MOTIVATION & INSPIRATION
By Deion Sanders with Tejado W. Hanchell, Ph. D
Deion’ professional football career started the same year as his baseball career, 1989. He was the fifth pick overall in the 1989 NFL Draft by the Atlanta Falcons, where he played until 1993. Deion returned his first career punt return for a touchdown. During his time in Atlanta, he intercepted 24 passes (including a career high 7 in 1993), three of which he returned for touchdowns. In 1992, he also led the league in kickoff return yards (1,067), yards per return (26.7) and return touchdowns (2). On October 11, 1992, Deion played in a Falcons game at Miami and then flew to Pittsburgh, hoping to play in the Braves’ League Championship Series game against the Pirates that evening and become the first athlete to play in two professional leagues in the same day. Deion ultimately did not, however, appear in the baseball game that night. Over his five years with the Falcons, Deion found his way to the end zone ten times (three defensive, three kick returns, two punt returns, and two receptions).
San Francisco 49ers
After five seasons Sanders signed on to play one season with the San Francisco 49ers, where he had arguably his best season as a professional football player, recording six interceptions and returning them for an NFL best 303 yards and three touchdowns. On October 16, 1994, Deion was the big story as he made his dramatic return to the Georgia Dome in a 49er uniform. After getting into a scuffle with his former Falcon teammate Andre Rison, Sanders intercepted a pass from quarterback Jeff George and proceeded to return it 93 yards while staring down the entire Falcons sideline before high-stepping into the end zone. Sanders was later voted the 1994 NFL Defensive Player of the Year and recorded an interception in the 49er uniform. After getting into a scuffle with his former Falcon teammate Andre Rison, Sanders intercepted a pass from quarterback Jeff George and proceeded to return it 93 yards while mockingly staring down the entire Falcons sideline before high-stepping into the end zone. Sanders was later voted the 1994 NFL Defensive Player of the Year and recorded an interception in the 49ers 49–26 win over the San Diego Chargers in Super Bowl XXIX.
On September 9, 1995 (which happened to fall in Week 2 of that NFL season), Sanders signed a contract with the Dallas Cowboys making him, at the time, the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL. Sanders later stated in his book Power, Money & Sex: How Success Almost Ruined My Life that the Oakland Raiders offered him more money than any other team, but he chose to play in Dallas for more time on the offensive side of the ball, a chance to win back-to-back Super Bowls, and because of his friendship with Cowboys wide receiver Michael Irvin. Arthroscopic surgery kept him sidelined until his debut in Week 9, which was once again in Atlanta against the Falcons, though this time Sanders’ debut with his new team was not as dramatic as it was with the 49ers (the Cowboys won, 28 to 13). He went on to help the Cowboys win their third Super Bowl title in four years in Super Bowl XXX against the Pittsburgh Steelers, where he returned a punt for 11 yards and caught a 47-yard reception on offense, setting up Dallas’ first touchdown of the game and a 27–17 victory. Sanders proceeded to play four more seasons with Dallas, earning Pro Bowl berths in all of them, though the Cowboys would only win one playoff game (in 1996 against the Minnesota Vikings) during that time.
After five seasons with the Cowboys, new Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder pursued Sanders along with other high priced free agents Mark Carrier and Bruce Smith. Sanders played one season with the Redskins, having four interceptions before retiring in 2001. Late in the 2002 NFL season Sanders contemplated a return to the NFL, specifically to the Oakland Raiders. With his rights still the property of the Redskins, he lobbied and received his release from the team and was waived. The San Diego Chargers claimed Sanders’ rights and placed him on their Reserve-Retired List. Sanders opted to stay retired.
In 2004, Sanders announced that he was going to end his retirement, after being lured back to football by Ravens cornerback Corey Fuller, linebacker Ray Lewis and best friend Joe Zorovich. He signed a 1-year deal with the Baltimore Ravens to be a nickelback. Sanders chose to wear the number 37, which matched his age at the time, to preemptively let people know that he was well aware of his relative senior status as an NFL player (additionally, the number 21, used by Sanders throughout his career, was already being worn by Ravens Pro Bowl cornerback Chris McAlister). Against the Buffalo Bills in Week 7 of 2004, Sanders scored his ninth career interception return touchdown, moving him into a tie for second place with Ken Houston and Aeneas Williams, and behind Rod Woodson (with 12) for all-time in the statistical category.
Sanders played a nine-year, part-time baseball career, playing 641 games with 4 teams. He was originally drafted by the Kansas City Royals in the 6th round of the 1985 draft, but did not sign with them. He was drafted again in the 30th round of the 1988 draft by the New York Yankees and signed with the team on June 22. Sanders later signed with the Atlanta Braves, and during his most productive year in the majors, the 1992 season, he hit .304 for the team, stole 26 bases, and led the NL with 14 triples in 97 games. During the 1989 season, he hit a major league home run and scored a touchdown in the NFL in the same week, the only player to ever do so. Sanders is also the only man to play in both a Super Bowl and a World Series.
Sanders is known in Braves lore as the player who brought the “tomahawk chop”. It was adopted by those fans, as Sanders, himself a Florida State alum, was familiar with the Seminoles War Chant. The tomahawk chop continues to be a rally gesture for Braves fans to this day.
On July 31 of the 1991 MLB season, Sanders hit a key three-run homer to spark a comeback win against the Pittsburgh Pirates during the Braves’ improbable run to the National League West Division title. However, he had to leave the Braves the very next day to report to the Atlanta Falcons because of a clause in his NFL contract and missed the postseason. Before the 1992 season, Sanders reworked his NFL deal whereby he still reported to the Falcons for training camp in August, but was allowed to rejoin the Braves for the postseason.
In four games of the 1992 World Series, Sanders batted .533 with 4 runs, 8 hits, 2 doubles, and 1 RBI while playing with a broken bone in his foot. Despite Sanders’s performance, the Braves ultimately lost to the Toronto Blue Jays in six games. In Game 3, he narrowly avoided being a victim of what would have been only the second triple play in World Series history (following Bill Wambsganss’ unassisted triple play in 1920). With Sanders on second base and Terry Pendleton on first, David Justice hit a deep fly ball to center field that Blue Jays center fielder Devon White unexpectedly caught with a leaping effort. Pendleton passed Sanders on the bases for the second out, but umpire Bob Davidson called Sanders safe after he scampered back to second base. Replays showed that Toronto third baseman Kelly Gruber tagged him on the heel before he returned to second.
In 1997, Sanders finished 2nd in the NL with 56 stolen bases in 115 games while with the Cincinnati Reds before leaving baseball for three years.
Sanders returned to the Reds in 2001, but was released after playing in only 29 games and batting just .173. Following his release from the Reds he signed a minor league contract with the Toronto Blue Jays triple-A affiliate, Syracuse Chiefs. Sanders was hitting .337 for Syracuse before the Washington Redskins found a loophole in his contract that said he could miss training camp and the first few games of the season if he were playing Major League Baseball. Since he was not currently on an MLB roster, Sanders had to leave Syracuse and return to the Redskins so he would not violate his NFL contract. But before arriving at training camp, Sanders informed Redskins personnel he was retiring from professional baseball. In his final professional baseball game, Sanders hit a solo home run and had an RBI single in Syracuse’s 12-6 win over the Toledo Mud Hens.