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Deion Sanders: Tearing Down and Raising Up

August 7, 2011

Dancing. Bandanna flapping. Highstepping electricity. The first time I discovered football was about more than crossing distances in consistent increments was when William Lattimore blew by me on a burnt grass field behind Gaines Elementary School, taunting me with his tongue wagging and the ball extended to me in his right hand like a baited hook. His celebration was quicker than my sprint; his laughter stronger than my arms; his your mama jokes a more decisive reflex than any futile synapses firing between my tired brain and dying limbs. William Lattimore was just better at football, simultaneously tearing down and raising up stereotypes.


And there I was white and reaching, being made to look so slow people probably thought I was sunbathing, while William was proving every black athlete stereotype there has ever been, except, looking back, I don't think his dominance was so much physical as it was emotional: William Lattimore was faster than me because he enjoyed the game more. His bones made hollow with laughter and witty banter, he could fly and I couldn't, and the strange thing was, while I couldn't put word to it in the moment, I'm sure I was fully aware of that difference, that he would always be better at play than I would be at work; and that had less to do with racial stereotypes than it did with elements of personal style.

William Lattimore always had the best clothes; the only person who might have done better in elementary school was Freddie Williams. William Lattimore wore Pumps, Jordans, and slick Pumas, and he pulled off jeans that were every color but blue and sharp pastel polos, like his clothes had been pulled out of a closet for junior Pentacostal preachers, and I remember thinking that one reason William Lattimore ran so fast was to outrace the red clay and grass stains of Georgia. He had to be that fast to look that good because recess is a messy affair. I, on the other hand, wore t-shirts that were mostly hammy downs and much too large for me; a lot of them advertising 5K runs and charitable activities my dad had participated in. In other words, my wardrobe was a testament to sweat not style. 


In the fall of 1991 is when I think William Lattimore first gave me the joyful shock of not being good enough, but the manner in which he did it was like having a nightmare that wakes you up in the night but secretly you enjoy the way it makes your heart race, causes you to gasp for air, makes you feel like you're falling, and sends shivers down your spine. Getting beat by William Lattimore was both perplexing and invigorating.

The way our brains work, our world is always growing larger as we grow older. We encounter our families, then our neighborhoods, churches, schools, and so forth. Each one a popping bubble, or an exploding microcosm. And, in this fashion, often times our first encounters with greatness are highly personal. The best preacher is the first one you hear from your home church's pulpit, your dad is the best driver in the world, and your mom is always the universe's best cook. When William Lattimore's speed first put me on a treadmill, I must have been seven years old, and in my seven-year-old universe, William had to be one of the top three or five football players ever, right behind Kiki Wright from Cedar Shoals, the myth of Herschel Walker, and Neon Deion Sanders, who I knew only as the guy my dad wanted to stop dancing all the time and just play football. At age seven, those names, Randall Cunningham, and a few Georgia players were about the extent of my football universe (which would grow rapidly and exponentially--like a DC suburb--over the next few years). And it's strange to me that the seven-year-old William Lattimore and the then twenty-three, or twenty-four year old, Deion Sanders were the most alike: a boy and a man.

Which came first the chicken or the egg? I don't know if what William Lattimore did when he passed the beat-up orange traffic cone that marked our endzone was innate or copied from the corner back who played just an hour away in Atlanta, but by the time he celebrated it on that dried out, late August field, it seemed as natural to me and everyone else that couldn't keep up with it as breathing, honeysuckle, laughing, and lightning bugs; and on the rare occasion when someone other than William was scoring, we high stepped it into the endzone, too.

This photo was taken by Aaron Gray;
visit his blog Living in Paradise.
Deion Sanders gets called a lot of things: dynamic, best ever (at his position), fast, quick, dominating, shut down, flamboyant, champ, soft, loudmouth, preacher, flashy, cocky, and most likely things that are both much worse and much better. But I've never heard him described as childlike. Yet, everything he did on the football field is what children playing the game emulate, and while the components of his celebrations were mimicked, copied, and plagiarized by others, the sum of the celebrations, especially to the William Lattimores of the world, were entirely organic, which leaves an individual wondering how come only Brett Favre's bear hugs and Cal Ripken's get-to-it-ive-ness earn the innocent moniker of being childlike, when no one, except for maybe Deion, knows how to celebrate quite like a child, shamefully and unabashedly so.

And, if I dare say it, there's something ugly and prejudiced in labeling that kind of joy (and showmanship) with the depravity that has so often been linked to descriptions of Deion Sanders--and it's also a reason why seeing him tie a black bandanna around his Hall of Fame bust was such a perfect ending to a career that changed both how the game is played and how we think about it and how he accomplished both amongst a heap of controversey.

While it can definitely be said that the bronze bust doesn't entirely look like Deion, somehow that seems fitting, seeing as how everyone saw him through different lenses, magnified, distorted, always altered, yet somehow the same: Each one failing to see number twenty-one as a seven-year-old kid just trying to please his mama every time he put on a helmet, and instead, we saw either a grown man deconstructing societal norms about what a person can or can't do in the world or we saw a showboat proving a white majority's long held stereotypes of African-American athletes. But, if you keep the Tupac-Tubman bandanna on the formal Canton statue, then somehow you wind up with the enigma of both cut like a razor blade and sharp enough to make anyone walking it want to high step it out of here, because wherever here is--here is work.

-Also, check out Clay Travis' more comical take on Deion's statue in Canton over at Outkick the Coverage.

Bryan Harvey can be followed on Twitter @LawnChairBoys.

3 comments:

Langston said...

I didn't have my William Lattimore moment until I was nearly 12. Growing up on Oahu surrounded by Hawaiians, Asians, and Samoans; I was always a couple inches taller, faster. Then we moved to Knoxville and I was no longer either. I was average. It was eye-opening.

August 8, 2011 at 10:26 PM
Teach said...

I feel like those kinds of moments happen in athletics first, and then later they happen intellectually too. It's one of the strange parts of my job--you see kids hit that wall and plateau, yet you have to keep pushing them onward. Also happens every time I read a really good book and go "damn, that was good."

August 8, 2011 at 11:21 PM
Teach said...

Or...same thing that anyone who played against MJ probably felt at one time or another. Charles Barkley def had a William Lattimore moment.

August 8, 2011 at 11:21 PM

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