JACKSON, Miss. – On Saturday afternoon, in an emotionally and physically exhausting homecoming game, members of the Alabama State football team got an adrenaline rush as the clock hit zero and a victory over host Jackson State was complete.
The Hornets ruined last year’s homecoming by running to midfield at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium and taunting the crowd, matching their salary to the Jackson State team. It was all good natured until one player grabbed a giant ASU flag and pretended to plant it over the Jackson State logo.
Suddenly, it became serious. Jackson State players made their way to midfield where chests were pumped and words were exchanged. But it was over quickly. Trainers and law enforcement led the teams to their respective locker rooms, but not before a few Hornets fired one last taunt at the Jackson State faithful.
“You all need a swim.”
“Call the general.”
The reference was to Deion Sanders – as Coach Prime likes to be called – who led the Tigers to 27 wins, back-to-back Southwest Athletic Conference (SWAC) titles and consecutive Celebration Bowls during his three seasons in Jackson. He committed to the University of Colorado in December, but the fact that his name is still on the lips of Alabama State players nearly a year later is still reverberating throughout the Jackson State program.
“Dion has done a lot for the SWAC and Jackson State,” Alabama State coach Eddie Robinson Jr. said. Sanders after the Tigers spoiled homecoming last year. “There are some things he could do better; I’m sure he’ll probably say that.
“In the bigger picture, I think he’s done more for the conference than he’s hurt. But now (JSU) is the defending champion, everybody wants to play hard against them and try to beat them. That’s how it happens.
Opponents have long memories, and it will likely take them at least a full season to fully erase the memory of Sanders, whose teams are undefeated in conference play the last two seasons. In the meantime, current JSU players and coaches are being asked to cash the checks written by Sanders’ bravado and swagger.
“It’s a big bullseye on our backs each and every week,” JSU coach TC Taylor said after the homecoming loss. This was a comeback game for (Alabama State). They wanted to come back and return the favor, and it’s my job to get our guys playing. I was not ready to play this team. I should be better, but it is what it is. “
It’s one thing to see Deion’s experience through the eyes of an opponent, but a more telling perspective is from those associated with the program, not just in terms of his comings but also his departures. Athletics attended JSU’s homecoming week to take the temperature of different parts of the fanbase.
The path taken can best be described in two words: it’s complicated.
The first thing to note is that the Jackson State community is not sitting still when it comes to Sanders. They moved the moment he left town – not because they felt any kindness, but because that’s what they do.
The program, in their eyes, is more than a person. Always was, always will be. Walk around the Sanders-designed athletic center, and there are no pictures of him hanging prominently.
It’s almost as if he’s never been there – he’s been seemingly everywhere for three seasons, amazingly. When he wasn’t doing radio shows or podcasts, he was appearing on social media or sitting down with national television crews. The power of his personality is so great that it has attracted “Good Morning America,” “College Game Day” and “60 Minutes.”
Many locals took it for what it was: in time. They knew they were on borrowed time with Sanders, who admitted earlier that he would have listened if bigger programs called. Colorado did that, and Sanders shut down.
The saying in sports includes never wanting to be someone who follows “the man.” It’s one thing to replace someone who struggled or underachieved, but it’s one thing to replace someone who was very successful, as Sanders has been for three seasons. He went 23-3 in his final two seasons at JSU.
Taylor, an assistant on those teams, understands the challenge of stepping up to the captain’s chair. It was his dream job, and there was no way he could resist it. He grew up about an hour outside of Jackson and attended his first JSU game while in elementary school.
The details of that exact day are fuzzy, but the mood isn’t. You won’t forget that kind of energy and look. captivated him.
“He got me out,” Taylor said. “To be honest, I knew right away where I was going to school. It was a no-brainer; I wanted to go to Jackson State. I contrast that atmosphere with other programs in the country.
He played football for the Tigers, arriving on campus as a quarterback but transitioning to wide receiver his final two seasons. He is, as the locals say, a true blue, a man of his own, whose purpose is undeniable.
But the importance of the home corner is directly related to wins and losses. Taylor understood this.
“It just makes me more prepared,” he said. “My expectations from myself and my coaches, my players, everyone in this building is that we have to win. I always tell them: I get it. I grew up in it. I played it. Mediocrity is not okay. Jackson City expects (to win) every week, and that’s what we’re trying to give them. We can’t play bad games.
Taylor is the opposite of Sanders in terms of personality. Cameras and microphones adore Coach Pry, and he’s a master at giving them what they want. Taylor prefers to operate on the fringes of the spotlight. He’s a man, laid back.
He made a point to remind himself last summer when the full team got together for the first time that he had to be himself and not coach Prime. Players will have good sensors when it comes to accuracy, and the 25 returning players would have noticed immediately if Taylor tried to be someone else.
“(If I was trying to be Sanders), I wouldn’t be as good as I want to be,” Taylor said. “I don’t care about cameras and stuff like that. Not knocking it, but it’s just not the way I do things. My players understand that, and they do a great job. Many of these people have lived for two years. They know me, so I can’t try to be the coach they just let go of.
“I must be what you’ve seen the last two years.”
The comparisons and questions to Sanders will subside at some point, but until then, Taylor will embrace it all. He is patient and gracious when asked about his predecessor.
“You can’t just ignore what he did when he was around,” Taylor said of Sanders. You can’t ignore the fact that the kid (quarterback Shedeur Sanders) is the (SWAC) Offensive Player of the Year here two Celebration Bowl games. The guy came in and did a great job. A lot of the media attention we’re getting is because of Deion Sanders. You just can’t write off the three seasons we’ve had when he’s been here.
Sanders did Taylor no favors when he took nine of JSU’s best players with him to Colorado, including Shedeur, one of the nation’s top players; cornerback-wide Travis Hunter, a five-star recruit coming out of high school to mark the next generation of talent; running back Syveon Wilkerson, who was coming off a 1,152-yard, nine-touchdown rushing season; And safety Shiloh Sanders, another Sanders son who leads the back end of the defense.
Roster changes could cause the Tigers (5-3) to lose as many games in two months as they have the past two years under Sanders, but Taylor can’t use it as a crutch.
“The groundwork has been laid in the last two years,” he said. “These fans expect us to win, and these players expect us to win. That’s the way we’ve prepared since training camp over the summer. We want to come out here and dominate. We know teams play their best when we play them.”
“We’re Jackson State, and we expect to win.”
It’s the night before the Alabama State game and 72-year-old JSU graduate Charles Epps is dining at a local restaurant with seven others. Sitting in the back corner, two tables pushed together, they host four generations of the family.
He ordered a bowl of gumbo and took a couple spoonfuls.
“He deserves a lot of credit for his work,” said Epps, a member of JSU’s class of 1974. “But it didn’t put us on the map. Jackson State has a long and rich history that begins well before it.
Epps’ mother, Mary Epps Tillman, nodded in agreement from around the table. Tillman, who turns 91 on Halloween, has been watching Tiger football longer than anyone on the team, and her connection to the university runs deep. Not only did she give birth to Epps at the campus health center—the university then known as Jackson College—which served as the primary medical facility for local blacks before desegregation—but she also saw great players in it. Football history comes through the school.
Lem Barney, Robert Brazilian, Jackie Slater and Walter Payton are all in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, tying Jackson State with Gramming, Morgan State and South Carolina State for the most HBCU players in Canton, Ohio. She oversaw JSU’s 28-game conference winning streak under legendary coach WC Gordon, who is in the College Football Hall of Fame.
“It didn’t start with him,” he said of Sanders.
The four JSU students around the table echoed their agreement.
There is no hostility in their voices. They credit Sanders with leading the program after failing to post a winning record in the six seasons prior to his arrival, and wish him continued success at Colorado.
A major disappointment among them is that they wish Sanders would do more to avoid the negative image of their city in the national media beyond highlighting the program’s rich culture and unique history.
Following Sanders’ departure, his oldest daughter, Deondra, publicly complained about her family’s safety on a podcast and falsely claimed that there were murders on campus every few months, for which she later apologized. Sanders himself fed the narrative after arriving in Boulder, joking to the media that he had been in town four weeks before the police sighting.
Perhaps the most poignant moment came during Sanders’ “60 Minutes” feature, where the show highlighted Boulder’s beauty and Jackson’s eye for more of Jackson. The issue is so outrageous that the president and general manager of a local television station wrote an editorial on the company’s website that said in part: “There are positives and negatives in every American city, including Boulder. But comparing the best of one to the worst of another is not a fair comparison. In fact, rather than honestly stating the truth, it shows an inaccurate and transparent agenda.
Epps told 60 Minutes that he was angry and disappointed with Sanders, saying, “He could have done more to stop his thinking.”
Jimmy Smith has the athletic history to become the fifth Tiger in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Nicknamed “Silk” and “J-Smooth” because of the way he made things look on the field, the Jackson native played 12 NFL seasons and surpassed 1,000 receiving yards in his final 10 years with the Jacksonville Jaguars. In the year When he retired in 2006 with 12,287 yards and 67 touchdowns on 862 catches, he held more than half a dozen records that still stand today.
Smith first made his name at Jackson State, where, like Taylor, he transitioned from quarterback to wide receiver. Blessed with power and speed, he led the Tigers in receptions in each of the last two years. In the year He was named to their All-Century Team in 2011 and was inducted into the Athletics Hall of Fame last year.
The honor was as humbling and exhilarating as it was watching Coach Prime lead the Tigers to victory after six consecutive seasons without a win. Like everyone else close to the program, he was seen as a winner.
“Dion chose Jackson State not just to choose Jackson State,” he said. He chose Jackson State because we were already a traditional SWAC powerhouse. Jackson State was known. We were regularly leading the crowd in attendance (at the FCS level). That’s why Dion chose to come. … He chose the main dog.
Smith knows the academics who criticized Sanders for leaving JSU. He calls them “salty” and argues that people can focus on the positive and how Sanders has created a foundation on which to build future success.
“Deion came at the right time,” he said. “He created a much-needed blueprint because we’re so disconnected from not having elders in leadership positions like we have now with TC Taylor. One of the things that hurt Jackson State — and probably a lot of HBCUs — is we’re not hiring our own in leadership positions, our students who really love the school. Not knowing what you’re leading, not knowing the history, blood. It’s hard to be a leader without stepping in, without putting in the sweat and tears, walking the campus every day and knowing what it’s all about. Jackson State is all about culture.
That disconnect has plagued our school for many years since I was playing. TC can continue our tradition.
Jackson State political science professor Dr. D’Andra Ore had tea not far from Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium the day before the home game. A Jackson native, teacher and HBCU student and former football player at Mississippi Valley State, he views Sanders’ tenure through a uniquely personal prism.
“It’s a disproportionate picture painted,” he said. “Dion is being painted as our savior, and that’s not true. It helped Dion raise what he already had. It brings out that subtle joy that brings out the potential in a player. He was able to do that with his fan base, a fan base that he was waiting to win back; They were ready to support.
“I can’t take it away from Dion; it’s Dion’s influence. But he benefited as much from Jackson State as Jackson State.
Watch for him: No top-tier program was ready to hire Sanders, in part because he lacked major college football coaching experience. He needed to get as close to the FBS level as possible without being there, and Jackson State provided that opportunity. Not only did the Tigers have a large stadium with over 60,000 seats, they also had a huge following.
“When you see a lot of black people in the stadium, the magnitude of it for the outsider, whether it’s the recruits or the media, just come in and show it to the country,” Orey said. “From an optics point of view, this is very important. Deion could not descend to the south; They only hold about 25,000. And FAMU (Florida A&M) is around 20,000. He was in a small college, and if he was in a place like this, it would have looked like a small college.
One thing about Sanders is that he doesn’t do a little. He was a rare athlete who simultaneously played professional baseball and football at the highest level. He won Super Bowls and earned a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as the greatest cover corner in NFL history. Larger-than-life bigs like him are usually drawn to the bright lights and big stages, which is why the realities at Jackson State knew he wouldn’t last long.
“That was good,” said Orey. “My only gripe is that he never said thank you when he left.”
Those who took Sanders’ departure at his word when he said God led him to JSU also had a problem. This language may be off-putting to some, but in the Bible Belt, among black people, its meaning can transcend football.
“Jackson is a place that doesn’t have a lot of positives; some might say that about Mississippi in general,” Orey said. “We’re talking about one of the poorest states in the union, and there’s a strong correlation between Mississippi and black people and poverty. They want hope; just like when Barack Obama was in office, Dion gave people hope. … When he’s gone, there are people who are bitter because they see him as snake oil as a preacher, and they see that as a problem.
“On the other hand, you have people who want to be associated with something positive, and that’s been a big factor in the success it’s had. Pointing to Jackson State as part of this success is something they can relate to, so I’d say there are more people who support him than have a problem with him. But I believe he could have done more for Jackson State and himself if he had stayed. If Jackson State takes it to the next level, where they’re playing (FBS) schools now, you’ve got a legacy, an Eddie Robinson (of Grambling) kind of legacy.
This is as close to a “what if” as you’ll get from the Jackson State community – because they’ve moved on from Sanders. Although there are no others.
(Credit: John Bradford/The Athletic; Photos: Rich Story/Getty Images; Aaron Smith and Charles A. Smith/Jackson State University via Getty Images)