Deion Sanders is one of the most accomplished athletes in American sports history. He is one of only a handful to play both professional baseball and football, and is the only athlete to play in a World Series and Super Bowl.
On the football field, Sanders was one of the most electrifying players to ever don a uniform. The man known as “Prime Time” was chosen as a first-team selection on the NFL’s All-1990s Team at both cornerback and punt returner, the only player to occupy two positions on the list.
Sanders’ extraordinary athleticism was apparent early on, as he earned All-State honors in football, baseball and basketball while at North Fort Myers High School in Fort Myers, Florida. In 1985, he was named to the Florida High School Association All-Century Team for football.
Following high school, Sanders took his talents to Florida State University, where he played both football and baseball, and ran track. Sanders excelled in all three sports, but it was football that put him in the national spotlight. The 6’1,” 195-pound cornerback was a 2-time All-American and the 1988 Jim Thorpe Award winner, given to college football’s best defensive back.
In 1989, Sanders was chosen by the Atlanta Falcons with the fifth overall pick of the NFL Draft. It didn’t take long for him to make an impact, as he returned a punt 68 yards for a touchdown in his first game. At cornerback, Sanders intercepted five passes, forced two fumbles and made 39 tackles as a rookie starter.
The two-sport star also made his Major League Baseball debut in 1989, one year after being drafted by the New York Yankees in the 30th round. Sanders was initially drafted by the Kansas City Royals in the sixth round in 1985, but chose to attend Florida State instead. In his first game on May 31, he went 1 for 4 with an RBI and a run scored. Four days later on June 4, he hit his first Major League home run.
In 1990, Sanders’ explosiveness was on full display, as “Prime Time” returned two interceptions for touchdowns, and scored on a punt return. Not only did the young speedster run a 4.2 second 40-yard dash, he had the agility and elusiveness to evade tacklers in the open field, making him a threat to score any time he touched the ball.
In 1991, Sanders was elected to his first Pro Bowl after intercepting six passes, including another pick six. He also had his first kickoff return for a touchdown with a 100-yard score against the San Francisco 49ers. The season also marked his first trip to the playoffs. In the Falcons’ 27-20 Wild Card win over the New Orleans Saints, he had an interception and a 22-yard punt return.
Sanders made history on October 11, 1992, when he nearly became the first person to play professional football and baseball on the same day. At 1 pm, he started at cornerback for the Falcons against the Miami Dolphins in Miami. Following the game, he flew to Pittsburgh to suit up for the Atlanta Braves in their National League Championship Series contest against the Pirates at 8:44 pm. Sanders didn’t get into the game for the Braves, but he was in uniform for both games, the only player to accomplish that feat.
The 1992 season was Sanders’ most successful yet as a baseball player. In 97 regular season games, he hit .304 with 26 stolen bases and a league-leading 14 triples. In five World Series games, he hit .533 with five steals. Unfortunately, the Braves would lose the series to the Toronto Blue Jays in six.
On the gridiron, Sanders earned his second straight Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors after intercepting three passes, returning two kickoffs for touchdowns, and catching his first touchdown as a receiver.
In 1993, the fifth-year corner set a career-high with seven interceptions, and was named All-Pro for the second straight season. The year would also mark his last as a Falcon, as he signed a one-year contract with the 49ers after the season.
Sanders had his best year yet in 1994, intercepting six passes for 303 yards and three touchdowns for the NFL’s best team. The 49ers cruised through the regular season with a 13-3 record, and were in prime position to dethrone the two-time defending champion Dallas Cowboys.
Sanders was instrumental in the Niners’ playoff run, with an interception in both their 38-28 win over the Cowboys in the NFC Championship Game and their 49-26 win over the San Diego Chargers in Super Bowl XXIX. The NFL’s top cornerback could now add a Super Bowl championship to his growing list of achievements.
In baseball, Sanders was traded from the Braves to the Cincinnati Reds, where he established new career-highs with 106 hits, 58 runs and 38 stolen bases.
Following the 1994 season, he would change his NFL address too, signing a contract with the rival Cowboys, and becoming the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL.
Sanders played only nine regular season games in 1995, but had a major impact on the Cowboys’ postseason run. He had an interception and a 21-yard rushing touchdown in a 30-11 win over the Philadelphia Eagles in the Divisional Round, and had a 47-yard reception in the Cowboys’ 27-17 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XXX.
On the diamond, Sanders split the 1995 season between the Cincinnati Reds and San Francisco Giants, hitting .268 with 24 stolen bases and eight triples in 85 games.
In 1996, Sanders sat out the baseball season to concentrate his energies on football. He once again earned All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors at cornerback, and was given a bigger role on offense, catching 36 passes for 475 yards and a touchdown.
Sanders returned to baseball in 1997, playing in a career-high 115 games. He also set personal bests with 127 hits and 56 stolen bases. The year also saw Sanders revisit his role as a punt returner, as he returned 33 punts for 407 yards and a touchdown. The Cowboys’ All-Pro also had his seventh career interception return for a touchdown.
Sanders skipped baseball for the next three years, but remained the NFL’s top cornerback. He played two more Pro Bowl seasons with the Cowboys in 1998-99 before signing a massive 7-year, $56 million contract with the Washington Redskins. Sanders had a solid year in 2000, but unexpectedly retired after the season.
The two-sport star returned to the Cincinnati Reds for 32 games in 2001, his last in Major League Baseball, before spending the next two years away from professional sports.
Sanders returned to the NFL in 2004 with the Baltimore Ravens. He played two more seasons as a nickelback, intercepting five passes for 144 yards and his ninth career pick six, before retiring from football after the 2005 season.
Sanders finished his career with 53 interceptions for 1,331 yards and nine touchdowns. As a return man, he averaged 10.4 yards on punt returns with six scores, and 22.7 yards on kick returns with three scores. He also had three touchdowns as a receiver, and one on a fumble return. His 19 non-offensive touchdowns rank second in NFL history.
The greatest cornerback of his era was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 2011.