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This past Saturday, the revamped, unranked University of Colorado football team coached by Deion Sanders shocked the sports world by upsetting, on the road and in hundred-degree-plus heat, last year’s national runner-up, Texas Christian University. I was well prepared for this outcome, as I’ve been watching the promotional videos of Sanders that have been filmed and uploaded to YouTube during the last nine months. They are each about fifteen minutes or so in length, and show Sanders preparing for the upcoming season. I’m using the term “filmed” generously here—these are low-rent, anti-glitz videos that seem to purposely eschew the easy wonder of the iPhone 14 for something that more closely resembles, in spirit and technical proficiency, the home videos shot by your uncle on his camcorder in the nineteen-nineties. There’s no narration, no talking heads, and no obvious through line other than that expectations are sky-high for Sanders, who signed a five-year, nearly thirty-million-dollar contract last year.
Instead, there’s plenty of handheld shakiness with hard cuts and missing segues. We’re occasionally afforded the courtesy of a quick and mumbled introduction of a coach or player—if you catch it in time—but the rule of thumb seems to be that either you understand what’s going on or you don’t. Often the camera is out of focus. Other times the audio is poor. Sometimes the sound drops out completely and a caption on the screen might explain that the video had to be muted because something “wild” was said. It’s worth noting that Sanders says he hasn’t cursed since he was a college student at Florida State University, where he weaned himself off profanity by paying a fine of five dollars to whoever happened to be with him at the time. The closest he comes now to using a swear word is “dang” and “darn,” which, coming from Sanders, is strangely alluring (as opposed to cloying), and is just one example of how the banal manages to upstage the grandiose in these videos.
The camera follows Sanders as he traverses the team facilities—equipment room, weight room, indoor practice field—sometimes riding through the hallways on a bicycle that’s been provided for him. (Sanders has a bad foot, which was dislocated for nearly twenty years.) Watching Sanders waiting in line in the campus cafeteria, being served chicken, shrimp, rice, etc.—“That’s a beautiful plate right there,” he tells the camera—is another example of where the activities of daily living can trump the actual fundamentals of putting together a football season with its ubiquitous team meetings and player workouts and cliché exhortations. There are times when the videos seem to consciously point directly at the power of the mundane, à la Frederick Wiseman, without the social commentary, as when we see Sanders vacuuming the white plush rug in his office, at 4:30 A.M. no less, thirty seconds of ambient sound only, after which he extolls the virtuosity of the vacuum cleaner and declaims that he hopes to do business with the company. “Dyson,” he says, “please call me.” In the age of TikTok, this is what counts as an extended meditation on everyday life.
That’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of the customary sports platitudes to go around: “This is the beginning,” Sanders tells his team at one point, early in the rebuilding process. “We are going to look back at this particular day and understand how prolific and how profound that this day is.” That might be true, but it’s something we’ve already seen many times before from coaches, players, fans, commentators, et al. What we haven’t seen before is what takes place between him and a campus cleaning woman he meets while waiting for the elevator one morning. He’s in the middle of talking to one of his coaches when he pauses and turns to the woman who is standing next to a cart piled with bags of garbage.
“How you doing today?” he says to her.
“I’m doing good, sir,” she says. “Thank you for asking.”
She speaks with an accent and she’s diffident—who wouldn’t be?—and then Sanders puts his arm around her shoulder. “You’re doing a good job,” he says to her. He corrects himself: “A great job.” He holds the elevator door as she wheels the cart of garbage in, and the last thing we hear her saying is, “I need to take my eight o’clock breakfast break.”
If this is Sanders exhibiting his magnanimous personality for the benefit of the camera, consider me a sucker. That he had a difficult childhood growing up in Fort Myers, Florida, where his mother worked as a cleaner to support her children, adds a level of backstory to a life now spent completely amid the largesse of a Pac-12 football team.
This is not the first so-called documentary about Sanders as a Division 1 head coach; on Barstool Sports and Amazon Prime, cameras followed his first college-coaching job, at Jackson State University, where he was hired after being an offensive coördinator at Trinity Christian High School, where two of his sons played. The first season of the Amazon Prime series ran for only four episodes, and concluded with an undefeated regular season and Sanders being hired away by the University of Colorado, which is where these YouTube videos pick up, without any trace of the polished docuseries that we’ve become accustomed to. (Amazon Prime is reportedly at work on a new season.)
The irony of these underproduced videos is that Deion Sanders—a.k.a. Neon Deion, a.k.a. Prime Time, a.k.a., most recently, Coach Prime—was one of the flashiest football players in the history of the N.F.L. He was a cornerback, a punt returner, an occasional wide receiver—and, by the way, an outfielder for nine seasons in Major League Baseball. He’s the only professional athlete to have played in both a Super Bowl and a World Series. Those glory days are long gone. He now walks with a pronounced limp because two years ago he nearly died as a result of blood clots in his leg and had to have two toes amputated. He’s not shy about displaying his foot; he has it massaged twice a day in the team training room to keep the blood flowing. In a Boulder nail salon, he asks the technician, with his typical aplomb in the face of physical decline, “I got eight toes—do I get a discount?” The deterioration of his body—he estimates twenty-two surgeries, twelve on the foot alone—adds a certain amount of pathos to this story, and an unintentional meta-commentary: here is what awaits the young, seemingly indestructible bodies of the athletes he now coaches, almost none of whom will make it to the N.F.L. or earn anywhere near the millions that Sanders made in the course of his career.
The mastermind behind the videos is Sanders’s son Deion, Jr., who is present nearly as much as his father, and who serves as social-media manager. The nepotism extends to Sanders’s two other sons, Shedeur, who is Colorado’s starting quarterback, and Shilo, a starting safety, both of whom he brought from Jackson State when he resigned. (Darius Sanders—no relation—helps out with filming the videos.) Deion, Jr.,’s days are relatively uneventful, which makes them fascinating. He runs errands for his father, he unboxes products sent by companies in the hope of free advertising—sunglasses by Shady Side Up—he shoots the shit with the staff and players. There he is dropping in unannounced on the tech guy who fixes the team’s computers. “How genius is that?” Deion, Jr., asks with genuine appreciation. There he is shopping at the craft store Michaels, understandably bewildered, as he tries to find a picture frame large enough for one of his father’s football jerseys. In short, he’s responsible for coming up with content, and the guiding principle seems to be that pretty much anything goes. In one video, titled “THE NEW Record for MOST SPENT at the School Book Store,” he buys a thousand dollars’ worth of University of Colorado sweatshirts and assorted merchandise. “Get your Colorado stuff,” he tells the camera. “If you really support, show me that you support.” This serves as a useful reminder that college football is a business.
So it’s not entirely accurate to say that there’s no social commentary in these videos—in fact, it’s implied in almost every frame. The execution might be bargain-basement, but everything else is penthouse, beginning with the senior Sanders’s luxury office, designed just for him, with a chandelier and a view of the snowcapped Flatirons, and the equipment room that resembles a Nike factory outlet, and, of course, the thirty-million-dollar contract that Sanders has signed. “God is good,” is a phrase often repeated for rhetorical effect. As the title of the YouTube series, “Colorado Opulence,” makes clear, there will be no shame or embarrassment about the absolute monetary supremacy of Division 1 college football and the many directions in which the cash flows.
And, lest anyone should forget, Sanders has been hired with the goal of turning around the university’s underperforming asset, i.e., making a winner out of a football team that finished last year in last place in the Pac-12 with a record of 1–11. If Sanders seems daunted by the prospect, he shows no sign of it. After all, he had already worked miracles when he was at Jackson State, transforming a mediocre team at an H.B.C.U., with a fraction of the University of Colorado budget, into a powerhouse that won the Southwestern Athletic Conference in both of the seasons he coached there. This is the reputation that precedes Sanders when he meets his new players for the first time, way back in December, entering to enthusiastic applause, limping, as per usual, dressed in a three-piece suit and a black-and-yellow tie—the team colors—while “All Eyez on Me” plays over the speakers. “That’s the way we walk in,” he says to laughter. But that’s as funny as it’s going to get for the players, who mostly stare at him in awe.
In a video that’s been viewed almost four and a half million times—I account for six of those—Sanders talks matter-of-factly about what he interprets as a culture of complacency that has overtaken the team. “I’m coming,” he says ominously—which is to become a refrain in his speech. “I’m coming to work and not to play. I’m coming to kill it and not to kick it.” A few weeks later, this will be turned into the collective—“We coming”—and used as the team motto, emblazoned on sweatshirts that can be purchased at the college bookstore for fifty-five dollars. Sanders is unsentimental and proscriptive in his speech. He informs the players that from now on there will be no hats, no hoodies, and no phones in his meetings. “I wish you would bring a phone in my meeting,” he says, issuing a veiled threat, and speaking for every college professor who lacks his commanding presence and institutional support. He explains that he already has plans to replace many of them with better players—his sons Shilo and Shedeur happen to be two of those better players. “I’m bringing my luggage with me,” he says, “and it’s Louis.”
Not long after that initial team meeting, Sanders puts his money where his mouth is, and brings with him more Louis Vuitton luggage, shocking the sports world by flipping the five-star cornerback Cormani McClain, who had already committed to the University of Miami; Sanders is a talent who attracts talent. (On the field last Saturday against T.C.U., only ten players remained from last year’s team.) And when his friend Lil Wayne arrives with his entourage, circa midnight—rap-star time—Sanders, wearing overalls and red sandals, gives him a personal tour of the impeccable team facilities. We’ve been here before, of course, but now we’re experiencing it through Lil Wayne’s eyes, and his disbelief is palpable in the presence of such outsized wealth, on a college campus no less. Together they enter an enormous room, pristine, carpeted, lit like a night club, and suddenly it dawns on Lil Wayne where he is, and he stops, rolls his head in disbelief, and exclaims, in one of the rare moments when actual profanity can be heard aloud, “This is the fucking locker room?”
Fast forward some seven months later to the T.C.U. game, where Sanders can be seen giving an electrifying pre-game speech, showcasing the full power of his oratory skills, and transforming the team motto, as if he had planned this from the very beginning, from “We coming,” into “We here.” ♦