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Los Angeles Rams’ Decobie Durant reveals lesson learned from Deion Sanders

Former Cricket Celebration Bowl MVP from South Carolina State sees how Colorado coach helped HBCU football

LOS ANGELES — The fascination with Deion Sanders’ success as football coach at the University of Colorado is not confined to the college football world. The appeal has spread to the NFL locker room as well.

For Decobie Durant, the Los Angeles Rams second-year cornerback, Coach Prime’s success is intriguing — and personal.

Durant stayed up Sept. 16 watching Sanders’ Colorado Buffaloes defeat Colorado State in a thrilling double overtime game. The victory boosted Colorado’s record to 3-0 and extended the most captivating story in a young college football season.

“Deion is an amazing guy,” Durant said Sunday after the Rams’ tough 30-23 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. “Big ups to him and what he’s doing in Colorado now. He’s changing the culture over there. What he’s doing and his approach to the game is amazing.”

The last time Durant and I spoke was on Dec. 18, 2021. Durant’s South Carolina State Bulldogs had thrown a wrench into Coach Prime’s Dream Machine with an upset victory over Jackson State in the Cricket Celebration Bowl, the national championship game for Black college football.

The S.C. State football team had gone into that game with a massive chip on its shoulder. Since being named Jackson State’s head coach in September 2020, Sanders had sucked up all of the oxygen around football at historically Black colleges and universities. With his penchant for bravado and generating headlines, Sanders — Coach Prime — made Jackson State a national story. His rhetoric was intoxicating.

Although Sanders had bypassed Black college football out of high school and attended powerhouse Florida State, now that he was coach at Jackson State, he was all-in on HBCU football. He advocated for the empowerment of Black institutions, advocated for Black high school football stars to seriously consider attending HBCU schools. Sanders convinced five-star recruit Travis Hunter to turn down an offer from Florida State and play for him at Jackson State. In many minds, Jackson State became the embodiment of Black college football.

By the time the 2021 Cricket Celebration Bowl rolled around, all eyes and cameras were on Sanders and Jackson State. S.C. State, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference champion, was an afterthought. During a podcast interview at the time, Durant said that he was annoyed by Jackson State’s swagger, cockiness and “cameras everywhere.”

S.C. State pummeled Jackson State that evening 31-10. Durant played spectacularly and was voted the game’s defensive MVP, completing a brilliant college career and becoming the latest in a string of great S.C. State players.

But if Durant had a chip on his shoulder in 2021, he now sees Sanders in a different light.

South Carolina State defensive back Decobie Durant (left) accepts the defensive MVP trophy from ESPN play-by-play commentator Tiffany Greene (right) after the Cricket Celebration Bowl against Jackson State on Dec. 18, 2021, at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

David J.Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Yes, Sanders sucked up the oxygen, but he also helped put a spotlight on HBCU football and presented opposing players with an opportunity to distinguish themselves. Durant took advantage of the attention. Scouts who had come to see Jackson State came away talking about Durant.

“It was a big opportunity to play in front of him because you know you’re going to get your chance, the cameras, the TV exposure. You’re going to get all that,” Durant said. “It’s being able to take advantage of opportunities, when you get those chances to play a great Hall of Famer like that.”

In the two years since that 2021 Cricket Celebration Bowl meeting, Durant and Coach Prime have moved on. And up.

Four months after the Cricket Celebration Bowl victory, Durant realized a life’s dream when he was selected by the Rams in the fourth round of the NFL draft. Now in his second season, Durant has worked his way into the secondary rotation.

Sanders stayed at Jackson State for another season and led the Tigers to an undefeated 2022 campaign before being upset for a second time in the Cricket Celebration Bowl, this time by North Carolina Central University.

Shortly after the 2022 season, Sanders was named coach of a Colorado football team that went 1-11 last season.

When I asked Durant how he felt about Coach Prime’s departure from Jackson State, he said, “I feel no way. If you have a chance to elevate, you got to elevate.”

Much as he did at Jackson State, Sanders has made Colorado football part of the national conversation and in the process is making the program a destination for high school and transfer portal-bound recruits.

“What they’re doing in Colorado is amazing,” Durant repeated. “They won what, one game last year, now they’re 3-0? Going from FCS to FBS and doing that. Like I said, that’s amazing.”

From left to right: Colorado cornerback Travis Hunter and safety Shilo Sanders celebrate with coach Deion Sanders following a first-quarter touchdown after intercepting a pass against Colorado State at Folsom Field on Sept. 16 in Boulder, Colorado.

Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

Durant is Sanders’ kind of player. If he were coming out of high school now — perhaps if he were still at S.C. State, Durant is the kind of hungry player Sanders may have tried to recruit via the transfer portal.

Durant did not attract interest from any programs coming out of Lamar High School in Lamar, South Carolina. After graduation, he attended a prep school, left and got a job at FedEx, working a 3 a.m. to 8 a.m. shift, and working out after he finished his shift.

Durant eventually enrolled at S.C. State and became a football walk-on. While only 5-feet-11, 175 pounds, Durant impressed the coaching staff during spring practice with his tenacity, toughness and ball skills. He won the starting job — and a scholarship — in the fall. Durant not only became a starter, but by the end of his college career he became part of a S.C. State legacy of defensive players that included NFL players Shaquille Leonard and Javon Hargrave.

As we wound down our conversation in the Rams locker room, I asked Durant if he thought Sanders was still carrying the flag for HBCU football.

“I wouldn’t say he’s carrying the flag, but he brought a lot more attention to HBCU football,” Durant said. I also asked Durant if he himself was carrying the flag.

“Anybody who’s in the league [NFL] now who’s from an HBCU is carrying the flag. They’re opening doors for each other and showing that we can compete at a high level.”

Durant tells current S.C. State players to take advantage of every opportunity. Even when the Bulldogs play Power 5 competition and seem overmatched, they should use the game as an opportunity to showcase skills. Those are the games NFL scouts evaluate. He recalled a game against Clemson when he had two interceptions. The Bulldogs lost, but Durant put himself on the NFL radar.

“I tell my guys at South Carolina State that when you get those opportunities, you got to show up and play,” he said.

It’s customary to say that players from small schools and HBCU programs develop a hunger. Durant didn’t develop his hunger at S.C. State: It’s part of his DNA.

“It’s just me and how I approach and attack each day in life, not just football, but outside of football,” he said. “I’m a genuine guy, a humble person and when I get an opportunity, I’m going to attack it with a full head of steam.”

Durant will continue to watch Sanders out of the corner of his eye.

When he played against Sanders’ Jackson State team two seasons ago, Durant had a chip on his shoulder and probably harbored some resentment. Two years older and wiser and in the midst of building an NFL career, Durant has a new appreciation for the lesson he learned from Coach Prime.

Dreams don’t just come true, you have to make them materialize.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.