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Prime's time arrives: Hall calls one of NFL's top personas

DALLAS -- As slam-dunk selections to the Pro Football Hall of Fame go, maybe this one would be a little easier if the style didn't often get in the way of the substance.

Long ago, Deion Sanders' identity stopped consisting of a person and became a persona.

And let's face it: The Hall has never really done personas very well. Admission is supposed to be based solely on greatness on the football field. It has always been about substance over style.

You think about Canton, Ohio, and the first thought that comes to mind is numbers. You think about individual statistics, including longevity and, where applicable, championships. You think about excellence and production first, everything else last.

Until now.

"Prime Time" meet "Frozen in Time."

The Hall's selection panel didn't have much of a struggle with this somewhat awkward marriage, though. There was enough substance in Sanders' 14 NFL seasons for two players, certainly the right kind of credentials to comfortably put him in the company of all-time greats of any era.

And when he spoke about his selection, Sanders actually sounded somewhat humbled by the honor.

"I'm excited," he said. "Are you kidding me? It's unbelievable. It's hard to describe the feeling.

"I'm one who never put an emphasis on what someone thought about me, but to be held up in high standard by your peers and sportswriters around the country, I'm honored. I really am."

Never mind the nicknames, "Prime Time" and "Neon Deion" ... or the high-stepping into the end zone, followed by his patented dance ... or the do-rag ... or the jewelry ... or the fancy clothing ... or doubling as a part-time professional baseball player for nine years and becoming the only man to play in both a Super Bowl (as part of a victory with the Cowboys) and a World Series.

Never mind the electric personality that made the nickname a perfect fit even after he stopped playing, and went a long way toward allowing him to land a broadcasting gig with NFL Network.

Sanders, who spent time with five NFL teams, clearly had the Hall of Fame excellence. He was one of the best cover cornerbacks, routinely blanketing the best receivers in the game. He had the Hall of Fame stats, too. When he retired after the 2005 season, he ranked second in the NFL in all-time interception return yardage (1,331) and tied for second for most career interceptions returned for a touchdown (nine) and a season (three). In 1994, when he was named the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year, he had returned interceptions of 90 and 93 yards for touchdowns to become the first player with a pair of 90-yard interception returns for scores in the same season.

Sanders also had six touchdowns on punt returns, including a 68-yarder on the very first of his pro career -- which came in the same week the two-sport star hit a home run for the New York Yankees. He also had three on kickoff returns. He finished four seasons as the NFL or NFC leader in punt-return average, kickoffs, and interceptions. And did we mention that he became only the third two-way starter in the NFL (after Chuck Bednarik and Roy Green) and caught 60 career passes for 784 yards and three touchdowns?

Serious numbers for a serious career, even though there were plenty of times when Sanders' seriousness wasn't always easy to gauge. What was easy was allowing yourself to get so caught up in the guy who seemed much more concerned with building his brand than being a quality football player, in the guy who wore so many different uniforms that it was hard to distinguish which one (and which sport) he really belonged to.

There were those first five seasons in Atlanta, when he established his stardom. There was that one season in San Francisco, where his career-best 303 yards in interception returns helped the 49ers win a Super Bowl.

There were those five seasons here, with the Cowboys, with whom he won his second Super Bowl. Then came that other one-year stint, in Washington, and after a three-year retirement, two more years in Baltimore.

The career path doesn't really matter, though. Nor do all of the other elements that transformed him from a person to a persona. All that matters is what he did with that career, not how he did it.

I asked a Hall of Fame cornerback, who requested anonymity, to give me the main reason he thought Sanders should join him in Canton.

Without hesitation, he said, "When the game was big, he always stepped up."

Isn't that what should be expected from someone known as "Prime Time?"

Follow Vic Carucci on Twitter @viccarucci.

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