Cowboy Family Values

Only on a team with Michael Irvin and Jerry Jones could Deion Sanders be a paragon of virtue and good behavior. But the truth is, for the NFL’s flashiest superstar, prime time begins at home.

You know by now that Deion Sanders likes to have it both ways, whether the subject is football or pizza toppings, but you might be surprised to learn of his Jekyll and Hyde personalities. Those custom-made suits, those quirky choices of jewelry and headwear, his Camptown Races high-stepping, his outrageous pronouncements to the media—that’s just Deion as Hyde, playing offense with his image. There, the issue is marketing. In real life Deion is Jekyll, the straightest, squarest guy on the Dallas Cowboys roster. He doesn’t drink, smoke, cheat on his wife, or use profanity. Though he owns a nightclub, he seldom hangs out there. Think back to the 1995 season: The two most striking images are Michael Irvin cursing the whole world on national television and Deion Sanders cradling his small daughter after the Super Bowl game. Although Deion drives a Mercedes 500SL to work, he rents a bus to take his family on vacation. Neon is glitter and gloss, but Deion is as dull as salt.

“He’s two distinct personalities,” says defensive tackle Chad Hennings, himself something of a straight arrow among Cowboy miscreants. “He’s Prime Time to the public, but in the locker room he’s Deion Sanders, football player. He’s very down to earth, very approachable.” Cowboys head coach Barry Switzer agrees: “Deion is the total opposite of his public persona. He’s a dedicated, hardworking guy.” Like almost everyone else in the Cowboys organization, Switzer was apprehensive when Sanders first arrived in Dallas aboard owner Jerry Jones’s private jet, a $35 million contract in hand, diamond-studded hoops dangling from his ears, a limousine waiting to whisk him off to his suite at the Mansion on Turtle Creek. The Cowboys have had more than their share of prima donnas over the years, and many of them ended up telling it to a judge. But in a private meeting with Switzer, Deion promised that all of the Prime Time stuff was window dressing. “He told me if he ever got arrested, it would probably be for trespassing,” Switzer says with a laugh. That’s exactly what happened. A few months after Michael Irvin and his topless-dancer pals were getting hauled in for questioning on drug charges, Deion was arrested for trespassing at a restricted lake in Fort Myers, Florida, near where he grew up. He was caught with a fishing pole in his hands. Since he had been warned twice to keep away from this fishing hole, you can interpret his defiance as the act of a spoiled athlete or the weakness of a man addicted to fishing. Whatever the case, he pleaded guilty and paid his fine.

The telling Deion moment during this summer’s Cowboys training camp in Austin was a two-hour workout when several thousand fans jammed against the security fence and began yelling, “Dei-on! Dei-on! Dei-on!” If you closed your eyes, you might have believed that you were in Naples, Italy, listening to the fanatical followers of the SSC Napoli soccer club chanting for their hero Diego Maradona, but you could not fathom such an outpouring of hot-blooded emotion for a Texas athlete. Then a more extraordinary thing happened. Deion leapt the fence, threw himself into the crowd, and started signing autographs. Even more surprising than the fans’ show of love was Deion’s willingness and even eagerness to reciprocate.

“Look at that!” Emmitt Smith said, his voice full of awe. “Isn’t that something?” Emmitt was seated in the $30,000 Mercedes golf cart that Deion had brought to camp, a reminder that his Neonship spares no expense in calling attention to himself. The cart had tinted windows, a stereo system, and a mist dispenser; the vanity license plate read “Fulltime,” hailing Deion’s status as the only current pro football player to play both offense and defense. Emmitt is among a handful of active players who can begin rehearsing their Hall of Fame acceptance speeches. Deion, on the other hand, has yet to play a full NFL season. Eventually he may be recognized as one of the game’s all-time greats, but for the moment he’s all hat and no cattle.

That’s why the incident at training camp was so significant: It’s amazing that a star of Emmitt’s stature would tolerate—let alone appreciate—such immodest behavior, that he would judge Deion not for his vainglorious proclamations but for the honesty of his delivery. Indeed, every coach and player I spoke with expressed respect and admiration for Deion both as a person and as a player. You rarely hear such effusive comments, even on a team that has been successful. In a survey published last year by USA Today, NFL players named Deion the most overrated man in the league, but they also included him among the six players they wanted on their team. The point seemed to be that while his opponents are not ready to join the media in declaring Deion’s unequaled greatness, they recognize his rare talents.

Although Deion is the ultimate sports mercenary—in eight years as a pro, he has played for three football teams and three baseball teams—he has no history of creating problems in the locker room or the barroom. His only off-the-field controversy was an altercation with a security guard at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium during his baseball days. The guard filed criminal charges against Deion, but a jury acquitted him. Later, the guard filed a $1 million civil suit against the multimillionaire athlete, which seems to be de rigueur these days; but a second jury absolved him. Likewise, Deion has almost never been criticized by a teammate. After he jumped ship from San Francisco and joined the archrival Cowboys, some of the 49ers bad-mouthed him as a traitor, no doubt angered by media reports that gave him excessive credit for the team’s Super Bowl victory. In fact, Deion never said that he was San Francisco’s savior, though of course he didn’t deny it.

It was a shock to this longtime Cowboys observer to witness the metamorphosis from Neon to Deion. Driving from the dining hall to

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