On a Saturday afternoon, in a homecoming game that was draining emotionally and physically, members of the Alabama State football team found a burst of adrenaline when the clock reached zeroes and a victory over host Jackson State was complete.
The Hornets sprinted to midfield at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium and mockingly waved goodbye to the home crowd, savoring their payback to a Jackson State team that ruined their homecoming the previous year. It was all good-natured pettiness until a player grabbed a giant ASU flag and pretended to plant it on the Jackson State logo.Suddenly, things got serious. Jackson State players walked toward midfield where chests were expanded and words were exchanged. But it was over quickly. Coaches and law enforcement guided the teams to their respective locker rooms, but not before a few Hornets shot a final taunt at the Jackson State faithful.
“Y’all need Prime.”
The reference was to Deion Sanders — Coach Prime as he likes to be called — the charismatic figure who led the Tigers to 27 victories, back-to-back Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) titles and consecutive Celebration Bowl appearances during his three seasons in Jackson. He departed for the University of Colorado in December, but the fact that his name was still on the lips of Alabama State players nearly a year later confirmed his presence is still being felt within the Jackson State program.
“Deion did a lot of good for the SWAC and a lot of good for Jackson State, but he probably did a little (of) bad, too,” said Alabama State coach Eddie Robinson Jr., who had a postgame dust-up with Sanders last year after the Tigers spoiled their homecoming. “There are some things he could have done better; I’m sure he would probably say that, too.
“In the big picture, I think he kind of benefited the conference more than he hurt it. But now with (JSU) being the defending champ, everybody wants to play them hard and try to beat them. That’s just how it goes.”Opponents have long memories, and it likely will take at least a full season for them to fully purge the memory of Sanders, whose teams went undefeated in conference play his final two seasons. In the meantime, current JSU players and coaches are being asked to cash the checks written by Sanders’ bravado and swagger.
“It’s a huge bullseye on our back each and every week,” JSU coach T.C. Taylor said after the homecoming loss. “This was a get-back game for (Alabama State). They wanted to come back and return the favor, and it’s my job to get our guys ready to play. I just didn’t have this team ready to play. I’ve got to be better, but it is what it is.”It’s one thing to view the Deion experience through the eyes of an opponent, but the more telling perspective is from those associated with the program, not only in terms of his arrival but also his departure. The Athletic attended JSU’s homecoming week to take the temperature of various segments of the fan base.
The takeaway can best be described in two words: It’s complicated.
The first thing that needs to be acknowledged is that the Jackson State community does not sit around talking about Sanders. They moved on the moment he left town — not because they feel some kind way, but because that’s what they do.The program, in their eyes, is bigger than one man. Always has been, always will be. Take a stroll through the athletic center that Sanders helped design, and there are no pictures of him hanging prominently.
It’s almost as if he were never there — striking considering he seemed to be everywhere during his three seasons. If he wasn’t doing radio shows or podcasts, he was being featured on social media or sitting down with national TV crews. The power of his personality was so great that it attracted “Good Morning America,” “College GameDay,” and “60 Minutes.”
Many locals took it for what it was: a moment in time. They knew they were on borrowed time with Sanders, who admitted early he would listen if bigger programs called. Colorado did that, and Sanders bolted.
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