Sitting in his office at the Jackson State football facility, Deion Sanders — before revealing the image of him, his son Shedeur Sanders and No. 1 high school college recruit Travis Hunter on the cover of Sports Illustrated — first played a bit of show and tell.
Sanders, a bit of a sports historian in his own right, displayed all the years — one by one — that he had been featured on the front of what is still considered the top sports publication in the world.
“If you were on the cover of Sports Illustrated,” Sanders told his players, “that was off the chain.”
For what it’s worth, the assessment was accurate then and still remains so. The reaction to Jackson State football — an HBCU program prominently positioned in a magazine that featured the likes of Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, LeBron James and Muhammad Ali — has been monumental on #HBCUTwitter and every other crevice of the Black college sphere.
HBCU athletics — through Deion Sanders and with the help of Sports Illustrated — vaulted center stage into the mainstream.
After all, not since 1994 had the magazine decided to place an HBCU football team or football figure on its recognizable cover. And Jackson State marked just the third time in 37 years such an occurrence happened.
‘The perfect Sports Illustrated sports story’
Before longtime Dallas Cowboys beat writer and ESPN Anscape contributor Jean Jacques Taylor profiled Sanders and his Tigers this week, S.L. Price — some 28 years ago — told the story of Alcorn State star quarterback Steve McNair, a player who was breaking records before the Sept. 26, 1994 issue with the iconic headline “Hand Him the Heisman” hit newsstands.
“We were aware of what Steve McNair was doing down there (at Alcorn State),” Price told HBCU Sports. “He was putting up outlandish numbers.”
Price, who only had been covering college football for Sports Illustrated for just a few months, indicated that he was looking to write about the next great African American quarterback who presented features that broke all the racist stereotypes and prejudices that historically prevented Black signal callers from receiving a fair shake at the pro ranks.
For Price, McNair “was the perfect Sports Illustrated sports story.” However, the 2,600-word piece wasn’t necessarily scheduled to be a cover story either before Price headed to Lorman, Mississippi to document McNair.
“Nobody ever said it’s going to be the cover,” said Price. “Nobody ever said go bang the drum for this guy to be the Heisman Trophy winner because that isn’t normal, either. That cover — Hand Him the Heisman — I don’t know how many times Sports Illustrated in September is saying, ‘This guy should win the Heisman.'”
The cover words, said Price, was not his creation. Nor the subheadline that read “STEVE MCNAIR IS THE BEST QUARTERBACK — BLACK OR WHITE, BIG SCHOOL OR SMALL— IN COLLEGE FOOTBALL.”
Those decisions, whether McNair would be on the cover and the words that accompanied what was seen on it, were left to editors in New York. In those days, the magazine which was published weekly didn’t identify a cover piece until the week of its release. A big Monday Night Football performance by an NFL player, or a major event occurring somewhere in the world of sports, could have relegated McNair to just an inside feature instead.
“I wrote the story and had no idea it was going to be on the cover,” said Price. “I never had the expectation with any story that it would be the cover. As a writer in that situation, you’re rooting for the guy. You want him to make you look good. Steve McNair thankfully, at least, made me not look like an idiot.”
An ode to Coach Rob
Prior to Price crafting a memorable article on McNair, the legendary Grambling State coach Eddie Robinson was chronicled on Oct. 14, 1985, by 11-time national sportswriter of the year Rick Reilly for a cover piece honoring the Hall of Famer for surpassing Paul “Bear” Bryant for the most wins in Division I history.
Robinson coached at Grambling for 56 years and amassed 408 wins. His career feat was poignantly encapsulated with these words by Reilly after earning win 324:
“Robinson’s achievement is that he worked for 44 seasons within the white system and then, on a Saturday night in Dallas, beat that system,” Reilly wrote. … “And here’s to you, Mr. Robinson. You grow old like a river, deeper and swifter every day. And we, lucky we, are carried away with you.”
That Sports Illustrated cover was significant to many because it was one of the rare occasions in America that a Black man would be celebrated with some level of reverence for upstaging a white man.
In 2022, while the Black coach or the Black athlete is no stranger to being exalted by the corporate press, that story is different for the Black school. But Sanders, who swaggered his way into HBCU football two years ago, is forging not only Jackson State to the forefront but all the other historically Black colleges and universities that for so long were lost in the glamor of Division I bluebloods backed by multimillion-dollar media promotion.
And Taylor, who has written about Sanders since he was a member of the Cowboys, was recruited by Sports Illustrated to write how the coach is leading the HBCU football renaissance due in large part to his close relationship with Sanders that had been cultivated over nearly three decades.
“I got a call out of the blue a couple of months ago, and (Sports Illustrated) said, ‘Hey, we’re intrigued with Jackson State and we love what they’re doing and we like to do a cover story on it and we’ve been told you’re the best person in the country to do it because of your relationship with Deion,'” said Taylor. “I said, ‘Oh, great. I appreciate it. Let’s see if we can get it done.'”
The pitch for the story, said Taylor, was a big-picture piece on how Sanders turned around the program and how Jackson State secured Hunter, the most prized acquisition in Black college football recruiting history.
Since Taylor was already equipped with institutional knowledge of Sanders’ work at Jackson State, all that was required was to allow Sanders room to divulge like he’s done so many times before for collaborative projects and even in informal conversations.
“I really didn’t go into it with an angle. I went into it trying to tell the best story about what he’s doing at Jackson State and what he wants to accomplish,” he said.
In writing the piece, Taylor conveyed that Sanders wasn’t the caricature the commercials and soundbites seemingly made him out to be throughout his NFL and television analyst career. At 54, Sanders the coach is “as old school as it gets,” Taylor observed.
“He’s kicked his son out of meetings. He’s kicked Travis out of meetings for not having the right stuff on,” he said. “He’s as old school as it gets. It is not fake, it’s real.”
The national attention Sanders and Jackson State have obtained is certainly authentic, too.
HBCU need to take advantage of the building momentum
But what do the faces of the JSU program appearing on the cover really mean for the larger HBCU mission at this period in time?
Time, explained Taylor, will tell.
“I will say it’s still to be determined,” he said. “HBCUs have a huge amount of momentum right now. Jackson State has a huge amount of momentum. If Jackson State continues to make the right decisions with their individual program, the league will thrive and good things will happen.
“If the decisions the school presidents and athletic directors make individually at their respective schools are good decisions, momentum will happen and this boon among HBCUs will continue for 10, 15, 20 years.”