For four weeks in 2015, DeMarcus Peterson was a proud member of the Texas Southern University track and field team.

He arrived on campus with a scholarship he had earned at Prime Prep Academy, the Dallas charter school co-founded by Pro Football Hall of Famer Deion Sanders. Peterson remembered Sanders’s frequent pledge to get him and his classmates “to and through college.” He remembered receiving his scholarship offer letter from Texas Southern and one of his coaches displaying it in the school hallway for all to see.

“It was, like, probably the best thing I’ve had all my life,” Peterson said.

By then, he also knew Sanders’s vision for a school had flaws. Prime Prep had attracted top-flight athletes from around the country, including NBA first-round draft picks Emmanuel Mudiay and Terrance Ferguson and Baltimore Ravens wide receiver James Proche II. But the school’s brief existence was marred by crushing debt, administrative infighting and a trail of lawsuits. Prime Prep closed during Peterson’s senior year, forcing him and other students to transfer.

Still, Peterson had his scholarship, just as Sanders promised. He got to campus, started practicing with his teammates and relished the grind of being a college athlete.

Then, one day, his coach called him into the office. Peterson was academically ineligible to run track. The university stripped his scholarship. He quit the team, found work as a lifeguard and took out student loans. Four years later, he said, he graduated with $35,000 in debt.

“I was told because of the classes that I had took at Deion Sanders’s school — that he had built, that he created, that he told us that it would be accredited, which it wasn’t — those classes, unfortunately, they did not count,” Peterson said in an interview. “It kind of was a waste of time.”

Years later, Peterson remains a student, still swinging shifts at the campus pool while working toward his master’s degree in sociology. And despite Prime Prep’s implosion, his old coach is back at school, too.

On Sept. 21, Mississippi’s Jackson State University announced Sanders as its next football coach. Though Sanders had never coached in college, his supporters praised the hire as a coup for the public historically Black college, which has a rich legacy but few resources to compete for talent with the South’s football powers.

Sanders’s hire comes as top Black prospects, in a year defined by demands for racial equality and heightened social consciousness, are doing something they haven’t for decades: considering HBCUs over blue blood programs. Makur Maker committed to Howard University, the first five-star basketball recruit to commit to an HBCU. Noah Bodden, a quarterback with almost 20 offers, committed to Grambling. Now Jackson State, by bringing in a household name, believes it has made the splashiest hire for this movement.

Ahead of his official start date, Sanders, while staying busy hosting his podcast “21st and Prime” and appearing in commercials as a Subway pitchman, secured six transfer players from Football Bowl Subdivision programs.

“With all the attention that he’s getting, I think that part is good for Black college football, period,” North Carolina A&T Coach Sam Washington said.

Through Jackson State, Sanders declined to be interviewed and did not respond to written questions about his time at Prime Prep. During his official introduction, he suggested his presence will be good not just for Black college athletes but Black college students, too. “We’re raising professionals,” he said.

But it wasn’t that long ago when Sanders was making a similar pledge to young Black men at Prime Prep. A few of them remember those promises. Years later, they say the hype did not live up to their hopes.

“It’s good to say I played for [Sanders]. I was an athlete for him at his school,” Peterson said. “But when you look at it, it’s just kind of a huge fallacy.”

Primed for failure

In 2012, as he announced his vision for Prime Prep, Sanders struck the posture of a missionary. He stood behind a pulpit, speaking of his “calling” to provide a world-class education for “our babies.”

As a wave of assurances cascaded from the stage, parents in the pews couldn’t have known that Prime Prep, just months away from opening its two campuses, was already facing problems. Disgruntled investors had sued Sanders and the school’s co-founder, D.L. Wallace, over a previous business venture. The school’s charter school application falsely claimed to have secured donations from major corporations and proposed a lease agreement that would have allowed Wallace to profit off the publicly funded school.

In September 2011, the Texas State Board of Education approved the school. Apparently magnetized by Sanders, members asked for autographs and posed for photos after he pitched the school at a state board meeting.

When the campuses opened with an estimated 535 K-12 students, the high school campus in Dallas still needed work done to the air conditioning, plumbing and boiler system. On the first day of school, the cafeteria remained closed for repairs.

Prime Prep boasted of using e-learning software, providing a laptop to every child and offering advanced classes. But former students tell a different story. One recalled a physics teacher handing out worksheets for tests with the answers already on them. Another former student said peers used the school-issued laptops for cheating.

“Students would come to class, especially football players, and class was just like recess,” Peterson said. “It was just so easy, and the teacher, he just didn’t care. It’s like he wanted to pass everybody and get everybody out of there.”

After just one academic year, Sanders, whose nickname was on the rented buildings but who wielded little administrative control, wanted more power. His relationships with staffers went sideways. At a school board meeting in 2013, Sanders allegedly choked Kevin Jefferson, the chief financial officer, after inquiring about a lack of funds coming into the high school. Sanders was fired and then hired back again. Then he started demanding more compensation.

“I’m going to get more money, or there ain’t going to be no school; that’s just flat out how it’s going to be,” Sanders said in a recording obtained by local reporters. Sanders called out Wallace as a “crook.” Wallace claimed Sanders tried to strangle him. (Reached by The Washington Post, Wallace connected a reporter to his assistant, who did not arrange an interview.)

By early 2014, the state was investigating Prime Prep for violations related to the National School Lunch Program, which helps subsidize school lunches for students from low-income families. Eventually, the school was dropped from the federal program after funds did not go toward providing meals.

“When we did have lunch, it was crap,” said Christian Gibson, who played football at Prime Prep. Gibson’s time at the school “was trying,” he said. “There were some times that would test you. I mean, I think I have an optimistic viewpoint on it, [but] if you ask a lot of other people [about] their experiences, they feel like they got played.”

After just 2½ years, both Prime Prep Academy schools closed with more than $650,000 in debt. Six former employees sued school officials and the nonprofit that held Prime Prep’s charter. Jefferson also sued over his firing and assault by Sanders, who had pleaded no-contest to the misdemeanor charge. Prime Prep officials eventually settled the suit by agreeing to split nearly $125,000 among the former employees.

The dramatic conclusion drew breathless coverage in Dallas and around the nation. But after Sanders moved on and the school doors closed, many student-athletes were left to find their own way.

“I don’t know what they were promised, but … nobody really won in that situation,” said Jefferson, the former CFO. “Very few people could really say that they won as a result of connecting with Deion Sanders and Prime Prep Academy.”

Dreams diverted

Before Prime Prep, Michael Curtis held a 4.0 grade-point average, served as class president and scored high on standardized tests. But he was also a quarterback in football-crazed Dallas, and his school wasn’t winning. So he wanted out.

He visited Prime Prep and got on the field with athletes such as Proche. After the workout, Curtis said, his whole body tingled with soreness, and he was convinced. So Curtis, who is White, transferred in as one of the few non-Black students at Prime Prep.

“Was there an emphasis put on athletics over academics? One hundred percent!” Curtis said. “But we all went there to put an emphasis on athletics over academics.”

After he joined the team, Curtis said, he and a teammate helped recruit a wide receiver from Louisiana. Although recruiting is a violation in Texas high school athletics, it happened often at Prime Prep. Sanders found one of his linemen working at a Waffle House and another playing youth football in Georgia.

Sanders helped relocate athletes from the Turks and Caicos Islands, too, and several of those players lived in an apartment complex a mile from the high school. Another student, Ja’Quan Sheals, hailed from Florida but lived with Sanders while playing football at Prime Prep. He was featured on “Deion’s Family Playbook,” a reality TV show on Oprah Winfrey’s network.

Curtis knows these moves might be concerning for some. But to him, they are a great example of Sanders’s benevolence.

“Who else is going to do that for some kids?” Curtis wondered. “Deion’s heart is huge.”

Curtis made appearances on the reality show, too, and watched his Instagram followers grow. But at the same time, the NCAA was looking into the school, and it would eventually start declaring former Prime Prep athletes entering college ineligible, derailing many of their plans.

Cornell pulled Curtis’s admission to the school, he said. He attended a junior college before landing at Massachusetts.

Gibson said he attracted attention from Baylor and Colorado State, but Prime Prep’s reputation was sweeping through college football.

“Basically any school that needed you to play that first year, they weren’t going to recruit me, pretty much. That kind of negated a bunch of opportunities,” said Gibson, who landed at New Mexico State.

Kaleb Johnson, a 20-year-old former quarterback, has attended three colleges and a preparatory school since he left Prime Prep.

Josh Bradford, who played basketball at Prime Prep, committed to Indiana State but wound up in community college and couldn’t get a Division I school to look at him, he said.

Zach Collins, who remembers seeing Snoop Dogg, Dez Bryant and LaDainian Tomlinson roam the practice fields, attended three colleges before receiving his diploma.

These players all absolve Sanders of responsibility for their quixotic collegiate journeys.

“Yeah, you get a bad rap because your school closed because they think somebody was taking money, but obviously, if you see how I see … it’s not on Deion Sanders’s shoulders,” Collins said. “He gave us all a chance just to be with him.”

Peterson sees it differently.

“At some point you just have to own up to it and understand you have other people who are depending on you, that’s looking up to you,” Peterson said, referring to Sanders. “You were a star on the field, and you were, like, a great football player. A lot of people admired that, but when we talk about academics, there’s not much to talk about.”

More than a coach

Almost a year before America’s racial reckoning, Ashley Robinson was dreaming of a revolution.

Once he took over as Jackson State’s athletic director in 2018, Robinson tried to raise the school’s profile. He started off the field: buying a big inflatable tiger head for football players to run out of before home games, signing an apparel deal (which has since ended) with Nike and enhancing the school’s ability to stream games for alumni and fans.

Then in November 2019, Robinson was watching NFL Network when Sanders, working as an analyst, expressed a desire to coach Division I football. Robinson wondered: Why not us?

Robinson contacted him, and he couldn’t believe that Sanders not only was interested but could tick off Jackson State football trivia as if he had studied the team’s media guide. Sanders knew the school had produced four Pro Football Hall of Famers (including Walter Payton), won 16 Southwestern Athletic Conference championships and sent 99 players to the NFL draft. Sanders said he wanted to make it 100.

“[I was] very impressed with the things he’d love to do with young men and young women. And for me, that’s what it’s all about,” Robinson said. “My goal is to show people it can be done at an HBCU.”

Hope blooms for football alums such as Benjy Parris. With Sanders in charge, he said, JSU players will get a shot at the NFL. Parris watched the live stream of Sanders being introduced with excitement mixed with a tinge of jealousy: “Aww, man, I wish I was playing again,” Parris said. He had played four years for the Tigers with little fanfare, but here was Sanders — escorted by the marching band and a police motorcade onto the floor of the basketball gymnasium — stepping out of a Cadillac SUV with his megawatt smile and a JSU fitted cap.

“He came in very colorful,” North Carolina A&T’s Washington said. “That’s not my cup of tea, but if it works for him, so be it.”

Washington, a former NFL player, has coached at HBCUs his entire 33-year career. He has had opportunities to leave but chose to stay, telling people it’s his “calling” to give young Black men the same opportunities he had.

While all coaches bill themselves as molders of young people, Washington said the role of an HBCU coach goes beyond lip service. “A lot of people think it’s all about X’s and O’s,” he said, “and I would say that’s the least worry.”

HBCUs serve vastly more low-income students than predominantly White schools, research shows, and the programs have fewer resources to support student-athletes. According to Robinson, Jackson State athletics has an operating budget of $10 million to $12 million; three hours away in Oxford, Mississippi’s fiscal 2019 athletic budget was $117 million.

The lack of resources and the mandate to do more than coach are just a couple of the challenges awaiting Sanders.

“You have to be a parent, a minister, a mentor,” Washington said. “Those are the little things I think that a lot of time people just don’t recognize what you go through as a coach, trying to put out fires and trying to raise young men to be productive and valuable citizens.”

And as ESPN commentator Bomani Jones, an HBCU alum, pointed out, that might be especially difficult for Sanders.

“Deion Sanders has typically been in this for Deion Sanders, and if that’s what it’s going to be, this is going to fail,” Jones said on a talk show. “The institutional problems that you’re going to have, the resource shortages … this is not going to be an easy thing for you to do.”

At Jackson State, Robinson, the AD, expects every head coach to take an active role in the athletes’ educations. He wants coaches to ensure their charges are attending classes and staying on track to graduate. That makes Sanders’s experience as a charter-school founder seem especially relevant to his new job.

But when Robinson talked to Sanders about the job, he said, Robinson never brought up Prime Prep. It didn’t come up during the official interview, either. Robinson doesn’t like resurrecting the past, he said.

“I can put it like it this: That’s something that I really don’t comment on when I get that question, but I didn’t find anything negative about that situation regarding Coach Prime,” Robinson said. “In short, that’s how I can answer that one.”

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly described Texas Education Agency staff asking for Sanders’s autograph and approving Prime Prep’s charter. It was members of the State Board of Education.