FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Deion Sanders isn't from Canton, Ohio. But certainly there was never any question he was destined to end up there.
He was born Aug. 9, 1967, in Fort Myers, Fla. During the nearly 44 years between then and today, when Sanders will be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2011, he would come to be known the world over simply as "Prime Time."
Consistent with his dynamic athletic talents, flamboyant dress, gift for gab and signature dances, the name personified Sanders' rise from being a loner in the projects of Fort Myers to riches beyond his dreams and football immortality.
Sanders rarely gets back to this palm tree-laden city in southwest Florida, which began as a military outpost to fight the Seminole Indians in the 1800s and now whose most famous native is a former Florida State Seminole.
He has made a new post-career life in North Texas, living out his dreams in a $21 million mansion in Prosper and helping hundreds of kids realize their own dreams with his Truth sports organization in the southern sector of Dallas. He plans to open a school, Prime Time Prep, in 2012.
But to understand where he is now and how he got to this point you have to know where it all began, here in the "Dunbar area" of Fort Myers.
Before he became the most successful two-sport star of the modern era by playing in the NFL and MLB at the same time.
Before he become the only person in history to hit a major league home run and score a touchdown in the NFL in the same week.
Before he became the only man to play in a Super Bowl and a World Series.
Before he became a perennial All-Pro during 14 NFL seasons with the Atlanta Falcons, San Francisco 49ers, Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins and Baltimore Ravens, winning two Super Bowl titles.
Before he set an NFL record with 19 return touchdowns -- defensive and special teams.
Before he became known as the best shutdown corner in the history of the game.
Before he became the NFL's first true hired gun and arguably greatest free-agent signee by leading the 49ers and Cowboys to back-to-back Super Bowl titles.
Before high-stepping his way into end zones and prancing his way out of them like no other.
Before he danced with MC Hammer and rapped his own song Must be the Money.
Before all of that, he was just a boy, who dreamed of a better life for his mother, Connie Knight, and himself.
Although his granddad was the first black policeman in Fort Myers, patrolling the black area of town called Dunbar, Sanders' dad, Mims Sanders, was a flashy and trash-talking junkie. His stepdad, Willie Knight, was a hardworking drunk.
"I never drank or smoked because I was going pro," Sanders said. "That was never me. I saw where that led. I was focused on my momma. When I dream, I dream big."
All Sanders had to lean on for most of his childhood was his mom. He promised her when he was 6 that he would be rich one day so she would never have to clean bedpans as a hospital custodian again.
Then his mom brushed the talk off as the pipe dreams of a skinny, precocious child.
"He always told me 'Mom, I'm going to be rich so you won't have to work,'" Knight recalled. "I said 'Boy, stop, momma's all right.' But he made it happen. Sometimes you think, 'Is it really real where you came from and where you are today?' It makes you wonder. He always had his mind on what he wanted to do and he had a dream."
They were living in the Jones Walker Apartments on Blount Street where his mother would wake up at 6 a.m., put clothes on the bed and pin his house key to his shirt so little Deion could get dressed by himself and walk to kindergarten. He would come home by himself, do his homework and watch TV until his mom came home from her job where she made, "$1.25 an hour, $64 a week and $128 every two weeks."
"It was safer then for me to leave him home by himself," Knight said. "But I had no choice. I couldn't afford nobody to watch him. He obeyed. He knew it was just me and him."
Knight said Sanders was a good kid who never got in trouble -- at least not after the time when he was about 7 or 8, when he was taken to the police station for throwing rocks at an abandoned house.
"I remember a police car coming up and I was talking to my neighbor noticing all the little boys," Knight said. "I didn't realize one of them was mine. Then the phone rang and he called for me to come and get him. I said sit there for a little while and I made him wait. All the other parents had come to get their kids. I told the police to let him see what it was like, because I didn't want any problems out of him. I never had any more problems out of him either."
Nor did he ever smoke, do drugs or drink despite the influences in his poverty-stricken neighborhood or his own family.
His two dads were two of the biggest influences in his life, both positive and negative. He said he never drank or smoked because his dads taught him what not to do, and he focused on his goal of making a better life for his mom.
Sanders, however, had nothing but love for his dads, even though they weren't always the typical father-son relationships.
Mims Sanders, who died at age 50, gave his son the flashy side of his personality. A standout baseball player and high-stepping drum major in high school, Sanders' dad was known as Daddy Buck.
"He was that dude," Sanders. "He was the entertainment side of me. He was Prime Time. But that's why I'm always careful of what I show my kids.
"My dad didn't have bouts with drugs; he was Mike Tyson with drugs. There were no bouts. I remember walking in on him one time. I worked at Bojangles in high school. Me and a friend of mine, Gerald Lephart, used to look out for our daddies. His daddy was in the same boat. We use to take food from Bojangles to our fathers after work. I actually walked in on him in shooting up. I was like, 'Come on, man? You got to clean yourself up.' I was like the father and he was like the son."
Connie Knight married Willie Knight in 1975 and they moved out of the projects into a single-family home next to a graveyard on Henderson Street, about five blocks way.
Willie Knight was a foreman at a lumber yard who also left an indelible impression on Sanders.
"He drank a lot, but one thing my stepfather did was he went to work," Sanders said. "No matter what, he went to work. He would drink. He was a good home drinker. He didn't go out and drink in the clubs. He would drink right in his car or in his room. He was a good, hard worker. He wasn't abusive or nasty. He taught me work ethic, along with my mother, just to see him put on that uniform and go to work every morning."
Kid ball and the Rebels
The biggest male influence in Sanders' life as a kid was his Pop Warner coach, Dave Capel. He coached Sanders from 1977-79, when he played for the Fort Myers Rebels.
Today, Capel, 77, is in a local hospital after suffering a heart attack last Saturday, ruining his plans of attending Sanders' Hall of Fame induction. But it was through Capel that Sanders' journey to athletic immortality truly began.
Like most great players, Sanders' talents were God-given, as he was a standout from the first time he picked up a ball.
"We went to Georgia for the national championship game," Capel recalled. "They had a passing quarterback. They beat everybody. All we had was Deion, who could run the ball. So the first play I did a misdirection. Everybody went one way, he went the other. They had one guy out there and he couldn't come close to catching him. We stopped them and got the ball back and did the same thing the other way. He scored again. They kept saying, 'Where did that little kid come from? Where did that little kid come from?' They couldn't figure out how he could zigzag so fast. He lived across the street from a cemetery. When he got off the bus from school, he had to run through the cemetery to get to his house. He was scared to go through it, so he zigzagged as fast as he could."
The experience with Capel's team -- which was based on the more affluent side of town -- was equally lasting for Sanders. It was during this time when he visited friends who lived near the famous winter homes of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford in Fort Myers where he got the first plans for his current dream home.
The Rebels are also the foundation of Sanders current Truth sports organization. Capel's team was structured, disciplined and educationally based.
"It was a wonderful and splendid organization," Sanders said. "It was structured, and my momma wanted structure. Me and one my homeboys, the first year, were the only blacks on the team. Everybody on the team, their mommas and daddies owned something and they lived in these big houses. And coach Capel was always there for me."
Capel, who is now Sanders' de facto historian, followed him through high school, college and the pros. He pulled out several handwritten letters from Sanders when Sanders was in college at Florida State, detailing his experiences and signing off with "you will always be my coach."
Capel remembers Sanders as a good, quiet kid.
"When he comes over here now, unless I talk to him, he never talks back," Capel said. "He was always quiet. Still is. I remember him telling me, 'If you see me acting up or being ornery, it's because I'm trying to make money. I wouldn't make money or do commercials if I didn't act like this and be outgoing. I've got to be Prime Time. But when I'm with you, you're coach Capel and I'm Deion.'"
The birth of Prime Time
The birth of "Prime Time" the businessman and marketing genius came while he was in college at Florida State, when Sanders found out that cornerbacks didn't make as much money as some of the other positions on the team.
"The defensive backs weren't making any money," Sanders said. "They weren't even making a million. It upset me. I needed to take care of momma. I just upped my personality and began to market myself. It was a character I already had in me. I just blew him up. I knew I had the goods and I had the product."
The personality might have come in college at Florida State, but the nickname was founded in Fort Myers, more specifically at North Fort Myers High School, where Sanders was all-state in football, basketball and baseball.
Ironically, the name didn't come from anything he did on the football field, but rather it originated from his basketball exploits and given to him by teammate Richard Fain, who played college ball at Florida and briefly in the NFL with the Cincinnati Bengals, Phoenix Cardinals and Chicago Bears
"It was his senior year and my junior year, and we were joking on the bus and talking," Fain said. "I said we are playing in prime time tonight. You are the star of the team. It's your night. He hit like 30 points and it evolved from there. It was just him showing out and making plays during prime time."
The actual story of how the name came about differs, depending on whom you talk to. Everyone agrees that Fain gave Sanders the nickname. They just can't agree on how it came about.
Ernie Brown, his assistant basketball coach at North Fort Myers, former Boys Club director and now fishing buddy, has his version.
"Well, I remember his sophomore year in basketball. He couldn't dunk, but he worked all summer on it," Brown said. "His junior year we played a game in the preseason and he went down the court and slammed it. It was the first time he dunked in the game. He came down the court giving everybody high-fives on the bench. Then on defense on the next possession he stole the ball and went down the court and dunked it again. The gym went crazy and Richard called him 'Prime Time, Prime Time.' That's how he got that name. He didn't get in football. He got it on the basketball court."
Of course, Fort Myers City Council member Levon Simms, who was the head basketball coach at North Fort Myers at the time, has his own story
"It was a playoff game and this team had a 6-foot-9 kid on it," Simms said. "Richard was kidding Deion about what he couldn't do. Deion says 'this is prime time. This is going to be my show. I'm going to dunk on him.' Sure enough in the second quarter, the gym was packed and everybody was on their feet. He dunked the ball on him. He climbed him like a tree. Richard started calling him Prime Time. That's where the Prime Time thing started."
It has carried him to his final sports resting place, the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Clarence E. Hill Jr., 817-390-7760