Saturday at noon ET on ABC, Jackson State head coach Deion Sanders will lead his team against the South Carolina State Bulldogs in the 2021 Cricket Celebration Bowl at the sold-out Mercedes Benz in Atlanta.
For Pro Football Hall of Famer Sanders, the game will conclude his first fall at the helm of what many consider the most successful rebuilding project for a college football program at a Historically Black College or University (HBCU). The Tigers are 11-1 this fall and captured the Southwestern Athletic Conference title for the first time since 2007; Sanders coached JSU to a 4-3 record in the spring of 2021.
Through the enterprise reporting of its award-winning sports journalist Jean-Jacques Taylor, The Undefeated has chronicled every aspect of Sanders and the Tigers’ story. Taylorw, who is also president of JJT Media Group in Dallas, has covered Sanders since the mid-1990s while on the Dallas Morning News Cowboys beat and later as a sports columnist.
Wednesday, when Travis Hunter – ESPN’s No. 2 recruit in the Class of 2022 – announced he would attend Jackson State, Taylor reported the transformative impact of Hunter’s decision.
Front Row spoke with Taylor, who interviews Sanders in the video above, about covering the football legend and Jackson State:
In what ways have you seen Sanders evolve over the years?
Deion is the same dude he has always been. Most other reporters just never figured who he really is. I did. If you understand Deion, you’ll realize he has tremendous swag, but he’s also a terrific teammate who likes to shine the light on others. I was doing a piece on Deion leading the league in punt returns in 1996 or ’97.
He only talked after games and every now and then in the locker room. One day, I approached him and said, “you’re leading the league in punt returns, and I want to do a piece on the guys blocking for you.” He gave me great quotes and all the time I needed. I gave him the story a couple of days later, and the next time he saw me, he said, “‘good job.’ Get with me anytime you need something.”
Over the years, I’ve done that, and we’ve built a relationship on trust. Bottom line: Deion has always been a guy committed to kids and helping others, but many folks got lost in the glitter and the fame and didn’t realize it.
"The goal for Jackson State coach Deion Sanders has always been about more than winning football games."
— The Undefeated (@TheUndefeated) December 14, 2021
What do you consider as the impact of Hunter’s commitment to Jackson State?
Anything is possible. There are not going to be a ton of five-star players flocking to HBCUs, but there will be some and some four-star players, too. And it doesn’t matter if they’re going because they want to play for a coach they idolized as a kid, or they received a huge NIL [Name, Image and Likeness] deal or they want the cultural experience of being at an HBCU. If you can play, the NFL can and will find you.
They found Carson Wentz. They found Cooper Kupp. They found Steve McNair. Deion has broken the glass ceiling. It’s no different than the four-minute mile. Once Jim Ryan did it, everybody was running sub-four-minute miles. Now that Sanders has done it, other HBCUs will go hard after four- and five-star players that make sense.
From your experience covering Sanders for more than 25 years, what traits from his playing career foretold he’d be a change agent?
No one practiced harder than Deion. He always wanted to cover Jerry Rice and Michael Irvin in practice. No one watched more tape than Deion. He was one of the first players to carry a portable DVD player with him so he could watch video whenever he wanted. His success was always about hard work and discipline. Those are the traits that make a good coach.