Sports Vault: In 1994, 'Neon Deion' Sanders was atop the NFL world when he joined the Reds

One of the greatest two-sports players of all time
Posted at 5:00 AM, Apr 25, 2017
and last updated 2017-04-25 11:46:09-04

"I never wanted to be mediocre at anything. I wanted to be the absolute best."

     -- Deion Sanders, on ESPN Classic's "SportsCentury" series

Deion was always good for a memorable quote, wasn't he?

How about this one: "How do you think defensive backs get attention?" Sanders asked. "They don't pay nobody to be humble."

Born Aug. 9, 1967, in Fort Myers, Florida, Sanders was playing organized baseball and football by age 8. An all-state performer in football, baseball and basketball at North Fort Myers High, he took his talents to Florida State, where he helped lead the baseball team to the College World Series and was a two-time All-American in football.

The Atlanta Falcons made him the fifth overall selection in the 1989 NFL Draft, and the New York Yankees selected him in the 30th round of the Major League Baseball draft in 1988.

Sanders never lacked confidence. And why should he have? In 2014, just before Sanders was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Gil Brandt of relayed these superlatives:

  • Sanders is the only man to play in both a Super Bowl and a World Series.
  • He is the only man to hit an MLB home run and score an NFL touchdown in the same week.
  • He is the only player to have both a reception and an interception in the Super Bowl.
  • He is one of just two players to score an NFL touchdown six different ways.

He even had two nicknames: "Primetime" and "Neon Deion."

And before all the accolades, way back on May 29, 1994, Sanders became a member of the Cincinnati Reds.


Wrote Claire Smith of The New York Times: "The Atlanta Braves traded Deion Sanders to the Cincinnati Reds for Roberto Kelly yesterday in what on the surface seemed a simple matter of right and left. The Braves, missing Ron Gant's right-handed power a great deal, acquired some pop in the form of Kelly, the Yankee prospect who had developed into an All-Star with Cincinnati. Sanders, another former Yankee prospect but a left-handed batter, nicely meets a Cincinnati need, the team being overloaded with right-handed hitters and in need of Sanders' type of speed."


But Smith also noted that Sanders may have worn out his welcome in Atlanta.

"There has been a perception that the Braves have wearied of Sanders, the multiple sports star who not only played brashly for them but also was an All-Pro defensive back for the National Football League's Atlanta Falcons, who last month made him an unrestricted free agent while expressing interest in retaining him."

The Reds, however, had high hopes for the deal. Manager Davey Johnson said, "Sanders was not the thumper I was looking for, but he's the next best thing."

Jim Bowden, the Reds' general manager, said, "He's a great athlete, probably the fastest runner in baseball today. He has the type of personality that can help us sell tickets. Deion Sanders is a better defensive player; he makes us a better defensive team. We were top-heavy with right-handed hitting. He gives us a pure left-handed leadoff man, which we didn't have."


The previous year, Sanders batted .276 with the Braves before going on the disabled list in August with a respiratory infection. That ended his baseball season, and he arrived late with the Falcons, but still went on to lead the NFC with seven interceptions in 11 games.

By 1994, the Reds were off to a hot start. Clay Marshall of reports that through the end of April, they'd won 15 games, lost just seven and held a 2.5-game lead over second-place Houston, then a member of the National League.

"In May (when Bowden sent Kelly to Atlanta for Deion Sanders) and June, the Reds went a combined 29-26 -- nothing special, but good enough to still enjoy a 1.5-game lead as of June 30," Marshall wrote. "The team padded that total by one additional game prior to the All-Star break, yet only Barry Larkin (who, after a slow start, sported a solid .286/.386/.409 line at the break en route to his first Gold Glove) and Jose Rijo (8-4, 3.06) earned invitations to Pittsburgh for the midsummer classic."

The Reds' lead slipped as the Astros surged, all under the dark cloud of a possible players' strike that could end the season. And when the strike began on Aug. 12, "the Reds led the NL Central with a record of 66-48," Marshall reported. "Just over a month later, acting commissioner Bud Selig formally canceled the remainder of the season. For the first time since 1904, there would be no World Series."

Sanders was hitting .283 with 38 steals at that point. Of course, his football season was just beginning. He signed a one-year deal with San Francisco, where he tied the 49ers' single-season record with three interception returns for touchdowns and became the NFL Defensive Player of the Year. His four tackles and an interception helped the 49ers beat San Diego 49-26 in Super Bowl XXIX.

But do you remember when he got arrested?

In Mike Shannon's book, "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," he chronicles when Sanders was arrested on Aug. 8, 1994 "in an incident that was as silly as it was criminal."

"When Sanders tried to drive his motor scooter out of Riverfront Stadium through a pedestrian exit, a police officer ordered him to stop and leave by a different exit," Shannon wrote. Sanders ignored the officer, who then grabbed the ballplayer and was dragged about 20 feet. Sanders was charged with resisting arrest, failure to comply and leaving the scene of an accident.

He was exonerated on all counts.

Three years ago, Cory Collins wrote this for FanSided: "In 1995, Sanders wrote a second verse, same as the first. Only, in true Neon Deion style, it might have been a little louder."

In football, Sanders became a Dallas Cowboy. Less than a year later, they won Super Bowl XXX over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

And Sanders' time with the Reds was relatively short.

Outfielder Deion Sanders of the Cincinnati Reds in action during spring training in Plant City, Florida, on April 8, 1995.

"After struggling through the early months of the '95 season (hitting .240/.296/.326), Cincinnati shipped Sanders back to the Golden Gate in exchange for Dave Burba and change," Collins wrote. "Sanders surged the rest of the way, hitting .285/.346/.444 for the Giants."

The Reds flamed out in the playoffs.

"In some ways, though, the fate of the Reds and Deion Sanders remained intertwined," Collins wrote. "1995 became their respective beacons of glory. Sanders never returned to football's biggest game, or its biggest stage. Other defensive backs took the helm, other returners found the end zone more frequently. He faded into a shadow of his former greatness."

But Sanders' time with the Reds wasn't done. He spent 1997 with the Reds after sitting out a year, and in 2000, he signed a non-guaranteed minor league contract with the team. At that point he had a .266 lifetime average and 183 stolen bases in 609 major league games.

USA Today wondered if Sanders would be effective at all. In a fan poll, 77.9 percent said he would be a good addition.

"At the very least, the Cincinnati Reds are adding the best pinch-runner in baseball," Stephen Borelli wrote.

"The problem with Deion is: he's not much of a baseball player, despite his lofty .459 April batting average in Triple-A," Steve Gardner countered.

During the 2001 season, Sanders played in just 32 games. He hit .173 and stole three bases for the parent club before being released.

The Cincinnati Reds' Deion Sanders watches action during a game against the Chicago Cubs on May 23, 2001 at Wrigley Field in Chicago. The Cubs defeated the Reds 4-2.

Of course, he didn't go quietly. Sanders became a popular broadcaster for NFL games, and he dropped a bombshell in 2012 when he told radio host Dan Patrick that he had once tried to commit suicide while in Cincinnati. He said that due to his failing marriage, dying father and inability to see his children, he tried to drive his car off of a Cincinnati highway.

"I was in the midst of my first divorce," he said. "The only (people) I thought loved me were my kids. And they were stripped away from me."

An Associated Press report from Sept. 28, 1998, further described the incident.

"I attempted suicide, but God had his hands on me," Sanders said in the report. "I ran the car off the cliff, and it was like a 40- … 30-foot drop. The car went down and hit and there wasn't a scratch on me or on the car."

It was another amazing story from a larger-than-life personality. would go on to rank Sanders as the fifth greatest two-sport athlete.

"You would think that after playing in a game of baseball, people would be tired," Rafael Canton wrote for the website. "But not for Deion Sanders. Right after that game ended, Primetime hopped on a flight to Florida to join his Atlanta Falcons as they took on the Miami Dolphins on a Sunday afternoon. Truly a badass dude with a track record to prove it." (Note: Sanders didn't play in that NFL game, but he was suited up and ready to go if called upon.)

Sanders was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Aug. 6, 2011.