sanders didn't have other problems, many of which surfaced at about the time he was becoming the only man in history to play in both a World Series (he hit .533 for the Braves in 1992) and a Super Bowl (he earned rings with the 49ers in 1994 and the Cowboys in 1995).

His father died of a brain tumor, and Sanders' first marriage to Carolyn Chambers ended in divorce and with Sanders losing custody of his son and daughter. Sanders acknowledged in Beyond the Glory that he was developing a reputation as a womanizer and morphing into a character more like the "Prime Time" persona.

"My thing was having sex with many women," Sanders said in the documentary. "I didn't discriminate."

But according to Beyond the Glory, his unhappiness with an increasingly lavish lifestyle hit a low point on a May night in 1997. Sanders left a suicide note for his manager, Eugene Parker, and then late at night, he proceeded to veer off a highway and down an embankment. He emerged from the incident without a scratch.

Knight said that she learned of the suicide attempt only after the documentary aired four years later.

"As a mother, what reaction can you have?" Knight said. "I didn't know what to say. I just prayed for him."

A new life

Since then, Sanders said that his "prayers for deliverance" have been answered.

He and his wife, Pilar, whom he married in 1999, have three children. They live in a Dallas-area estate, near a big pond, where Sanders can satisfy his tremendous appetite for fishing.

He is also a deeply religious man, often speaking to others in Bible study classes. To Sanders, Bishop T.D. Jakes, the renowned evangelical preacher who baptized him, is a spiritual father.

"He grew up in church, but as you get older, you get away from it," Knight said. "But Bishop Jakes counseled him a lot and he's really a different person. I'm proud that he's changed."

Nantz, whom Sanders consulted before he announced the comeback, said Sanders wanted to finish his career on his terms.

Sanders' last year with the Redskins in 2000 was marred by injuries and inconsistency.

"He is doing this for all the right reasons," Nantz said. "If you're ever fortunate to be in Deion's world, you'll find that he has this determination to be great at something.

"Whatever you want to say about Deion and the whole 'Prime Time' aura, at the core of it is a guy that will never settle for anything but being the best. Unfortunately, I think the 'Prime Time' thing belies his determination and the real drive to be great."

Sun staff writers Jamison Hensley, Don Markus, Ken Murray and Ed Waldman contributed to this article.

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