NFL: Tom Rife: Remembering Deion Sanders' high school days and dubbing him 'Neon Deion'

As everyone knows, there’s never been an “i” in team. What everyone may not recall is that at one point in time, there was no “i” in Deion, either.

When Deion Luwynn Sanders first starred at North Fort Myers High School, everyone spelled it Deon. The memory of precisely when the three-sport marvel decided to insert the “i” remains a bit clouded. But does it really matter? It’s no secret that “I” always has been a part of Sanders’ DNA, albeit toned down somewhat in recent times.

From his doo-rag headwear and flamboyant end zone antics, Sanders never let the spotlight stand in his way. The luminosity will be at its brightest Saturday night when he steps up to the microphone to achieve immortality in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

It’ll probably be one doozy of an induction speech at Fawcett Stadium.

“Prime Time” was a signature that Sanders and one of his high school buddies came up with. As a marketing tool, it served him well as he went on to leave his fleet footprints on the National Football League, Major League Baseball, advertising endorsements and sports television.

Yet do an Internet search for “Neon Deion” and you’ll find countless hits as well. The irony is that it was neither football nor baseball that led to the flashy moniker.

It was one of the most remarkable high school basketball performances I’d ever witnessed as then sports editor of the Naples Daily News that spawned Sanders’ neon glow.

While positioned under the basket as one-man reporters/photographers often were, I watched him sky for a rebound, take off down the middle of the floor, do a 360-degree spin move around a defender at midcourt, take two more dribbles, and dunk the rock as if nothing special had happened.

Are you kidding me? Supreme athleticism was always Deion’s hallmark, but those four or five seconds will be forever etched in my mind.

When the all-star game ended that night, a cursory glance at the official scorebook revealed that somehow, even though he had played only about half the game, Sanders had managed to rack up 35 points.

And the light bulb went on. Boxing in that era had its “Neon Leon” Spinks. Why couldn’t Southwest Florida have its very own Neon Deion?

The next day’s Daily News account of Sanders’ performance rang true. It spoke of a young athlete who would forever be known as “Neon Deion.” Other local media outlets picked up on the nickname and Sanders was off and running down the yellow brick road not to meet the wizard, but to be the wizard.

This kid was different. He was the most athletic individual ever to play high school sports in Southwest Florida, which is saying something given the prior performances of La Belle High basketball magician Richard Glasper and the more recent, man-among-boys charisma of Immokalee’s Edgerrin James, whose 12,246 rushing yards in the NFL might someday land him in Canton as well.

After his football, baseball and track artistry at Florida State, Sanders would become the only person in history to play in a World Series (1992 with the Braves) and a Super Bowl (1996 with the Cowboys).

In 1989, while batting for the New York Yankees, Sanders slugged a home run, and then scored a touchdown that very same week playing for the Atlanta Falcons. He is the only person ever to hit a home run and score a touchdown in the same week.

In uniform, Sanders made it all seem so effortless. One night he strolled into the gym late, with his sneakers tied dangling around his neck. His Red Knights teammates were already on the court warming up. Only about five minutes remained before the opening tip.

Sanders quickly got dressed, returned to the floor, started the game, and not-so-surprisingly, proceeded to play far better than anyone else.

It had been just another “neon” night for Deion.

Tom Rife was sports editor at the Naples Daily News for 31 years, until August 2004 . He still does correspondence for the paper. Contact him at

© 2011 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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