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A special feature brought to you by
Salon Magazine

Give me that Prime Time religion

By Mark Schone

Web posted on: Tuesday, February 02, 1999 3:19:51 PM

In his new born-again book, Deion Sanders asks not what he can do for Jesus, but what Jesus can do for him.

(SALON) -- Around the time football players realized end zones were for dancing, they also decided that the pronouns "I" and "me," which they used an awful lot, had worn out. As if to endorse the view that they were commodities, cartoons or royalty -- or just immune to introspection -- athletes began to refer to themselves in the third person.

It makes sense, therefore, that when the most marketed personality in the NFL gets religion, he announces it in the weirdly detached grammar of football-speak. "Deion Sanders is covered by the blood of Jesus now," writes Deion Sanders. "He loves the Lord with all his heart." And in Deion's new autobiography, the Lord loves Deion right back, though the salvation he offers third-person types seems different from what mere mortals can expect.

"Power, Money and Sex" is a meandering, repetitive, Christian bookstore quickie, the kind of "as told to" so slapdash even famous names are spelled wrong, but it's an illuminating guide to Athletic Christianity. In it, Sanders comes to stand for all the aging superhumans who look for a spiritual performance enhancer, anything to avoid being alone with their fading bodies and their fearful thoughts. Deion is not wondering what he can do for Jesus, he's wondering what Jesus can do for him. The subtitle of the book is "How Success Almost Ruined My Life," but what Deion actually wants is more success. "If you want to keep on burning," he says, "then you've got to hook up to something bigger and stronger than you are." His God is both Creator and creatine, helping athletes grow bigger and stronger spiritually, a ready-made prosthesis for that interior life some athletes never bothered to develop.

"Neon Deion" started honing his sense of entitlement early. He may have grown up in the Fort Myers, Fla., projects, but by age 7 he was crossing school district lines as a multi-sport ringer. He was also precocious at "how you like me now?" -- before his 10th birthday he'd perfected his Billy "White Shoes" Johnson imitation, bumping the goal posts after every peewee league touchdown.

When Deion gets saved in his hotel room, he calls up his born-again lawyer with the news. "I did it!" he yells. No mention of Jesus, who was apparently just a fan with a really good seat.

By high school Deion had grown accustomed to the special treatment accorded athletes, the free pass through any moral turnstile. He had internalized the regard of his coaches and schoolmates to such an extent that he no longer believed anything could be his fault. One day the big man on campus was holding court with some white girls in the parking lot when (he claims) he heard a less-popular girl on a distant car hood say something "racial." He winged a football 30 yards and hit her in the mouth, to the snickers of the gaggle around him. Fifteen years older and born again, he's still proud of his aim, and still professes, without irony, "I never could be nasty or ignorant to anyone. I wasn't raised that way."

Deion's obliviousness makes his account of his college years oddly revealing. The son of a cleaning woman, he somehow arrived at Florida State in a flash car with "Deion" license plates. He makes no pretense that getting a degree mattered, and confesses he chose the school because he liked the dorms. One of the few things he admits learning at FSU was that pro cornerbacks didn't make big money. He claims, against all evidence, that the "Prime Time" schtick he brought to professional sports was a cold-blooded calculation, a bid to raise his profile and with it his earning power.

Sanders' athletic gifts, of course, lived up to the Prime Time persona. Sanders, a sure Hall of Famer who is one of the greatest cornerbacks and return men in NFL history, achieved something remarkable in modern athletics: He played pro baseball and football simultaneously, once even competing for the Atlanta Braves and Falcons in the course of a single day. He's right when he complains that sportswriters unfairly chided him for this "publicity stunt."

A quintessentially athletic conversion

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