Prime Time has no time. Deion Sanders doesn’t want to participate in this story, even though it is a topic that should warm both his heart and ego: his lasting impact, three decades later, on the bustling entertainment metropolis of Atlanta.
In 1989, Sanders arrived with his gold chains and jheri curl and alter ego, ready to boost the self-esteem of a city that had been derided as Loserville. While Dominique Wilkins was already the pioneering showstopper on the local sports scene, Sanders represented the ATL with relentless flamboyance to go with athletic brilliance, turning his dual-sport talent into the hottest party in town, connecting entertainers of all genres and displaying a level of charisma that, like him or not, demanded attention.
Now, as the city shows off its sparkling new Mercedes-Benz Stadium and prepares for its third Super Bowl, it is easy to recall Sanders’s legend and recognize how, in the final decade of the 20th century, it coincided with the city’s rise in influence. And in many ways, the growth spurt continues to this day.
Sanders amplified the movement, high-stepping into fame and unapologetically pursuing as much money as possible. It makes it all the more surprising that he refuses to revel with Atlanta on an international stage once again. For three weeks, through numerous intermediaries, he kept saying no.
“He is respectfully declining at this time,” a publicist responded to an interview request.
“Deion politely declined,” one of his NFL Network supervisors said when asked for a favor.
“I did what I could,” a longtime colleague said.
For once, Sanders doesn’t want to be Prime Time. He wants to be silent. He defers to the part of himself that enjoys the privacy and relaxation of fishing. Or he’s just trying to focus the spotlight on “Deion’s Double Play,” the ESPN “30 for 30” documentary that debuts Thursday. You never know with him. Fortunately, for as loud as his career was, there’s a greater sound: the many voices who remember his highlights in vivid detail and provide objective insights into what he meant to Atlanta’s ascension. And there’s the treasure trove of sound bites Sanders dropped as he danced his way through stardom.
“Time is a wonderful storyteller,” he once said.
It’s so wonderful that Prime Time can just listen now.
“Atlanta was it for me, man. Atlanta was the crib. Atlanta was home. I loved Atlanta. Atlanta was Prime. Prime was Atlanta.”
— Sanders reflecting on an old NFL Now video
Before the 1989 NFL draft, Sanders and his management team tried to manipulate the process. Sanders wanted to go No. 5 overall to the Atlanta Falcons. It was a city that he thought would embrace his brash style and help him redefine the value of the cornerback, which wasn’t among the NFL’s highest-paid positions at the time. Dallas, Green Bay, Detroit and Kansas City all drafted before the Falcons. He thought he had been standoffish enough with most of those cities, but Detroit, at No. 3, worried him. When the Lions chose running back Barry Sanders, he was relieved.
“I would’ve asked for so much money they would’ve had to put me on layaway,” Sanders joked with ESPN about the Lions.
After the Falcons drafted him, Sanders requested for fans to meet him at the airport. Many did. He came to town wearing his own “Prime Time” tracksuit and explaining that he had on so much jewelry to show poor kids that they don’t have to sell drugs to afford nice and expensive things. They could be like him, perhaps, but how many people would have audacity to enter the NFL this way?
“It was fascinating,” said Arthur Triche, a former Atlanta Hawks public-relations executive who has lived in Atlanta since 1989. “You knew his electrifying play and personality was something the city would gravitate to. You would see the video of him with the shades and the chains, his Mr. T starter set. You’d think, ‘Who is this guy?’ But he walked it like he talked it.”
During Sanders’s five seasons with the Falcons, Triche had a second job as a timeout coordinator on game days. In his primary job, he watched Wilkins in his prime. Then he also stood on the sideline and witnessed some of Sanders’s extraordinary moments. Wilkins, nicknamed The Human Highlight Film, let his dazzling play on the court speak for itself. Sanders talked up his greatness and then often managed to exceed expectations.
“MC Hammer, back when everyone knew and loved what he brought to the culture, was flying into town for games and celebrating with the team on the sideline,” Triche said. “It was almost like Deion brought the Lakers’ Showtime era to football.”
In 1991, Sanders intercepted six passes and helped the Falcons finish with a 10-6 record. They went on to win a playoff game against their rival New Orleans Saints, which was only the second postseason victory in team history. As a Falcon, Sanders made the all-pro team in three of his five seasons. He also played baseball for the Atlanta Braves from 1991 to 1994, contributing to three postseason appearances and batting .533 in the 1992 World Series.
Sanders stayed busy during those days. He opened a hair salon and a club. He released an R&B/hip-hop album — titled “Prime Time,” of course — in December 1994, which was a few months after his two-sport run in Atlanta had ended.
The album tanked, and the video for his lone single, “Must Be The Money,” stands now as a wonderful piece of unintentional comedy. But it didn’t matter. Sanders’s fame continue to grow. A month after the album, he helped the San Francisco 49ers win Super Bowl XXIX. He wasn’t in Atlanta anymore, but Atlanta was still in him.
“Deion was a part of the spirit of Atlanta,” said Jerry Glanville, who coached the Falcons from 1990 to 1993. “People don’t know this, but they’d have to close the airport when we’d come home after away games because there were so many people wanting to greet us, wanting to greet Deion. Not after we won a playoff game; it was every time. He loved every minute of it.”
“I always wanted to be on the underdog team so that, you know, if we win after I come, I get all the credit then, right?”
— Sanders during his first news conference in Atlanta
In the fall of 1992, Sanders stirred both fascination and controversy by shuffling between the two sports. His attempt to play football and baseball on the same day, on Oct. 11, 1992, provided the fodder for the compelling “Deion’s Double Play” documentary. It’s not just a story of a conflict between two sports. It’s subtly the battle of Deion vs. Prime Time, of childlike love vs. the pursuit of fame.
For all the praise Sanders sought for his greatness, there’s also a side of him that could be brought to tears by the simple act of teammates appreciating how much he cared about competing. Even now, there’s still a boy who used to love dreaming in private.
In directing the film, Ken Rodgers learned to separate Sanders from Prime Time. As a sophomore at Florida State University, Sanders created Prime Time while plotting to become a personality who could transcend the cornerback position and make big money off it. Now, he is somehow 51 years old. He has five children, including Shilo, a cornerback who just committed to play football at South Carolina. He is lively and opinionated on television, but Prime Time gets muted more now.
“The character he created in college isn’t a perfect clone of Deion Sanders,” Rodgers said. “He’s a much quieter, more humble person than Prime Time. I saw it in our interview pretty clearly. You can see the persona of Prime Time fade away and be replaced by a genuine, fascinating human being. This persona that he created fit Atlanta so perfectly because it was larger than life. He was just the perfect spokesman for the city because Prime Time had no problem shouting from any rooftop.”
Jamie Dukes, a former offensive lineman who played with Sanders at Florida State and with the Falcons, has been friends with the superstar for more than 30 years. When Sanders opened “Deion’s Hair Designs,” Dukes and his wife actually ran the business. He would massage some of Sanders’s big ideas and try to dissuade others. But he always respected his vision.
On the field, in business, in the potential for Atlanta, Sanders saw things that most people couldn’t.
“Think of it this way: It was the turning of the dawn in Atlanta,” Dukes said. “Dominique and Deion put the city on the sports map. Simultaneously, you had Jermaine Dupri, Outkast, Arrested Development, Kris Kross, Toni Braxton and all those musical artists from Atlanta bursting on the scene. And the next wave was right behind them. And the Braves were a championship contender for a long time, and the Olympics came in 1996 and changed the city’s profile. It was just a perfect storm.
“But it all started with that swagger. Deion had that swag before any of us were calling it swag. He emboldened Atlanta.”
“My house. I built this, and this is my house. I don’t care if I’m with the Falcons or not, this is my house. This will always be my house.”
— Sanders, talking about the Georgia Dome before he left the Falcons for San Francisco
When the Falcons made the Super Bowl two years ago, Sanders was emotional about the franchise’s success. He probably didn’t appreciate Atlanta’s first Super Bowl appearance 20 years ago because he was still playing. This time, however, he had perspective. He was overjoyed to know that his five seasons and one glorious playoff run in Atlanta had helped the franchise start to learn how to win.
“The personality of Atlanta back when I played the game was really the fabric that bound the city together,” Sanders said, reflecting in 2017 during an interview with the Falcons’ in-house media. “We were outward. We were somewhat flamboyant. We had a little flash, but we had a confidence that was like our natural odor.
“That’s just who we were. That’s what the city was. That’s what the city represented. And you could see that from all the entertainers from the music industry and all the actors that derived from Atlanta, they all had that commonality that we shared.”
Ryan Cameron, who is one of the greatest radio personalities in Atlanta history, considers Sanders and Wilkins to be quintessential local superstars. Since those two, only Michael Vick reached a similar level of popularity.
While Vick was a must-see phenomenon before his ugly fall from grace, he arrived in 2001, after the city had blossomed into an entertainment superpower. Sanders and Wilkins were at the forefront of the movement.
When Sanders was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame eight years ago, he invited rappers Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg and Nelly to his induction. Afterward, he threw a party and performed a song written for the event, “Hall of Fame Swagger.” His verse began with references to 1989, Atlanta and his jheri curl.
“For what it’s worth, they were the last superstars of Atlanta who could go anywhere and just shut the place down,” said Cameron, who currently works at Majic 107.5/97.5 and serves at the public-address announcer for the Hawks and Falcons. “You knew, if they were going to that establishment, that’s what made it a hip spot.”
Cameron considers Atlanta’s cultural revolution during the 1990s on a broader scale. In terms of sports fandom, the city still has a sleepy and fair-weather reputation, but there’s no denying its appeal as a big-event host and pop-culture tastemaker.
“I think the 1990s for Atlanta, both musically and in sports, was a cultural phenomenon,” Cameron said. “They went hand in hand. Now, with the film industry being a big part of the entertainment landscape, it’s like a trifecta. But it’s bigger than that. I always felt like Atlanta is a city of nonconformists. You look at some of the people from here or who came here — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Henry Aaron, Dominique, Prime Time, [Rep.] John Lewis and so on — they made different kinds of impact, some more way more important than others.
“But this is what ties them together: They’re all mavericks. And it’s not a coincidence that they all thrived here. That’s Atlanta. We don’t fit into any mold, nor do we want to.”
Sanders, the muted mouth (for now), was right: Time is a wonderful storyteller.
Read more Super Bowl coverage: