Even the best screenwriters can’t conjure up storylines or write characters as electrifying as some of the athletes America has seen over the decades. For football fans, Deion Sanders, arguably the greatest cornerback ever to play the game, is one of them. Sure, he’s brash and bold, with an outsized ego to match his incredible talent. Sure, he’s probably not the greatest of TV analysts. Sure, he’s not a fan of literally any joke made at his expense. But he’s one of the most gifted, intelligent and freakishly athletic people to stand out in an industry of freakishly athletic people, and we will probably never see anyone like him again.
ESPN’s phenomenal (we can’t really say that about much of ESPN’s content today) “30 for 30” returns with a profile on the last major two-sport athlete in the country. In particular, it focuses on a weekend in the October of 1992, when in the span of 24 hours, Deion Sanders played a football game in Miami with the Atlanta Falcons in between two NLCS games with the Atlanta Braves in Pittsburgh. The documentary doesn’t shy away from glamorizing its subject. I mean, how could they? In addition to being one of the greatest football players of all time, the man had a .304 batting average and led the league in triples in the 1992 season.
The directors Erik Powers and Ken Rodgers, both experienced filmmakers and producers of documentaries for NFL Films, explain their marvelous decision to interview Sanders in the middle of a massive white hangar, flanked by a private jet and other sorts of luxurious vehicles. Their first justification was giving justice to the personality of the man who calls himself “Primetime” (at least when he’s playing football, as he says in the film). Moreover, they explain how much of Deion’s life centered around travel. We see Primetime shuttled around cities in everything from helicopters to limos. But most importantly, just as he was back then, he does not seem intimidated for a moment as he plops down on a chair to explain his life.
Theatrical in a Muhammad Ali-esque way, Sanders’s charisma and energy is infectious and an interviewer’s dream. Although we see his typical bravado on display, the documentary also reveals a rather sentimental side. Sanders speaks at length to how much he still loves both sports. In a particularly touching monologue, he describes football as the constant in his life, the provider of comfort. In the meantime, baseball was the source of excitement and a source of challenge. He adds that to this day, he wonders what his life would have been like if he had chosen to “marry” baseball.
Atlanta rapper Ludacris appropriately provides the voiceover, and the directors interview a host of sports figures, from team owners to former players and broadcasters. Their varying opinions show just how controversial Sanders was and is — the one constant is the collective marveling at his ability.
Powers and Rodgers do a fantastic job recreating the whirlwind nature of those 24 hours in 1992, but in a manner that allows Sanders to explain his thought processes and give the audience a chance to empathize with the decisions he had to make. We are left with an impression that money was not at all the main factor in any of his decisions (yes, I know that can be argued in many of the other actions Sanders took while playing). Rather, his prodigious talent both enriched and made his life so much more complicated.