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Deion Sanders reveals how blood clots led to toe amputation during 2021 season in docuseries

The Jackson State coach underwent eight surgeries in three weeks during the season, in part to save his leg

A day before the Cricket Celebration Bowl in December, Jackson State football coach Deion Sanders rolled up his left pant leg, revealing a skin graft about 6 inches long and 3 inches wide on each side of his leg.

Then he scrolled through his cellphone until he found the right photo.

“You sure you want to see? This is going to make you sick,” Sanders asked.

The photo revealed a bloody foot, where his big toe and the one next to it had been amputated.

The cameras from Coach Prime, the docuseries that documents Sanders as JSU’s head coach, captured the moment Sanders saw his surgically repaired foot for the first time.

“I was so heavily medicated, I didn’t remember half the stuff the doctors did, so when I first looked down, it was humbling, because I’ll never run like that again. I don’t know if I’m going to wear shorts again,” Sanders told Andscape in his first public comments about the severity of his health problems.

“All these things cross your mind. All these things I have accomplished are on the back burner. I’m thinking about am I going to walk again. Am I going to walk correctly? Will I be able to jog? Shoot, am I going to live?

“There were some long nights when no one was in the room except for my lady, Tracey, and I was screaming at the top of my lungs thanking the Lord for keeping me and choosing me.”

Dana Bahrawy, who produces and edits Coach Prime, said Sanders’ commitment to authenticity gives the show depth.

“It’s not sugarcoated, we don’t cut a whole lot out. We really just try to show what really happens. And that’s what Coach preaches. He says, ‘We’re going to show you what’s real, what’s authentic,’ ” Bahrawy said. “It was really emotional for everyone that was in [the hospital room]. I remember it so vividly.”

Sanders’ health problems are an integral part of the series’ fifth episode. He missed three games. The series airs Tuesdays and Thursdays on Barstool’s platforms. The final episode airs Thursday.

“The show focuses on the season of Jackson State. If [the amputation] hadn’t transpired during the season, we wouldn’t be telling the story,” said Sanders, “but it was in the midst of the season of us being dominant and in the midst of us winning and you have to show the ups and downs and the seesaw of life.

“It’s one thing to hear it, but when they see it, it’s going to give them the strength to move on. You don’t know what somebody is going through. Maybe they’re not going to lose some toes but, maybe a spouse or a child to the military or whatever life is going to cost them and they’ve got to keep on going. We never stopped. We never flinched.”

That’s the message Sanders and Bahrawy wanted to convey in this episode.

“Just because I had a gift at one point and time to do my thing on the football and baseball field, that does not extract me from the tragedies of life,” Sanders said. “I go through hell just like everyone else goes through hell, and I’m going to show me literally going through hell.

“You mean to tell me you had two toes amputated and a side of your leg cut out like a shark bite and you were still coaching? Well, the beat goes on, and that’s what I teach my kids.

“That’s what I teach our support staff. You gotta keep going on. Everybody’s dealing with something.”

JSU was 5-1 when trainer Lauren Askevold insisted Sanders get his foot examined when she noticed two toes were “jet-black” after she changed his bandage.

Earlier in the season, Sanders had surgery on his foot.

“Coach had surgery on Tuesday and Wednesday and he was at practice on Thursday,” athletic director Ashley Robinson said. “He works so hard. Even when he was in the hospital he was calling coaches and being as involved as he could.”

On this October day, doctors immediately admitted Sanders to the hospital and he spent the next 23 days there, primarily in the intensive care unit.

The problem? He had three blood clots in the arteries of his left leg from the back of his calf to his ankle, cutting off blood flow to his foot. He discovered that two uncles, one of whom died, and his mother had problems with blood clots.

Sanders needed eight surgeries in three weeks, in part to save his leg.

He lost nearly 40 pounds from a diet that consisted primarily of applesauce on the rare occasion he had an appetite.

“It was the pain. They cut all the nerves and sometimes that thing just throbbed,” Sanders said. “Ain’t nobody can tell me about no journey. I was fighting for life in there.”

While Sanders battled first for his leg, then for his life, JSU persevered.

Sanders elevated former Howard head coach Gary Harrell to interim head coach and he led the Tigers to three consecutive wins.

Sanders returned against Southern because his son, Shedeur, JSU’s quarterback, told him in the hospital room that he needed him on the sideline.

Returning home was a humbling experience.

“They had to get me out of the car and put me in a car. Take me out of the bathroom and put me in the bathroom,” Sanders said. “Get me out of bed and put me in bed. Morning, noon and evening.”

Against Southern, Shedeur Sanders threw a game-winning, 50-yard touchdown pass with 1:31 left. Shilo Sanders, Sanders’ other son who stars for JSU at defensive back and wears No. 21, preserved the 21-17 win.

Sanders, who wore No. 21 in the NFL, considered the proliferation of 21s a confirmation from God.

The amputation and the season confirmed Sanders’ faith in a higher power.

“I really do trust God without a doubt. I never flinched, never stuttered, never stumbled,” Sanders said. “I was really, really challenged in my faith, but it was what I wanted it to be. It’s genuine, it’s real. It’s authentic.”

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.