Deion Sanders is famous for many things — for being the only athlete ever to compete in both a Super Bowl and a World Series, for being one of the fastest runners in NFL history, for his love of touchdown dancing and singing poorly about his finances — but the thing that most people seem to remember bout him is that he’s the only athlete to ever play in an NFL and Major League Baseball game on the same day. According to legend, on October 11th, 1992, Deion played for the Atlantic Falcons in Miami, and then jumped a red-eye to Pittsburgh to play for the Atlanta Braves, all within a 12-hour period. It’s a great story, but as it turns out, it’s also horseshit. He was physically at both games, and technically in uniform for both of them. But there was no joy in Mudville that day, and not because Deion struck out. He just never got a chance to bat, thanks to Braves manager Bobby Cox. Still, the legend endures, and Deion hasn’t exactly gone out of his way to set the record straight. And why should he? It’s not like Wilt Chamberlain ever admitted that sleeping with 20,000 women is mathematically impossible. The best sports urban legends don’t invite close scrutiny. And in this age of Wikipedia, where speculation becomes fact if enough people agree, there’s no reason why Sanders shouldn’t be remembered for being ridiculously prolific. As long as we’re building up his mythology, why not take it a little further? Did you hear that Sanders also played an NHL game on that same apocryphal day in 1992? Well, it could’ve happened. What, were you there? You don’t know. And then he flew to Las Vegas and gnawed off a piece of Mike Tyson’s ear. It’s in (sorta) print now, suckers, so that makes it true.
I called Sanders to talk about his latest gigs, co-hosting NFL GameDay Highlights and NFL GameDay Final for the NFL Network (which airs every Sunday just before and after that night’s game) and waiting to be named as a semifinalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame 2011 class, which should happen sometime in mid-November. During our interview, I was hoping to lure out his alter-ego, “Prime Time,” if only because it would’ve been a fascinating psychoanalytic study of dissociative identity disorder in professional athletics. I was totally ready to ask him questions like “What happened in the green kitchen?” But sadly, Prime Time was no-show.
Eric Spitznagel: There’s a good chance you’ll be inducted into the Football Hall of Fame next year. Are you losing sleep waiting for the nominations?
Deion Sanders: Naw, my man. That was never my motivation to play football. My motivation was to take care of my mama and make sure she doesn’t have to work another day in her life. That’s the only reason I played the game. I’ve never been interested in the accolades. It’s about a promise I made to my mother when I was seven years old.
You had your career mapped out at seven?
Seven years old! I remember exactly how it happened. She was working two jobs, and she came home to make lunch, and that’s when I told her, right there in our little kitchen, at the age of seven.
How old were you again?
I knew at seven years old!
Gotcha. You find out this month if you’re a semifinalist for the Hall of Fame, but they don’t announce the official inductees until early February, just before the Super Bowl. Why does this process take so long?
In their defense, there’s a lot of guys who are overqualified to make it into the Hall of Fame. It’s got to be a strenuous process, not just selecting the guys who get picked, but selecting the guys who get cut from the list, even if they’re highly qualified and deserving. I’m sure their jobs can be agonizing, painful and hurtful.
Let’s not take this too far. They’re not working in a Cambodian sweatshop. They’re just deciding which rich retired athlete gets a plaque.
(Laughs.) Yeah, yeah. They do a pretty good job, so I’m not upset with the selection process.
Is there anything you can do to sway the voters? Maybe start a smear campaign against your competition?
Naw. That’s one thing I never did when I played the game. I never spoke against my opponents. I never belittled or naysayed them. I always applauded my opponents.
So you won’t go on the record saying Marshall Faulk supports death panels?
I would never talk bad about Marshall Faulk. He’s one of my co-hosts on the NFL Network.
What about Jerome Bettis? Are you positive he’s not a socialist Muslim?
No, no. I love Jerome. And I love Curtis Martin.
Even though he’s soft on terrorism?
They’re all great guys. It’s a cast of quality players that should all be Hall of Famers. It really is.
Assuming you do make the cut, do you have a Hall of Fame acceptance speech ready to go?
Contrary to the way I played the game, which was very colorful and very flamboyant, I’m really not all that interested in looking to people and committees to come out and validate me. I’m really not. Even as a kid, I didn’t feel like I needed somebody to tell me that I was on the right path. As long as you know your worth and you feel a sense of pride about yourself on inside, none of that other stuff matters. It’s like with a woman. She shouldn’t need to a man to tell her that she’s beautiful. She should know it herself.
So you don’t care about the Hall of Fame because you already know you’re beautiful?
I appreciate the Hall of Fame. I love it, and I’m especially honored if I’m a part of it, because of all the other guys that will be up there with me. But when you play at such a high level, you already have that confidence inside of you. You don’t need somebody to validate it.
Are you thinking about not showing up for the induction ceremony at all? Maybe pulling a Marlon Brando and sending a Native American in your place?
Naw, that’s not what I’m saying. It’s an honor, a true honor. So I’ll be there. Not only for me, it’s something that your family as well as your children can really enjoy. It’s a huge day for them. It’s a huge day for your mother. She was there not only for your birth but through all the ups and down throughout your career, on and off the field.
Wait, who’s mother are we talking about?
Okay, sorry. I was just confused by the pronouns. No offense, but I don’t think my mother really cares one way or the other.
(Laughs.) I hear you.
Some critics have accused you of being egomaniacal. Do you think that’s fair, or is having a healthy ego just part of being an athlete?
I really don’t know anyone who’s ever been great who didn’t know that they were. The only difference between me and the others is that I didn’t wait for the media to tell me that I was good. I told them that I was good. If you categorize that as an ego, I accept that. I categorize it as a confidence unlike no other. It’s the cologne that I wear called Confidence. If that’s offensive, I apologize.
You have your own cologne? I didn’t know about this.
It’s not something I sell. It’s my natural odor.
Ah, I get you. Your natural, sweaty bouquet.
(Laughs.) Yeah, yeah.
Your glandular fragrance.
Yeah, that’s it. That’s the only cologne I wear. And I call it Confidence.
Have you thought about bottling it? Selling your perspiration to the masses?
Yeah, yeah maybe. But not right now.
You’ve played professional football and baseball. Which sport has the bigger egos?
That would be baseball. Because baseball is really individualized. Football is one hundred percent a team concept. In baseball, the whole team could strike out and one guy could get a home run and you’d still win.
What about locker room tomfoolery? It seems like football locker rooms can be a little more dangerous, especially for Mexican lady reporters.
Well, it’s all about the numbers. With baseball, you’ve only got like twenty-five guys. But the roster of a football team is 53 guys and eight on the practice squad. So you have over sixty guys there. So you have a lot more opportunity not only for wholesomeness but also ignorance as well. I think it all works together.
What is it about a bunch of young, muscular men being naked in a confined space that makes them so horny?
It’s not just that. Look at any office — it could be an office in an insurance company — if you have ten employees, one’s going to drink, one’s going to smoke, one’s going to be into sex, and the rest of them are going to be okay. I think you’re going to have 30% of any bad behavior in whatever group you’re talking about.
That’s a frightening statistic. Did you just make that up?
No, man, that’s true. It’s just more noticeable in sports. We’re a reflection of life. We come from everyday life. We’re just like anyone else. But when we make mistakes, it’s a bigger deal because it’s sports. I’m sure in every company there’s somebody like Braylon Edwards, who got pulled over for a DUI.
Every company has a drunk, or somebody who makes $6.1 million a year?
No, I mean the behavior. That’s just a part of life. An athlete just receives more attention because of it.
In 1989 you told Sports Illustrated that you love football but baseball is your girlfriend. Which one do you marry?
I marry football. I’ve always been loyal to football.
But you keep baseball around for the sex?
Baseball was always around. I couldn’t dedicate myself to it because I was married to football. But it was always there for me.
Does baseball get jealous? Is it ever like, “When are you going to divorce that football bitch and be with me?”
Yeah, baseball could get jealous. At times it could be. At times I had to give it more attention to make sure she was happy.
You’d show up at the hotel with a bottle of wine and some flowers?
Yeah, yeah, exactly.
Do you ever look back at your youth and regret your pro sports infidelity?
It was what it was, man. It was a wonderful time in life. I was young and vibrant and I could pull off those kinds of escapades.
Your athletic career was like a Georges Feydeau play.
Sometimes I would practice and perform both of them simultaneously on the same day.
Obviously I couldn’t do anything like that any more. But at that stage in my life, it was wonderful. It was what I did as a kid. I was just living my childhood dream as an adult.
As long as you brought it up, you didn’t actually play a baseball and a football game in the same day, did you?
How do you mean?
That urban legend about you playing for the Falcons in Miami, and then flying to Pittsburgh to play for the Braves, that’s not actually true.
No, I didn’t get to play in the baseball game. But I was there. I was in both uniforms on the same day.
But that’s not the same thing, is it? It’s like saying, “Oh, Babe Ruth didn’t point to the center field bleachers before his World Series home run. He was just scratching his nose.”
When you say you do both on the same day, that’s not saying you actually got in there and made a difference in both games. It’s just saying you were on both rosters, and you were there at an event. They just didn’t put you in. I was there ready to play, at the game, on the bench. They just chose not to play me.
You’re a co-host on NFL GameDay on the NFL Network. Is it frustrating to be on the sidelines rather than in the action?
No, definitely not. I love what I do and I do what I love. I’m close to the game and I have a voice. I have a vehicle to explain what’s happening on the players’ behalf, as well as on the ownerships’ behalf. I just bring the game more to life.
Last year around this time, you made an assumption about Goldy Gopher, the University of Minnesota mascot. You claimed that he’s a “brother.” How is that not racial profiling?
It was because of his stride lengths and his physicality. Just look at the way he moves and his swagger. Its almost like going to a Cowboys game and seeing Rowdy. When Rowdy does his dance moves, I just assume there’s a brother inside of there.
But at least on the outside, Rowdy is a white cowboy. So you’re suggesting he’s a metaphor of cultural appropriation? He’s football’s Elvis?
Yeah, yeah, right! It’s like Barney. Being a father and watching Barney with all your kids, I’m like, “There’s a brother up in there! That dude can dance pretty darn good!” And it turns out I was right. Barney was a black man! But nobody wants to know about that.
You don’t think a black Barney could be successful?
Naw, man. Once his hat comes off, it’s over.
So as a nation, we’re ready for a black president, but not a black Barney?
Yeah, yeah, that’s the way it is. I don’t think we ready for the Wiggles to be black. I don’t think Boyz II Men could replace the Wiggles and have the same type of sales. And they’re the same age!
Let’s talk about “Prime Time”. You’ve described him as your alter ego and alternate personality. Was it a Sybil-type situation?
Naw. I think most people have an alter-ego, but it only comes out when they’re angry. Mine didn’t, because I was never angry. I was always a pleasant person. I knew the game was just a game. Prime Time was someone I became when I put on the uniform. It was like Clark Kent turning into Superman, or when Eddie Murphy put on his leather outfit to do Raw.
When you became Prime Time, would you black out? Did you ever wake up and try to figure out how much damage Prime Time had caused?
There are certain things you may regret in your career. But a lot of things you get right. I’ll take the good with the bad any day. A lot of the bad taught me valuable lessons.
But you never woke up in a hotel room with a dead hooker and a suitcase full of cash and though, “Aw crap, Prime Time! What have you done now?”
(Laughs.) Yeah, no, nothing like that. I never drank or smoke or used profanity. I was labeled a bad boy coming up, but I was a clean bad boy. You can’t be much of a bad boy if you don’t drink, smoke or use profanity.
Does Prime Time come out anymore, or is he officially retired?
He’s there every Sunday on the NFL Network. He’s got his own segment called “Let’s Go Prime Time.”
What about in your private life? Have you ever hosted a dinner party for the neighbors, and all of a sudden Prime Time takes over, and you’re high-steppin’ and knocking drinks out of people’s hands?
Naw, naw, naw, definitely not. I’m a father of five and a leader of men.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com.)