Sanders, Deion Luwynn

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SANDERS, Deion Luwynn

(b. 9 August 1967 in Fort Myers, Florida), outstanding football cornerback and exciting kick returner who also achieved success in Major League Baseball; the first athlete to play in both the Super Bowl and the World Series.

Sanders's parents, Connie Sanders and Mims Sanders, divorced when Sanders was two years old, and he was raised by his mother and her new husband, Willie Knight. Sanders's football skills were first seen in the Pop Warner League when he was eight. He also began to excel at baseball and basketball. Sanders was a three-sport athlete with Fort Myers High School, and served as a ROTC commander. He played quarterback for his high school football team. As a player at Florida State University from 1985 to 1988, he switched from quarterback to defensive back. In his college career he scored six touchdowns on punt and interception returns, and he was named All-America twice as a defensive back. In addition, he earned the Jim Thorpe award as the best defensive back in the nation. Sanders also ran track and played for the college baseball team, the latter so well that the New York Yankee organization signed him in 1988.

In the 1989 National Football League (NFL) draft the Atlanta Falcons made Sanders the fifth pick in the first round. Shortly thereafter, the American League (AL) New York Yankees brought him to Major League Baseball. There was some question about which sport he would choose, but the Falcons won him with a $4.4 million offer. He hit a home run for the Yankees against the Seattle Mariners, then packed his bags for Atlanta, where he scored on a punt return. No one had ever had a home run in Major League Baseball and a touchdown in Major League Football in the same week. Sanders went on to intercept five passes his rookie year in the NFL.

Sanders's return to baseball was not as impressive. In 1990 he batted a puny .158 for the Yankees, and the team said they would release him unless he gave up football. He refused, and they cut him loose. Back in football, Sanders prospered under Falcons coach Jerry Glanville's coaching. He returned two interceptions for touchdowns in 1990, and the following year he scored on two kickoffs and one interception return, intercepting six passes. The Falcons made it to the second round of the playoffs before losing to the eventual champion Washington Redskins.

Sanders still heard the call of baseball. He signed with the Atlanta Braves of the National League (NL), having a mediocre and truncated 1991 baseball season before returning to the gridiron. The next year, however, Sanders starred on the diamond, batting .304 with twenty-six stolen bases and an NL-leading fourteen triples. After the baseball season, he decided to have it both ways, playing in the World Series for the Braves and flying to Miami for a Falcons football game. Pundits such as sports broadcaster Tim McCarver (whom Sanders later doused with water in a locker-room confrontation) said that Sanders was being typically selfish, sacrificing his World Series play for a two-sport stunt. (Sanders batted .533 and scored four runs in the World Series.)

In 1993 Sanders batted a respectable .276 for the Braves, who won the NL West division, then returned to a Falcons team that had gone 0–5 without him. In a shortened season he found the time to lead the National Football Conference (NFC) in interceptions with seven, and get his first offensive score, catching a seventy-yard touchdown pass.

In 1994 Sanders was traded by the Braves to the Cincinnati Reds. When the baseball strike ended the season prematurely, Sanders was ready for a full season of football. A free agent, he signed with the San Francisco 49ers. He had six interceptions, returning three of them for touchdowns, and he was named the Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year. He intercepted passes in both the NFC Championship and the Super Bowl, as the 49ers became Super Bowl champions.

In 1995 Sanders again was a football free agent, and he signed with the Dallas Cowboys. Sanders favored their first playoff game with a remarkable all-around performance, scoring on a run from scrimmage, catching a pass, intercepting a pass, and returning two punts. In 1996 he began the season playing full-time at both cornerback and wide receiver, turning in good performances at both.

In 1997 Sanders announced that he had become a born-again Christian and returned to baseball with the Cincinnati Reds. He was on his way to his best season, with 126 hits and 56 stolen bases; but when the football season started the Reds were out of contention, so Sanders went back to the Cowboys. They, however, were on a decline, going 6–10 and missing the playoffs for the first time in years.

For the next two years Sanders concentrated on football with the Cowboys. The team was in disarray, and Sanders's skills were slipping. He was occasionally beaten deep by a fast receiver, his exciting returns were fewer and farther between, and he was a burden on the salary cap.

In 2000 the flamboyant Daniel Snyder took over as owner of the Washington Redskins. Snyder wanted to win and win fast, and he wanted to do it with stars. One step was to sign Sanders with an $8 million bonus, but the money did not buy Snyder success. After a disastrous 2000 season, veteran coach Marty Schottenheimer was hired with a mandate to clean house. Sanders was retained but objected that he had not been informed of the changes.

Sanders then decided to gave Major League Baseball one more shot, signing again with the Cincinnati Reds. In his first game of the 2001 season he had three hits, including a three-run homer. This was not a harbinger, however. By 22 June Sanders was hitting a dismal .173, and the Reds released him. Perhaps Sanders saw this as a more general handwriting on the wall. On 27 July Sanders and the Redskins negotiated his retirement from football, and he paid back a substantial portion of his bonus.

Sanders was always a controversial player. Many fans and sportswriters were put off by his ostentatious self-promotion, his excessive jewelry, and his showboating on the field. As a result, his actions were often painted in the most unflattering light possible, and his few relative weaknesses (such as tackling) were overemphasized. In his prime, however, Sanders may have been the best pass-coverage cornerback in the game, able to shut down the opposition's best receiver all by himself; and even at the end of his career, opposing teams kicked to him only with trepidation.

Sanders describes his own career and his turn to religion in Power, Money and Sex: How Success Almost Ruined My Life (1998), written with Jim Nelson Black and T. D. Jakes. Stew Thornley, Deion Sanders: Prime Time Player (1997), is a competent treatment of Sanders's career for children age nine to twelve.

Arthur D. Hlavaty

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Sanders, Deion Luwynn

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