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Deion at JSU

Deion Sanders is sitting in a barn. There’s a majestic horse in the background that looks away with a cutting side eye as if the mare is ready for the crew to get on with the business of One Yard’s scheduled interview with the iconic NFL Hall of Famer, TV analyst, omnipresent ad pitchman and now College Football Head Coach. Indeed, this seems like an odd setting for the force of nature known to the world as Prime Time, arguably the greatest defensive back to ever play the game.

When he was selected fifth overall by the Atlanta Falcons in the 1989 NFL draft, he arrived in Georgia with his then trademark immaculate jheri curl, which he would say looked wet but was dry, rocking designer Emmanuelle Khanh sunglasses, a black leather jacket with his nickname conspicuously on the back, and draped in more gold than Slick Rick. But Sanders is not an easy man to pin down.

“There’s always been a misconception of who I am…” says the 53-year-old sports legend who insists he’s beyond his flashy image and is really a country boy at heart with a city swag. “When I’m out on the field doing my thing I like to feel the rhythm of people, I like to feel the heartbeat of people, the spirit of people, when I’m in it. But when I’m not in it, I don’t want no part of it, man. I want to be out here in the country. I need the lake, I need to fish, I need peace, relaxation, and seclusion.”

But of course, we are not here to discuss the storied athlete’s impressive 40-plus acre home in Canton, Mississippi. We are here because last September Deion Sanders shocked the sports landscape when he announced that he would become the 21st head coach of Jackson State University. The high-profile move lifted one of historically black colleges’ most storied institutions to the top of every sports page. Ticket sales surged. Sanders, with tears in his eyes, told reporters at a press conference that he fully understood the historical impact of signing.

Sanders still marvels recalling that day. “I’ve played in two Super Bowls and won,” he says. “I’ve been on national television ever since I was 18 years old performing, but that moment…when I sat on that stage and announced I was going to be the 21st head coach (of Jackson State), I’ve never had a feeling like that in my life. Then to go home and see the lines form in somewhat inclement weather (to buy tickets) and the hope and the aspirations…I can’t even articulate it well enough or eloquently enough…because it’s a wonderful feeling I didn’t even know I had a place in my heart to occupy that kind of room and space. It’s such a beautiful thing. You know why? Because it’s my people.”

And there’s more. Sitting to Sanders’ left and right are his two sons Shilo and Shedeur, who both have signed on to play football for Jackson State. Shedeur, a heavily recruited four-star pro-style quarterback originally committed to Florida Atlantic, but announced in September that he would be joining his dad on the football field. He was soon followed by his older brother Shilo, a talented starting safety in the SCC, who transferred from the University of South Carolina.

In addition to these high profile moves, Sanders landed the number one class in HBCU history and FCS, is the 40th ranked class in all of college football, and now boasts a coaching staff that has 72 years of NFL experience. The Sanders brothers can’t wait to get on the field and onto the campus of Jackson State. They are well aware of the symbolism of what it all represents. They talk about inspiring other Black, talented athletes to bring their talents to HBCUs. They tell me that their future teammates can expect their coach/dad to be no-nonsense on the field, but also a supporting, loving figure.

But let’s be clear. These recent moves by Jackson State are not at all normal for an HBCU. Sanders says he intends on shocking the world by continuing to recruit players that are tough, fast, smart and disciplined. However, he has some heavy lifting to do. Sanders is coming to lead a program that has been 18-37 during its last five years. Still, Jackson State has a long, rich history which includes 99 NFL draft picks and four NFL Hall of Famers, including the late, great Walter Payton. Sanders understands the legacy and tradition Jackson State athletic director Ashley Robinson has entrusted upon him.

We sat down with Deion Sanders, and his sons, Shilo and Shedeur to discuss everything from their vision for the upcoming season of Jackson State University football to the impact they hope to have on HBCU culture. You can only imagine what it’s like being the kids of one of the greatest athletes of all time who excelled in track at Florida State and played professional baseball and football with the same Prime Time swagger—a man who dared QB’s to throw to his side of interception machine’s field and who made the punt return the most electrifying play in all of sports. How do Shilo and Shedeur view their own legacies? And is Deion Sanders ready to prove some of his doubters wrong?

Sanders definitely seems like he’s more than ready. “Why else would [I go to] Jackson State?” he asks. “Like when you think about it…does it make sense? A year ago today, you would have never have [thought] that I would be sitting here talking to you, in a barn, [as the coach of Jackson State], both my kids flanking me and we are talking about changing the whole game of HBCU football, not just Jackson State. So, when you think about it like that it has to be God. So, let’s do this!”