Call him “Primetime.” Call him “Neon Deion.” We just call him one of the most exciting football players ever. Deion Sanders was so dynamic on the football field that one sport wasn’t enough for him. Sanders is one of the few successful dual-sport athletes of modern times, even if his NFL career was definitely stronger than his MLB one. Here’s a look at the athletic superstar who was indeed too legit to quit.
Sanders was drafted by the Kansas City Royals in the 1985 MLB Draft, but he chose not to sign, instead going to Florida State where he was more than a baseball player. Sanders repped the Seminoles’ sports teams in football, baseball, and also track, though football was his focal point.
It’s hard to be a star as a cornerback sometimes. You don’t get to make many exciting plays and sometimes if you are good enough teams just don’t throw at you. Sanders didn’t have that problem. He intercepted 14 passes in his career, including one he returned for 100 yards. Deion was a two-time All-American as a cornerback, but he was also possibly the best punt returner in the nation as well.
Sanders was a sixth-round pick in the MLB Draft out of high school, and after three years in college, he became eligible for the draft again. This time, the Yankees took him, but it was in the 30th round. Now, this wasn’t a knock on his talent. Teams just figured that Sanders, as an elite football prospect, was heading to the NFL, and it’s not like he could play two sports at once…right?
As expected, Sanders was highly sought after in the 1989 NFL Draft. When he ran a 4.27 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine, his stock soared even higher. At a time when defensive backs weren’t usually drafted that highly, Sanders went fifth overall to the Atlanta Falcons in what was a stacked top five featuring four future Hall of Famers (and also Tony Mandarich).
Despite having an NFL career to attend to, Deion had actually signed with the Yankees and went down to the minor leagues. The dual careers helped him find leverage with both teams. Sanders was promoted to the majors with the Yankees in May of 1989, and that fall he would make his NFL debut. At one point that year, Sanders hit a home run and scored a touchdown in the same week. Nobody else has ever done that.
For as much excitement as Sanders could bring as an athlete, he didn’t exactly hit the ground running in baseball. He had been rushed to the pros and also had the whole NFL career going on. Sanders hit .158 in the 1990 season, and the Yankees waived him after that season. The Braves, who played in Atlanta just like his NFL team, signed him to a contract.
Football went more smoothly for “Neon Deion,” and by 1992 he was a superstar. That year, he made his first All-Pro team as a cornerback, but he was also the best kick returner in the league as well. Sanders was named an All-Pro on that front as well. By the way, in 1998 he would be an All-Pro as a punt returner as well.
Apparently, 1992 was a great year to be Deion Sanders. In addition to double-dipping on the All-Pro team in the NFL, Sanders had his best season in baseball as well. While he could only play in 97 games on the account of his other job, he still stole 28 bases and lead the National League with 14 triples. Sanders was fast. Who knew? The Braves made it to the World Series, where Sanders played, but the team fell short.
After five seasons with the Falcons, Sanders decided it was time to move on. It worked out well for both sides. Deion picked off six passes that season, returning three of them for touchdowns. The 49ers made it to the Super Bowl, where they made easy work of the San Diego Chargers. Sanders and Bo Jackson are the two people to ever play in both a Super Bowl and World Series.
Sanders burnt brightly but quickly in San Francisco. The 1994 season would be his only year there. Sanders was a free agent again, and Jerry Jones was more than happy to make him the highest-paid defensive player to get him to join the Cowboys.
The signing paid off for the Cowboys, as Sanders made three All-Pro teams as a cornerback in Dallas (plus that punt returner nod). Deion had hoped heading down to Dallas would get him a couple more Super Bowls rings, and he did indeed win in 1995, his first season with the team. However, it would be his last time winning a Super Bowl.
While his football career was going exceedingly well, Sanders’s baseball career was a little more of an adventure. After a few seasons with Atlanta, he spent a couple of years with the Reds and had a cup of coffee with the Giants in 1995 as well. In 1996, he didn’t play baseball at all. Then, in 1997 he returned to Cincinnati and managed to steal 56 bases in 115 games, which was enough to finish second in the National League.
Deion was getting a little older by this point, and a full-on dual-sport career was probably getting hard to handle. After the 1997 MLB season, Sanders stepped away from baseball. However, it would not prove to be the true end of his baseball career.
After his time in Dallas, Sanders moved to its rival in Washington, where Dan Snyder was happy to hand him a massive seven-year contract. He played in Washington in 2000 and picked off four passes while leading the league in passes defended.
Despite signing a seven-year deal, Sanders would not end up playing out even half of that deal. After the 2000 season, Deion abruptly retired from the NFL, ending his career…for now.
Why did Sanders retire from the NFL? It may have something to do with what happened in 2001. Deion decided to return to baseball, signing with the Reds. However, he was really struggling and got released after only 29 games. He did not want to give up, though, and signed a minor-league deal with the Blue Jays. While playing in Triple-A, Washington insisted that he come back to the NFL for training camp. His contract with the team said that he could miss time for MLB baseball, but since he was in the minors Washington said they had the right to insist he show up. Sanders did indeed show up, but then promptly told Snyder and company he was retired.
Of course, Sanders did not stay retired. After a few seasons away from the NFL, Sanders returned in 2004 by signing with the Baltimore Ravens. His first season he was limited to nine games, but for one last time, he returned an interception for a touchdown. Sanders was able to play a full 16 games in 2005, picking up two more picks.
After the 2005 season, the Ravens didn’t make the playoffs, and Sanders had spent years playing two professional sports. While his love for competition was clear, Sanders did finally retire for good as an athlete after that final season in Baltimore.
If you weren’t around at the time, you might not realize just how much of a celebrity Sanders is. He loved the spotlight, yes, but he also had a ton of charisma. There’s a reason he was known as “Prime Time” and “Neon Deion.” We mentioned “Too Legit to Quit,” the MC Hammer song which featured Sanders in the video, but he actually released a rap album of his own. He was in a ton of ads, and that’s even true these days when he pitches Subway. Deion also hosted “Saturday Night Live” in 1995 after the 49ers won the Super Bowl, making him the rare athlete to do that.
In addition to some acting spots and even some reality TV, Sanders has been an NFL analyst as well. He spent some time with CBS, but Sanders is best known for his time on NFL Network, including during their NFL Draft coverage.
Sanders decided to get into football on the high school level as well. He served as offensive coordinator Trinity Christian School in Cedar Hill, Texas from 2017 through 2020, which was when his sons were there playing football. However, we also need to mention Prime Prep Academy, a collection of charter schools that Sanders founded in 2012. Prime Prep was swiftly overrun with ethical, legal, and financial issues, and would fold in 2015 due to a lack of funding.
Can Sanders take his coaching career to the next level? He’s getting a chance. Deion was hired as the new head coach of Jackson State University, an FCS school, prior to the 2020 season. He got both of his sons to transfer from FBS schools to join him, but on top of that Sanders has already shown some skill on the recruiting front. Now, we have to see how it works on the field.
The fact Sanders was able to play professionally in both MLB and NFL is truly incredible. His baseball career was fine, as he finished with a career average of .263 while stealing 186 bases. In the end, though, Sanders will be best remembered for his football career. He’s legitimately in the running for the best defensive back of all time. Sanders was a first-team All-Pro as a cornerback six times and was named Defensive Player of the Year in 1994. He made the NFL’s All-Decade Team for the ‘90s both as a cornerback and a punt returner. Obviously, he’s in the Hall of Fame, but is he the best cornerback in there? We’d accept that argument.