Deion Sanders embodies the great American success story

OPINION: Deion Sanders created the "Prime Time" persona and made himself into a star. Now he's using his acclaim to shine a light on his players and help them become stars.

Colorado head coach Deion Sanders responds to questions during a news conference after the team's NCAA college football practice at the university Friday, Aug. 4, 2023, in Boulder, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

Deion Sanders is an example of the great American success story in so many ways. A big part of American lore is the notion of creating yourself — making yourself into the person you want to be. Sanders is absolutely that. If you look at Sanders’s early interviews when he was in college at Florida State University, he was, if you can believe it, shy and kind of reserved. His swagger was not turned on at all. While he was at Florida State, the Prime persona was born. 

Sanders got the nickname “Prime Time” in high school after he dominated a basketball game, but the name didn’t really come to life until he got to FSU. Sanders grew up in Fort. Myers, Florida, in public housing, and he promised his mother that one day he would make enough money playing football to take care of her. But while he was at FSU, he realized that if he wanted the big bucks, he had to do more than just play well; he had to bring the spotlight to him. So he consciously constructed a new persona. In a 1989 Sports Illustrated profile written when Sanders was new to the NFL, he spoke about his shift in college. “They don’t pay nobody to be humble,” he said. “Some people will come out to see me do well. Some people will come out to see me get run over. But love me or hate me, they’re going to come out. I’m a businessman now, and the product is me. Prime Time.” He was marketing himself. 

Sanders had figured out that if he created a telegenic personality, it would keep the spotlight on him and make him more money, so he became Prime. A story from Pro Football Network explains: “Sanders tore a page out of corporate marketing books and created an image he knew would sell. He took inspiration from Muhammad Ali (brashness), Hank Aaron (mental fortitude), O.J. Simpson (character), and Julius ‘Dr. J’ Erving (professionalism).” Now, one part of that sentence did not age well — using O.J. Simpson as an example of character is hilarious — but the point is, America loves a self-created person, and we can see how Sanders carefully constructed an image based on a few of the most famous athletes of his youth.

America also loves success stories that flow out of self-belief. This is a country where we like to think that if you just believe in yourself to the nth degree, you’ll be successful. Sanders is one of those athletes who seem to believe in himself more than most of us can imagine. Has one iota of self-doubt ever crept into this man’s mind? Doesn’t seem like it. There’s nothing like an athlete who tells you they’re going to beat you, says it with their whole chest and then goes out and does just that in spectacular style. Sanders’ sense of self-belief was a powerful force that propelled him and endeared him to us. He was an example of how with self-belief all things are possible.

America also loves positivity, and Sanders seems full of good cheer, upbeat messages and Christian blessings. He’s always smiling and filled with positive vibes. He’s an amputee — he lost two toes in 2021 due to complications from surgery  — and yet he’s got the same joie de vivre he had as a kid who could sprint as fast as the wind. 

America also loves second acts, and Sanders is in the midst of a glorious second act. When he was a player, he was extraordinary, but he was also all about himself. Now he’s shining his light on others. He’s a leader of young men, a second father to his players and a proud father as well. He’s using his brilliance to help others win and get to the promised land of the NFL, and it’s heartwarming to see him move from being all about himself to being all about helping the next generation.

Back when Sanders played, he was a superstar, and we were captivated by his athletic exploits. He was one of those players like Bo Jackson and Michael Vick whose athleticism was off the charts, and you watched just to see them push the boundaries of human athletic potential. But now I see that Sanders’ genius wasn’t just in athletics and self-marketing. There’s something in his spirit that is driving him, and watching that spirit at play is captivating. We used to be on the edge of our seats watching Sanders run. Now we’re on the edge of our seats watching him coach because he leads with so much heart and love that we can’t help but hope he continues to succeed. He is what we love about the American spirit. 


Touré is a host and Creative Director at theGrio. He is the host of the docuseries podcast “Being Black: The ’80s” and the animated show Star Stories with Toure which you can find at He is also the host of the podcast “Toure Show” and the podcast docuseries “Who Was Prince?” He is the author of eight books including the Prince biography Nothing Compares 2 U and the ebook The Ivy League Counterfeiter.

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