By Christopher Kamrani, Marcus Thompson II and David Ubben
BOULDER, Colo. — Obviously exhausted, technically beaten, but never crestfallen, Deion Sanders sits in a black leather folding chair with his left leg plunged into a navy blue tote filled with ice water up to his calf.
“Woo, Lord Jesus!” he says.
His son Deion Jr., the primary social media documentarian of the most spellbinding story in sports, asks him if his foot — which has caused the Pro Football Hall of Famer an array of health issues in the past two years — including two amputated toes — hurts.
“It’s cold, dog,” Sanders says, smiling back, resting his face into his right hand.
“Well,” Deion Jr. responds, “that’s better than hurt.”
In an unspecified room within the Colorado Champions Center, Deion Sanders finally gets a breather. The cameras — albeit for the one always on — are finally off. The shades are off, too. The celebrities who lined the sidelines Saturday for the Buffaloes’ 48-41 loss to No. 8 USC are all homeward bound on their private jets, leaving a cloudless Saturday afternoon in Boulder.
The break in the black folding chair lasts mere seconds before Sanders lifts his head and beams. His daughters, Deiondra, 31, and Shelomi, who followed her dad to Colorado and is a guard on the women’s basketball team, make Sanders briefly forget about the frigid water and the frantic loss. There is no sign of pain on his face, just appreciation. The Colorado Buffaloes are 3-2 now, having dropped back-to-back outings against back-to-back conference opponents ranked in the top 10 in markedly different fashion.
The weekend before, they were outclassed and unprepared in a 42-6 loss at No. 10 Oregon. On Saturday, a rewind-and-repeat scenario looked imminent when the Trojans went up 34-7 in the second quarter. Inside Folsom Field filled to the brim, Colorado responded, cutting the deficit to seven points with one minute left in the game.
The trail of skeptics soaking in the stumbles of Deion, his sons, starting quarterback Shedeur and starting safety Shilo, and all of these Buffs, is lengthening each week. They’re ready for the phenomenon to fizzle out. Some want college football as it always has been: status quo.
Fox personality Keyshawn Johnson indicated between the Oregon and USC games that opposing coaches aided Oregon in game planning. During Week 3, Colorado State coach Jay Norvell criticized Sanders for wearing sunglasses and a hat. The pregame shows never seem to leave town, and Coach Prime is always the topic of the day, no matter the channel.
By the end of the week, the narrative around Colorado football had changed, but the losses have not broken Sanders’ Colorado team, just as the 3-0 start didn’t crown it. Shedeur Sanders (left), with Deion Sanders, threw for 371 yards and four touchdowns and had one interception in the loss to USC. (Dustin Bradford / Getty Images)
Sanders’ constant claim is “Get me while you can.”
How many other programs will be able to cater to recruits and players looking to transfer with pitches that include Lil Wayne leading the team out of the pregame tunnel? Or having The Rock just show up to fire them up? The program has received an “absurd” amount of inquiries, Sanders said, but playing for Sanders requires more than surface-level star ratings.
The Athletic followed Colorado’s program in Eugene and Boulder from Saturday to Saturday, aided by the endless video content Sanders’ team produces, to get a sense of how he steered the Buffs behind the scenes with national intrigue at its pinnacle, even as the losses punctured the on-field momentum.
Inside Autzen Stadium under Eugene’s familiar low-lying cloud cover, Deion Sanders makes his customary pregame lap around the field. He’s walking slowly, flanked by two imposing security guards and a horde of reporters filming with cameras or smartphones.
Sanders knows he’s seen at all times.
“60 Minutes” visited Boulder to examine what is being called “The Prime Effect.” No other head coach is starring in multiple nationally televised commercials. His family and players are YouTube stars. Shedeur, who has generated Heisman buzz, wears a $70,000 custom Royal Oak diamond-studded watch that he raised in the faces of Nebraska players before their game to shoo them off the Buffs logo. Now the student section salutes with raised wrists.
Most of September belonged to the Buffs, and in essence, Sanders.
The stunning win at TCU, the rout in the home opener over the rival Huskers, the epic comeback against Colorado State — the 3-0 start cultivated a cult following around a program that had become inconsequential. Sanders’ team broke viewership records, overshadowed SEC powerhouses and became the primary topic of the daily American sports conversation.
During warmups, Sanders sports a pair of black Nike gloves as he helps skill position players go through drills. Minutes later, he’s embraced by a familiar face. One he hadn’t seen in years. Sanders stops and bows as Nike owner Phil Knight approaches him before they hug. Deion Sanders returned to Nike this summer after a long-standing dispute from his playing days. (Soobum Im / USA Today)
In July, Sanders left Under Armour and returned to Nike after their relationship had frayed for years dating back to a disagreement over Sanders’ compensation during his playing days.
“I’m so proud of you, man,” Knight says in Sanders’ ear as the two hug. “It’s so good to have you back. I was proud of you as a player and a person. I can’t believe how proud I am of you as a coach. You’re just doing fabulous.”
As Oregon dominates from the opening minutes, ABC’s broadcast airs an incendiary pregame speech from Oregon coach Dan Lanning.
“They’re fighting for clicks. We’re fighting for wins,” he says with an ESPN camera focused directly on him.
By halftime, the Ducks lead 35-0. Colorado doesn’t take a snap inside Oregon’s 35-yard line until there is 4:17 left. Sanders calls it a “good, old-fashioned butt-kicking” and takes responsibility.
“Teams are trying to beat me,” Sanders says. “They aren’t trying to beat our team. That’s what it really is. It is what it is. I signed up for it.”
The Buffs’ first loss of the season is a beating in every sense of the word. It might not leave them humbled, but it leaves them bruised and bloodied.
Shedeur takes seven sacks. Leading receiver Xavier Weaver limps to the locker room early with no shoe on his left foot. Shilo notices there’s blood in his urine after the game and will head to the emergency room when the team lands in Boulder.
Oregon brings Deion Sanders’ program down to earth. But the Buffaloes, despite having been stampeded, do not pout.
“I’ve been on plenty of planes flying home after a bad game — and I’ve seen plenty of those here in recent years — there’s a distinct feel to it. I didn’t think Saturday night coming back was anything out of the ordinary,” says Colorado play-by-play voice Mark Johnson. “You could tell they lost, but after the win at TCU, the plane ride home was very calm. It wasn’t a party atmosphere.”
Gospel music blares from the speakers in Colorado’s team meeting room as Sanders enters on Sunday morning to address his team.
“Leave it on,” Sanders says as he walks to the front of the room. A giant photo of a weathered and scratched Colorado helmet looms on the projection screen behind him.
He dares the team not to look away from Saturday’s disaster. Learn from it. He challenges the players to be “critically honest” with themselves about what happened. He doesn’t want to see a difference in their approach or effort if they’d beaten Oregon by 36 instead of enduring a lopsided loss.
“I don’t believe a good butt-kicking should get you back on track,” he says. “I believe you gonna get yourself back on track whether you win or lose.”
The world is watching, he tells them. He’s right. The loss at Oregon drew more than 10 million viewers on ABC, the most-watched college football game of the year. There were too many warts exposed for the Buffs to remain competitive against a superior roster.
“They really had some tells,” one Pac-12 assistant, granted anonymity for his candor, says. “I think they want to rack up some stats for Shedeur. He really holds on to the ball a long time. I think he takes sacks because he doesn’t want to affect his completion percentage. He’s playing a little different than he did earlier in…