Deion Sanders Is SI’s 2023 Sportsperson of the Year

Deion Sanders Is SI’s 2023 Sportsperson of the Year

Deion Sanders Is SI’s 2023 Sportsperson of the Year

In less than a year, Coach Prime has not only transformed a moribund Colorado football program. He’s also breathed fresh life into the campus and transformed a community.

In this story:
Prime accepts SI Sportsperson of the Year
COLORADO BUFFALOES The photo shoot was progressing the way they often do, becoming a war of wills pitting the perfectionists with the cameras and the lighting and the smoke machine against the impatient subjects arrayed in front of them. Between poses, Deion Sanders was getting fidgety. The coach of Colorado was surrounded by his people: His agent, the school’s chancellor and athletic director, and 99-year-old superfan Peggy Coppom were among the entourage. As the photo crew pored over details, Sanders lobbed one-liners at his sons—social media maven Deion Jr., Buffaloes quarterback Shedeur and safety Shilo. He wrapped his arm around his daughter, Colorado basketball player Shelomi, kissing her on the temple. He bent over to speak so tiny Peggy could hear him. (Peggy is Deion’s match in terms of personality. “I thought I was coming for the Swimsuit edition,” she said.) But eventually, this shoot at Folsom Field needed to wrap so Coach Prime could get back to coaching. “We’re doing one more shot,” he said, light but firm. “Let’s go.” One more shot turned into two, with a change of backdrop. Sanders paced between shutter clicks and strobe flashes, talking ball with a visitor, fretting about the tight turnaround for a Friday road game. At that point the Buffaloes were 4–6 and had lost four straight in a rugged Pac-12, three of them by one score, two of them at the very end. “The Oregon game, I’ve forgotten it,” Sanders said of his team’s lone blowout to that point. “I’ve moved past it. The others stay with me. Three points, seven points—details, consistency. We want to win now.”

Deion Sanders on the SI cover for Sportsperson of the Year.

Jeffery A. Salter/Sports Illustrated; Makeup by Beth Walker for BW Makeup; Hair for Deion Sanders by Dermonico Townsend; Styling by Casey Trudeau. On Deion Sanders: Top, pants and hat by Nike x CU; Sunglasses by Blenders x Coach Prime; Watch by Cartier. On Constance Schwartz-Morini: Sweater by A+O x Basquiat; Skirt by Alice and Olivia; Shoes by Chanel; Bracelet by Cartier; On Sam MoriniI: Sweatshirt and pants by Cherry LA
Then the photo crew called Sanders to his mark, a square of black tape on the ground where he was to stand with about 100 students roaring behind him. Sanders hit the mark, struck the requested pose; it was glow time. Shades on, diamond-and-gold whistle gleaming around his neck, the Duke of Drip unveiled one of humankind’s most luminous smiles. Coach Prime lit up on command, as few others can, and his work was done. In a larger sense, his paradigm-shifting, precedent-shattering work—in Colorado and in college football—might be just beginning.

There are numbers that define the Prime Effect upon the University of Colorado in Boulder, a place that hasn’t always had a chummy relationship with football. First-year applications are up 26.4% year over year; Black or African American applications are up 80.6%; nonresident applications are up 29.8%; and international applications are up 38.4% from 97 countries, including 16 that didn’t have any applications last year. While those numbers cannot be definitively linked to Sanders, others can be: September sales at the school’s online team store were up 2,544% over the same month in 2022. Every home game in 50,183-seat Folsom Field was sold out for the first time in school history. Order the SI 2023 Sportsperson of the Year issue here. “It has that 1990s energy all over again,” says Mark Heinritz, co-owner of The Sink, a bar within a 10-minute walk of Folsom Field. “There were a lot of discussions over a couple decades of, ‘Why do we have football?’ This is why we have football.” There are numbers that define the Prime Effect on Boulder, a quirky, affluent and extremely white city of 108,000 that is picturesquely situated northwest of Denver at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. Visit Boulder, the convention and visitors bureau, calculates that the total economic impact of the first four home games—where attendance was up by nearly a third over last year—was an estimated $77.8 million, a massive jump from 2022. “Boulder felt kind of beaten up, or beaten down, through the pandemic,” says city council member Rachel Friend. “Our potholes haven’t been filled as readily, we can’t figure out how to get unhoused people what they need and we’ve had a notable increase in that population. There is a cash infusion [from football into the economy] that means more potholes are going to be filled. People living here and visiting here are going to be taken care of better.” And there are numbers that help define the Prime Effect on college football: The previously irrelevant Buffs had the most-watched game of the season through the first 11 weeks, as 10.03 million viewers tuned in for the Sept. 23 loss to Oregon. In fact, Colorado has had five of the 13 most-watched games; Alabama had three of the top 13 to that point, while Ohio State, Texas, Penn State and LSU each had two. So, yes, the numbers are huge and paint a vivid portrait of renewal—but they don’t fully explain why Sanders is our 2023 Sportsperson of the Year. The human stories run deeper, and not just the celebrities and athletes flocking to the sidelines of games, but also the grassroots stories as the Prime Effect transcends sports and ripples outward through the culture. In the Colorado chancellor’s office, a delighted smile spreads across the face of 77-year-old Phil DiStefano as he tells a story from earlier this year. One of the school’s five Nobel laureates was recruiting a nationally acclaimed scientist from California to join the faculty. The laureate wanted to set up a campus visit to interview, and the chemist agreed on one condition: She wanted to meet Deion Sanders. “He met with her for 45 minutes,” DiStefano says. “On her way out he said, ‘Here’s my telephone number, and give me yours. I call all my recruits after they visit.’”

LeBron James, center, sits on bleachers with his arms around his kids: Bryce James, left, and Bronny James, right.

An Essay From LeBron James: ‘My Earliest Memories of Watching Sports Start With Deion’ Read More Ultimately, Sanders and Colorado lost that recruit to MIT, which is like losing a five-star football prospect to Alabama—it happens. But the chair of the biochemistry department was so taken by the allure of Sanders and his willingness to help the school academically that he emailed DiStefano something not often articulated by Boulder faculty: “Phil, we love football.” On another part of campus, professor Reiland Rabaka is exulting over Coach Prime. Rabaka is founder and director of the school’s Center for African and African American Studies. The center had its grand opening on Feb. 1, and Rabaka harbored hopes that Sanders might attend. But then he found out that it was also the late National Signing Day, one of the high holy days on the football calendar. “I wasn’t expecting the brother,” Rabaka says. “I felt like it was an imposition to ask. When he walked through the door, it was pure pandemonium. It was like Moses parting the Red Sea and coming to me. When I embraced him, it was like two brothers from the projects meeting here—in Boulder. I’ve been out here in Boulder for 20 years waiting on this brother.”

Deion Sanders and Reiland Rabaka at the University of Colorado.

Rabaka (left) quickly learned the power of a face-to-face meeting with Sanders.Courtesy of Casey A. Cass/University of Colorado
At The Sophomore, a newly opened, locally owned sports bar, an eclectic group of civic leaders gathered for lunch in mid-November and wound up heaping hosannas on Coach Prime. “There is a hum in this town I haven’t seen in my 23 years here,” said city council member Matt Benjamin, a Colorado graduate and season-ticket holder. “It’s just infectious. People who know nothing about college football are talking about Coach Prime, talking about the CU Buffs. He’s bringing people in who were peripheral before.” Lance Carl, a former football player at Colorado who is now the program’s director of player development and alumni relations: “I met a guy after one game from Dallas who had never been to a game here but wanted to see what it was all about with Deion. He wasn’t a rapper, wasn’t a celebrity—he was a Black businessman who just wanted to be here.” Annett James, president of the Boulder County branch of the NAACP and a 43-year resident: “I think he’s the best thing that’s happened to Boulder since I’ve lived here, by far. The stuff I’ve been doing over 40 years, Deion comes in and does in six months.” James describes attending a campus function with a friend one Friday night before a home game, then going to the nearby Embassy Suites for a nightcap. “We walked in, and there’s like 30 Black people. My friend said, ‘Oh my God, I’ve never seen that many Black people at a bar in Boulder!’ We started talking to people, and there were some who said they came here from Atlanta for Prime. I think the Black people who live here also have more of a sense of community—not that we didn’t have community before, but we feel free to be more above-ground.”

“At the risk of sounding cocky, I’ve always been Prime,” says Deion Sanders, and that’s a risk he’s been willing to take his entire life. He’s bragged—and backed it up—since childhood. The headline on the first of six previous Sports Illustrated cover stories on Sanders, in November 1989, came from one of his quotes in the piece: they don’t pay nobody to be humble. He was a bombastic young man then, a rising two-sport professional star who would become a Pro Football Hall of Famer and Super Bowl champion and also play in the World Series, hitting .533 with five stolen bases for the Braves in 1992 against Toronto. He’s a slightly less bombastic 56-year-old man now, still pretty much the same guy he’s always been, in a world that is more willing to embrace him as he is. Coach Prime didn’t evolve to fit the role of college football coach nearly as much as college football evolved to meet up with Coach Prime.

Deion Sanders on the cover of SI in 1989.

Lee Crum/Sports Illustrated
On this November afternoon, Sanders is sitting in his office overlooking Folsom Field with a view of the Rockies, which had received a fresh coating of snow the day before. He’s wearing black overalls and a white hoodie. His Belgian Malinois dog, Gunner, is over by the window. (That’s very Boulder, taking the dog to work.) Behind him is a sign that reads: IF YOU LOOK GOOD YOU PLAY GOOD IF YOU PLAY GOOD THEY PAY GOOD There is assuredly no other college football coach in America with a sign like that greeting visitors, but it perfectly fits the modern reality of the sport. The days of pretending this isn’t a business are over. College football has never been more about the money than it is now, from conference-realignment decisions based on TV revenue to massive coaching salaries and shameless buyouts. Now it has finally trickled down to the players, who have been liberated to be paid good if they play good. The NCAA’s name, image and likeness rules went into effect in the summer of 2021, a landscape-altering development that the establishment had heavily resisted for decades. NIL and the transfer portal were prophesied as disasters by the Cassandras in college football; in reality they haven’t damaged the popularity of the sport one bit. In an era when players can profit by promoting and marketing themselves, Sanders is the expert in the field. He has always been Prime. This is his time.

Jerry Rice, right, puts his arm around Deion Sanders on the practice field as members of the San Francisco 49ers

Jerry Rice: Deion Sanders Was My Hated Rival—and an Invaluable Teammate Read More His 2023 makeover of the Colorado roster via the portalresulted in an unprecedented 87 new players from the 1–11 dumpster fire he inherited. NIL opportunities helped him stun the college football world while he was coaching at Jackson State, grabbing the No. 1 recruit in the class of ’22, two-way star Travis Hunter, away from Florida State. Hunter has continued to profit from NIL—he is believed to be making seven figures per year. Shedeur followed his dad from Jackson State; he drives a Rolls-Royce, a chip off Dad’s flaunt-it block. The marketing of the Buffaloes began soon after Sanders arrived in Boulder for his introduction as coach on Dec. 4, 2022. A production crew from the Amazon series Coach Prime followed him, just as it had documented his tenure at Jackson State, where he went 27–6 in three seasons and won new fans. But a Power 5 conference coaching job was the goal, and with it came new levels of competition and exposure—two of the central themes of Sanders’s life. Growing up in Fort Myers, Fla., young Deion spent most of his time immersed in two things: playing sports and consuming sitcoms. His life’s work flowed from there. “I’ve always played some type of sport, always organized some type of team in the neighborhood,” he says. “When we were in elementary [school], our bus stop would play against another bus stop. We would get together, walk to their bus stop, play a game right there on the road, so we were sweaty and funky going to school. I would organize a baseball team and go get hats from the 7-Eleven so we could have a little structure.

Deion Sanders leading Colorado out.

Sanders overhauled CU’s roster—and fortunes: from 1–11 in ’22 to being ranked No. 18 in September.Greg Nelson/Sports Illustrated
“I didn’t have the ‘Prime’ nickname in youth leagues, but I’ve always been the guy who hit the home runs. I’ve always been the guy who scored the touchdowns. I’ve always been the guy who dunked and scored 30 points. I’ve always been the guy who brought people together, who broke up fights in high school. I’ve always been the guy that some people hated, some people ridiculed, some people doubted. No one just let me ride. No one gave me a pass. I’ve always attracted a judgmental crowd. That’s how God designed me. I’ve always provoked emotions.” When he wasn’t provoking emotions, he was studying them via TV. The golden era of 1970s comedy was fertile learning ground for Sanders. “I watched a lot of television as a kid,” he says. “And I didn’t just watch television—I watched television. I studied characteristics. I studied Good Times, I studied The Jeffersons, I studied Sanford and SonHappy DaysAll in the Family. I studied the dynamics of all these different shows. What made them click? Who was the guy? Who was the costar? I just watched it like it was a game.” Sanders then went on to play a variety of roles in real life. Whether it’s acting skills or genuine charisma, he has found a way to be all things to all people. You can see in him what you want to see. Hammer and Deion in ESPN Sports Bloopers 3 that Abdul-Jalil Executive Produced and Produced!

Deion Sanders: Celebrity.

In a world where many people are famous for no reason, he’s famous for abundant legitimate reasons. His combination of unparalleled athletic accomplishment with eye-catching style and a gift for oratory makes him an attention magnet. And did we mention the smile? The number of very famous Americans who have come to Boulder just to be in Sanders’s orbit exemplifies his gravitational pull. From The Rock to an array of Hall of Fame athletes to hip-hop icons, the sidelines at Colorado home games resembled VIP seating for a Tyson-era Vegas bout. The only other time a college football program attracted this wattage of star power was USC during the Pete Carroll Heyday—maybe.

Deion Sanders meeting The Rock.

Celebrities, including Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (right), have flocked to Boulder this season.Andrew Wevers/USA TODAY Sports
Sanders has gained immense popularity and fame without an overindulgence in fakery. He does not say what people want to hear just to go along and get along. During the photo shoot for this story, one of the students in attendance yelled to Sanders, “Thanks for the follow yesterday [on social media].” Sanders’s response: “That wasn’t me, my man. My son does all that for me.” The kid didn’t seem to mind.

Deion Sanders: Authentic Man.

He’s not trying to blend into the overwhelmingly white demographic of his profession. That would be faking it. There is no small percentage of America that would prefer he just fake it and stop being so . . . Black. “Our country’s not prepared for an African American man with this title, telling the truth,” Sanders says. “I don’t think we’re there yet.” Rabaka, the African American studies professor, posits that Sanders is “arguably a hip-hop head coach. He’s got the hat cocked to the side. He’s got the gold chains. He’s wearing the nicest Nikes and sweatsuits.” That’s easier to pull off at Jackson State than at a high-major program, where the established aesthetic is homogeneous—and pale. Even fellow Black coach Jay Norvell of Colorado State took a shot at Sanders for his wardrobe: “When I talk to grown-ups, I take my hat off and my glasses off. That’s what my mother taught me.” Sanders is undeterred and has Colorado’s backing to be who he is. (What a concept in 2023.) The school loves Sanders’s persona. Boulder, white as it is but also decidedly liberal, welcomes the diversity. That has resonated nationally: The Buffaloes have been widely hailed as “Black America’s team,” as Georgetown once was in college basketball. “He’s unapologetically African American,” says Rabaka. “He speaks plainly, says it just like the brothers on the block, like the way we talk at the barbershop. We come from a culture of being expressive, we use call-and-response dialogue. Listen to him, and you hear that.”

Deion Sanders: God-Fearing Man.

If hip-hop culture isn’t your thing, Sanders can pull you in with his public espousing of religion. He is a God Squadder who refrains from swearing, peppering his sentences with durn and bull junk as replacements for cuss words—just as his legendary college coach, Bobby Bowden, did. There is no greater example of Sanders’s cross-demographic reach than his friendships with Lil Wayne and Peggy Coppom, the lifelong fan who has become the Sister Jean of Colorado football. Coppom goes to church daily and respects Sanders’s religious nature. “I really like the fact that he’s not reluctant to express his faith in God,” she says. If there was anything Sanders did this year that could be characterized as Christianity in action, it was his peacemaker role after Colorado State safety Henry Blackburn delivered a cheap shot that led to Hunter missing 3 1/2 games with an internal injury. With Colorado fans heaping abuse on Blackburn and his family, Sanders defused the situation. “This is still a young man trying to make it in life—a guy that’s trying to live his dream and hopefully graduate with honors or a degree, committed to excellence and go to the NFL,” Sanders said. “He does not deserve a death threat over a game.”

Deion Sanders: Old-School College Football Coach.

The perceived Hollywood culture of the program runs into a reality that insiders unanimously describe as heavy on structure. “He might have more rules than a lot of other programs,” says Chad Chatlos of TurnkeyZRG Executive Search, which handles high-profile coach and athletic director searches. “People miss on how much discipline and accountability he brings to a program.” In the transfer-portal era, coaches are petrified of criticizing their players. Yet Sanders certainly didn’t coddle the most touted freshman on his team, defensive back Cormani McClain. When McClain wasn’t playing much early in the season, Sanders pretty much put him on blast: “Study, prepare. Be on time for meetings, show up to the durn meetings. Want to play this game, desire to play this game, desire to be the best in this game in practice, in the film room and on your own free time.”

Deion Sanders: Family Man.

Like many parents in their 50s, this is the role he cherishes most. Interaction with his kids is waning as the youngest move through college, but Sanders managed to forestall that bittersweet inevitability by going to college with them—first at Jackson State, now at Colorado. Then he brought most of the rest of the family with him to Boulder.

Shedeur Sanders playing against Arizona.

Coach Prime’s star pupil is his son Shedeur, who has thrown for 3,230 yards and 27 TDs in 11 games.Erick W. Rasco/Sports Illustrated
Sanders’s description of the dynamic at Colorado’s Dal Ward Athletic Center sounds like something out of a sitcom. “How in the world is this not heaven on Earth?” Sanders says in his office. “Every day, my daughter comes through that door and gives me a kiss. Every day, Shedeur comes in here and takes a shower, changes clothes, then they wash my clothes like they do and I find his underwear in my drawer—I know they’re not mine, because I know what brand I wear. Shilo sneaks up here to take a dump. Junior’s office is right next to mine. My sister [his assistant, Tracie Knight] is outside. My mother is over there watching the soap operas. My dog is right here. How in the world can I not be thankful and appreciative of where I am? They have afforded us the luxury of calling this place home, and we’ve absolutely loved it.” As it turns out, Sanders’s agency, SMAC, and Kevin Hart’s production company are working on a sitcom based on Coach Prime’s life. It’s all coming full circle for the boy who grew up studying ’70s TV shows. He’s about to become the inspiration for one.

As for the actual football? It’s been an adventure. Colorado is massively improved over 2022, when it was by far the worst Power 5 program. The Buffaloes were outscored by 29.1 points per game last year, compared to 6.7 this year. Las Vegas set their over-under total at 3.5 wins coming into the season, and the Buffs surpassed that in early October. But there have been pratfalls. For all the acclaim Sanders has received, he’s also gotten criticism for blowing a 29-point lead to a bad Stanford team, for mismanaging the clock in a couple of games, for strangely demoting offensive coordinator Sean Lewis. It hasn’t all been sunshine and reflector shades. “If you have 10 boxes to check, I’d say eight of them are checked,” Chatlos says. “This was a program lacking relevance, and he’s Mr. Relevant—he’s given them that. I’d say B-plus so far. The question is, how good of a football program is he building?” That remains to be answered. What Colorado does in the portal this offseason will be a huge part of the equation, as will Shedeur’s decision on whether to enter the NFL draft. For Sanders, he has to decide whether the current joy he’s experiencing will last after his sons hang up their helmets. For Colorado, they want those luminous smiles to radiate in Boulder for a long time. “I trust him,” says athletic director Rick George. “He feels this is his calling.”

The call has been answered. The response has been emphatic. The paradigm has been shifted. College football has never seen anything like the Prime Effect when it hit Boulder in the fall, and the sport might never be the same again.


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