One of the sensations of the current college football season has been the performance of the Colorado Buffalos team, which has had several poor seasons lately. This year, they have jumped out to a 3-0 start. Their head coach is the flamboyant Deion Sanders, who may have been one of the best and most versatile two-sport athletes to come down the pike. He is the only person to play in a World Series and a Super Bowl. In 2011, he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Back in May 1989, I had a very interesting and rewarding encounter with this legendary athlete.
That year, I was assisting my late friend, Mike LeVan, coaching the Firefighters team of the East End Senior Little League. Sanders had been the Atlanta Falcons’ Number One Draft Pick in that year’s NFL draft and had a very colorful reputation. Our Firefighter players were very mindful of him and his colorful persona, and he was a major topic of conversation among them.
Mike noted to me that Sanders that spring was playing for the Albany-Colonie Yankees of the Double-A Eastern League and would be coming to town with the team to play the Williamsport Bills.
When Albany came to town, Mike told me he would take a long shot and call Sanders at his hotel room at the former Holiday Inn on the Golden Strip to ask Deion if he would be interested in coming out to one of our practices and talk to our team.
Mike’s audacity did not surprise me because 18 years before, in 1971, he had started up correspondence with the mother of ‘Broadway’ Joe Namath, and managed to land an invitation to spend Christmas with the Namath family that year.
I was there when he called Deion but did not really expect an affirmative reply from him. I could see a broad smile break out on Mike’s face and realize he had hit pay dirt. Deion said he would be willing to come out to our practice but would first need the permission of his skipper, Carl “Stump” Merrill. He was able to obtain that permission.
Mike and I went down to pick up Deion in my car. Mike believed I had a nicer car and felt that Deion rated a ride in a more upscale car such as the one I had at the time.
We got to the Holiday Inn, and Deion gave us a restrained but friendly greeting, and we headed off to Cochran Elementary School, where we held most of our team practices.
I have been razzed through the years by my friends about the quality of my driving. Some of them said that I didn’t park a car; I just abandoned it. So, Deion may have been taking his life in his hands riding with me. A thought crossed my mind that if we got in an accident and I ruined Deion’s career with an injury, he would most certainly sue me, and I would be in debtor’s prison for the rest of my life; fortunately, there were no mishaps.
During our ride to Cochran, we had a pleasant conversation with Deion. He asked us how our team was doing and if we had any “real good” players on the team, and that he was looking forward to showing his “stuff” to the Falcons.
When we arrived at Cochran and Deion emerged from my car, he was greeted with looks of wide-eyed wonder from our ballplayers, who looked genuinely thrilled. There was also a plethora of media on hand as well, from George Jansson of the GRIT to Gary Chrisman from KISS-FM and film crews from WNEP and WBRE.
We gathered around Deion, and he proceeded to give the team an inspirational talk about how they could achieve anything if they stayed in school and applied themselves. He said the shiny things they wanted for themselves would not be possible without hard work. He also imparted an anti-drug component into his talk, saying that involvement with drugs would ruin their dreams and their lives.
He then graciously posed for photographs with the kids and gave them autographs. He waved to them and wished them luck as he left, and I took him up to Bowman Field for that evening’s game against the Bills. He thanked Mike and I for inviting him to talk to our players and wished us well.
That season for the Albany Yankees, Sanders appeared in 33 games; he batted .286, with one homer and six RBIs. He would, of course, go on to an outstanding career in the NFL and a fairly good stint in baseball as well; in 1997, he led the National League in triples with 14. His football career with the Falcons, 49ers, Cowboys, and Redskins culminated in his election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Deion cultivated an image as a real showboat and never hesitated to call attention to himself, and I admit I was not always comfortable with these displays. But I saw a very different side of him and will always regard him with a sense of admiration and fondness because of my encounter with him and the impact he made on about a dozen young men in May 1989.