Michael MacCambridge's 2004 America's Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation:
Change was already in the air a month earlier, at the Indianapolis scouting combine, where 300 of the nation's best seniors -- and one junior -- were sprinting, working out, and submitting to physical exams and interviews. The draft class of 1989 promised the deepest collection of impact players in years, and though the first pick would be the prototypical quarterback -- UCLA's Troy Aikman -- there were signs elsewhere that a new era was dawning.
Tony Mandarich, the burly, pile-driving tackle from Michigan State, whose tattooed biceps began a new trend in offensive lineman body art, seemed an utterly different breed of offensive lineman, and he would be the second player taken. Oklahoma State's Barry Sanders, who won the Heisman Trophy as a junior, had received permission to enter the draft, becoming the first true underclassman ever to do so. He would go third overall.
Though the first three players were on offense, much of the talk in Indianapolis was about the splendid group of prospects on the defensive side of the ball. And by the end of the week, it was clear that the real talisman of the draft, the symbol of the changing times, was a Florida State defensive back named Deion Sanders.
In the five years since 1984, when the Supreme Court had struck down the NCAA's control over college football telecasts, essentially deregulating broadcasts and allowing major schools like Notre Dame and Nebraska and Florida State to appear on national television seven or eight times a season instead of only twice, a sea change had occurred in the coverage of college football. Along with the rise of the cable sports network ESPN, the deregulation of college football broadcasts meant that widespread media coverage became a constant reality at the nation's major college powers, propelling college football's stars into a much more visible position in the American sporting pantheon.
Into that harsh light of publicity stepped the flamboyant Sanders, who carefully cultivated his "Prime Time" persona at Florida State, where he showed up for his final regular season game in a limousine, sporting a top hat and tails. He was the nation's best defensive back, but he was more celebrated for his outrageous, media-savvy personality.
At the combine, Sanders exuded an air of not just cocky confidence but easy familiarity with the NFL executives in attendance. Sauntering to the start of the 40-yard-dash timing area, he spotted Al Davis in a lower row of the observation area and proclaimed, "Okay, Al, we're gonna run this juuuust this once." It was lost on no one that just five or ten years earlier, none of the players at the combine would have had the confidence to approach Davis at all, much less to address him playfully by his first name.
Heretofore, many in professional football had been ignorant of the changes occurring in popular culture, especially the increased influence of rap music and hip-hop on mainstream America. Coaches for generations had routinely squelched the players' right to self-expression for the sake of the larger good. But with Sanders, and others like him, players were arriving on the scene who were products of that culture, and to understand them meant understanding something of the context from which they emerged. Speaking from his home on the day of the NFL draft, after Atlanta selected him fifth overall, Sanders boasted, "I'm gonna ask for so much money, the Falcons are gonna have to put me on layaway."
Tags: America's Game, Michael MacCambridge