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The top 100 FSU football players: No. 1— cornerback Deion Sanders

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There’s no time like Prime Time.

Florida State Seminoles

You may have thought that achieving the status of consensus All-American was about as good as it got in college football. But there’s another level: unanimous All-American. See, to attain the high honor of consensus All-American, a player has to earn first-team recognition from a certain number of specific national media outlets. But to be a unanimous All-American? You have to sweep them. Across the board. All first-team acknowledgments. No exceptions.

And that brings us to today’s culminating entry in our top 100 FSU football players series, and the only Seminole who achieved unanimous All-America status twice. The greatest cornerback in the history of football, Deion Sanders. No exceptions.

Recruitment

Let’s go back to the origin of just how Sanders came to wear the garnet and gold. In a world before Hudl and YouTube highlights, recruiting worked a little differently. According to a story by David Dorsey a few years ago, Sanders appeared on the FSU radar when he was nine years old. That’s when booster Walter Grace, who lived in Sanders’ hometown of Ft. Myers, took notice of the latter during a Pop Warner football game.

Grace, who was friends with the area coaches, was, at the time, allowed to recruit as a Florida State alum under less stringent NCAA rules. He kept Sanders on his radar, and spoke to the young prospect’s now-departed father, Mims Sanders. He also talked to Bobby Bowden.

According to Dorsey, years later Bowden sent assistant coach Bob Harbison down to watch Sanders, who was playing not only DB, but also QB, as well as basketball. After watching Sanders play both football and hoops, Harbison saw him cut his eyebrow on the rim— and then stopped visiting the special Ft. Myers talent, for a good reason: he’d seen all he had to, and didn’t want to draw any more national attention to him.

Sanders already liked Florida State, and it also helped that the Seminoles checked boxes key to him in choosing a college. He wanted to play right away. That counted out Georgia, which wanted Sanders to redshirt for his freshman season. He wanted to stay close to his mother, Connie Knight, who couldn’t afford to travel too far to watch him play. And although Sanders visited UF, he didn’t care for it, which brings up the first instance of how important good taste played into his recruitment.

The other came courtesy of the FSU cafeteria, according to longtime NFL-insider Gil Brandt. Brandt maintains that “the key” to Sanders deciding in favor of the ’Noles was his introduction to one “Miss Betty,” a cafeteria worker at Florida State, who, per Brandt, “promised to take care of him as if he was her own son. And that sealed the deal.”

Record-Setting Frosh

And so Sanders arrived at FSU in 1985 as a freshman. He saw the defensive field mostly as a reserve during his first year, while balancing life away from home, football, and track. He broke up four passes, but his freshman highpoint came against Tulsa, when he returned an interception 100 yards for his first FSU touchdown. Of course, that’s still the longest pick-six in program history. The play was the final Florida State score in a 76-point performance by the ’Noles— it broke the school record of 74 points, set in 1949.

But Bowden also got the ball in Sanders’ hands by making him the team’s primary punt returner— and his inclusion on special teams really paid off, beginning with that Tulsa game, when he returned five punts for an average of 17.2 YPR. In the regular season finale at Florida, Sanders returned one punt 34 yards and also scored on a 58-yard blocked punt return. He averaged 19 yards per return over five tries against the Gators in that game.

Breakthrough

1986 saw Sanders add Seminole baseball to his already busy schedule, which prompts the very important interjection that while he’d become known for the seeming ease with which he patrolled the gridiron, it wasn’t all just natural talent. Spread across three sports and school, Sanders was well known as one of the hardest working players in FSU football practices. Hour upon hour of toiling in the north Florida heat: there wouldn’t have been a Prime Time without some serious grind time.

And ’86 is when the fruits of those labors really began to show up on the national stage. He came up with 61 tackles, four interceptions, eight pass breakups, as well as two forced fumbles and one recovery. All while continuing to field punts at nearly 10 yards per return. Sanders averaged double-digit punt-return yardage against half the teams he faced, exceeding the 24-YPR mark against Miami and South Carolina.

And this illustrates just how good Sanders was for the ’Noles as a sophomore: well before he was the greatest, he was already outstanding, garnering first-team All-America honors from The Sporting News, along with earning a third-team nod from the AP and an honorable mention from the UPI. He was also a sophomore All-American per Football News, and a first-team All-South Independent selection.

Unanimity

By 1987, Sanders was no longer a surprise to opposing offenses— but it didn’t matter, because he just kept getting better. After FSU’s disappointing 1986 season saw the Seminoles finish 7-4-1, Sanders helped begin the ’Nole dynasty in ’87.

With quarterbacks well aware of his immense talent and staying away from his side of the field, Sanders still amassed four more picks while breaking up nine passes and forcing a fumble. He also returned a punt for a touchdown against Tulane. Remember, DB recognition is often about not having your name called, and Sanders had opponents playing scared, plain and simple. And if they went at him, well then they were just playing stupid— and with fire.

That’s why he was named a unanimous All-American after the Seminoles’ 11-1 season. While obviously repeating as an All-South Independent choice, he was voted a first-team All-American selection by the AP, the UPI, the Football Writers Association of America, the American Football Coaches Association, The Sporting News, Football News, Walter Camp, Kodak, and Scripps Howard.

Must-See DB

Get in your DeLorean and gun it to ’88, because that’s the year when Deion Sanders transformed into Prime Time. Bowden explains:

Case in point: in the season’s third game, Sanders called his shot to the Clemson bench in Death Valley prior to returning a punt. And in Ruthian fashion, he delivered, taking it back 76 yards in front of a stunned crowd. This punt return is still the 10th longest in FSU history— but well north of that in Seminole lore:

Maybe even dumber than punting to Sanders, teams still occasionally tried to throw at him, even though he’d firmly entrenched himself as the nation’s premier defensive back. He authored a career-high five interceptions and took two back for scores (tied for the most in the country that season), but none of his INTs were bigger than his final play in an FSU uniform, a pick against Auburn that sealed a Sugar Bowl victory for the Seminoles and capped yet another 11-1 season. This play really demonstrates how adept Sanders became at baiting QBs into making what may have looked like safe throws.

That postseason pick was hardly something new from Sanders, who earned his Prime Time nickname by performing on the biggest stages: he intercepted a pass in all four of the bowl games he played— and Florida State won them all.

Again after the 1988 campaign, Sanders was recognized as a unanimous All-American, as the AP, UPI, FWAA, AFCA, The Sporting News, Football News, Walter Camp, and Kodak again named him a first-team choice. In the most unnecessary follow-up ever, he was a first-team All-South Independent first-team honoree, too. Sanders also became FSU’s first winner of the Thorpe Award, given annually to the country’s top DB, and he led the nation with both 503 total punt-return yards and an astounding average of 15.4 yards per attempt.

Revered Career

Sanders remains tied for third in career INTs at Florida State, with 14, and his four career pick-sixes are tied for the most in FSU history. Some might think that he’d have chilled a bit on the punt returns, given their inherent risk and the obviously lucrative future in front of him at DB. But that’s the kind of blowback Sanders always gets from those who only really tend to remember his persona and dancing.

But substance and style are far from mutually exclusive. As you’ll see in the highlight clips below, he was a dogged competitor who didn’t forego an opportunity to get an advantage over an opponent. His punt returns actually increased from his freshman to senior year at FSU— as did his average return each season. His 126 career punt returns still top the Seminole record books, as do his 1,429 punt-return yards and three punt-return TDs (tied). Some perspective: if Sanders’ career punt-return yards were a single-season rushing total, they’d be third in Florida State history, behind only Dalvin Cook’s 2016 and 2015 campaigns.

Next Level

As Sanders prepared for the NFL Combine in 1989, he initially wasn’t going to run the 40. Brandt stepped in, persuading him to show what he could do. That only took 4.27 seconds, which is bypassing ridiculous and going straight plaid.

Sanders was selected almost as quickly in the 1989 NFL Draft, coming off the board fifth after being chosen by the Atlanta Falcons. Check out his company in the top five players taken that year (Hall of Famers are in bold).

  1. Dallas Cowboys: Troy Aikman (QB), UCLA
  2. Green Bay Packers: Tony Mandarich (OT), Michigan State
  3. Detroit Lions: Barry Sanders (RB), Oklahoma State
  4. Kansas City Chiefs: Derrick Thomas (LB), Alabama
  5. Atlanta Falcons: Deion Sanders (CB), Florida State

The Falcons were not disappointed. Playing football and baseball (he’d already been drafted by the New York Yankees in 1988), Sanders was a Pro-Bowl selection for Atlanta in 1992 and 1993, by which point he was also playing his pro baseball in the ATL, for the Braves. He then moved on to play football for San Francisco in 1994, where he again made the Pro Bowl and led the 49ers to a Super Bowl XXIX title. The next season, he headed to Dallas, and promptly won Super Bowl XXX. He was a Pro-Bowl honoree of the Cowboys from 1996-1999.

All told, Sanders made the Pro Bowl seven times. The only ’Noles with more selections are Walter Jones (9) and Derrick Brooks (11). Sanders has a little history with those guys: they’re three of the four Seminoles in the Pro Football Hall of Fame (the other being Fred Biletnikoff), which inducted Sanders in 2011. That’s the same year that saw him enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame as well.

As you might expect, Sanders made the Florida State Hall of Fame well earlier, in 1994. His No. 2 is retired at FSU.

Film Room

Below, check out a nice compilation of Sanders’ Florida State highlights— and witness the birth of FSU as DBU. And note the great combination of Sanders’ football intelligence and announcers’ stupidity: they continued to think that receivers were open, and/or that Sanders was beat. That’s exactly what he wanted QBs to think. That’s how you continue to pile up picks as the best defensive back in the country.

For a livelier highlight video of Sanders, check this one out, too, set appropriately to “It Takes Two” (get it?). There are some deeper cuts here that provide an even better perspective on Sanders’ underrated physicality:

And that point about DBU isn’t just an internet trolling job. Look at the years that followed Sanders’ time at Florida State. While no Seminole DB had achieved consensus (let alone unanimous) All-America honors before him, two years after he left, LeRoy Butler was a consensus All-American. Two years after that, Terrell Buckley followed suit (and also won the Thorpe). Two years later, Corey Sawyer did it. The next season, Clifton Abraham did as well. And then Tay Cody. Followed by Lamarcus Joyner. And most recently, Jalen Ramsey.

Sanders’ time at FSU wasn’t just a career. It was the origin story of a Seminole legacy.