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‘Coach Prime’ Deion Sanders and Jackson State head to Grambling in his first major test

These two programs have sent eight players to the Pro Football Hall of Fame

JACKSON, Miss. — Deion Sanders’ players are still getting used to the idea of having a Hall of Fame cornerback, TV personality and Subway pitchman as their head coach.

“There are still times I walk into the cafeteria room and I say, ‘Wow, that’s Deion,’ but he’s just another guy like you or me,” quarterback Jalon Jones said. “Everybody gets caught up in the Prime Time side of him, but nobody sees all the work and the mindset he has.”

Jackson State (1-0) plays Grambling (0-0) on Saturday at 1 p.m. ET at Eddie Robinson Stadium in its Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) opener.

Inclement weather caused Grambling’s game against Prairie View A&M on Feb. 27 to be canceled. Jackson State had its game canceled against Mississippi Valley State because COVID-19 forced the Delta Devils to pause their football program.

Grambling has beaten the Jackson State Tigers five consecutive times, outscoring them 214-118. Grambling’s last four wins have been by margins of at least 15 points.

Between them, these two programs have eight players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame: Lem Barney, Robert Brazile, Walter Payton and Jackie Slater from Jackson State, and Willie Brown, Buck Buchanan, Willie Davis and Charlie Joiner from Grambling.

“You can’t mention Grambling without mentioning coach Eddie Robinson,” Sanders told reporters this week. “I’m sitting up here and I’m looking at 26 SWAC championships, 15 HBCU [historically Black college and university] national championships, unbelievable.

“When you think of coaching, you think of Eddie Robinson for certain, Doug Williams and things that they have accomplished there.”

Grambling coach Broderick Fobbs said he’s confident his team won’t get caught up in the hype that accompanies Sanders.

“We’re not playing Deion Sanders. We’re playing the Jackson State football team, not the sideshow and the other stuff — the bells and whistles,” Fobbs said in a Zoom call with reporters. “We’ve won a lot of football games here for a lot of years and we’ve won those games because our focus has always remained the same.”

Jackson State, 23-44 since 2014 entering this season, hired Sanders to make its football program strong again. Doing so starts with changing the players’ mindset.

“I’m letting them know that they weren’t involved in this,” Sanders said. “They weren’t a part of the tradition of getting their butts kicked. That’s not who we are.”

Jackson State football coach Deion Sanders directs his players during the first half of a game against Edward Waters in Jackson, Mississippi, on Feb. 21.

Rogelio V. Solis/AP Photo

It takes some longer than others to see Sanders as a coach instead of the Hall of Fame player their parents cheered for on Sunday afternoons. Jackson State’s players were still sporting their baby teeth when Sanders starred in the NFL. Still, they have YouTube and Google. They’ve seen the highlights.

“We had a walk-on kicker [Noah Anderson] and he simply had a bad day his first time out because he was starstruck by Prime Time,” said offensive coordinator Jason Phillips. “Some of the kids ask Shilo and Shedeur how it is to grow up with Prime Time as your dad.

“They’re enamored and starstruck, but they also see the passion and the desire and the work ethic.”

Sanders can admittedly be harder on sons Shedeur, a freshman quarterback, and Shilo, a sophomore safety, than other players.

He doesn’t mention his exploits on the field unless asked – and he uses the stories to teach lessons.

“It was a real quick transition from Deion to Coach Prime,” said Isaiah Bolden, a Florida State transfer. “He coaches me up on every small detail about my position. I knew when I transferred in here, I knew what I was getting myself into.”

Sanders is honest to a fault. Sometimes, the truth hurts.

“You have to show them and prove to them that you’re about that business of helping them get to the next level,” Sanders said. “These kids know bulljunk when they see it.”

Occasionally, Sanders’ assistants cringe when they hear him give a player an honest assessment of his performance in practice or a game.

Sanders chastised his players after they were lethargic in the first practice following their season-opening win. This team isn’t talented enough to win with less than all-out effort, and Sanders wanted them to know that.

“You take for granted that everyone wants to be great. Everyone don’t wanna be great, some people just wanna get paid,” Sanders said. “Some people just wanna be good. Some people just wanna get out of the ‘hood.

“Some people just want a car. Some people just want a girl. Everyone is motivated differently. Everybody don’t wanna be the best ever. Everybody don’t think like that, so they ain’t gonna prepare like that.”

Jean-Jacques Taylor is an award-winning journalist who is currently president of JJT Media Group and has covered sports in Dallas-Fort Worth for 31 years.