Deion Sanders, right, shares a laugh with JSU play-by-play announcer Rob Jay at Tuesday press conference. (Photo by Rick Cleveland)

After recent visits to college football blue bloods Ohio State, Texas, Tennessee, Clemson and Oregon, ESPN’s College GameDay show comes to Jackson and Jackson State University this Saturday. They’ll set up at Veterans Memorial Stadium, right there between State Street and West Street to preview the Southern U-Jackson State game for three hours beginning at 8 a.m.

Deion Sanders says he was driving to his office Sunday when he got the news.

“I was excited, really excited,” Sanders said Tuesday morning at his weekly media gathering. “But you gotta understand, I expect stuff like this. Why not us? You know lots of people wear that shirt that says: ‘Why not us.’ But they don’t believe what’s on the shirt half the time. You better believe it. Don’t just wear it. Believe it. I really think like that. I think, ‘Why haven’t you come yet?’ Thank God, they pulled the trigger. We’re blessed to have them. It’s phenomenal.”

Rick Cleveland

The man they now call Coach Prime was just getting started….

“I just hope we, as a city and as a school, understand the magnitude of what’s about to transpire. I hope we do our homework as a city and come out and support College GameDay, support what it is and then some. We need to put on for our city for real. Southern needs to be a big part of this as well.”

So, Sanders was asked, what does this unprecedented exposure mean for Jackson State?

“I put it like this,” Sanders began. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re Black, white or Asian or whatever, when your father comes to see you play, whatever the sport, all he has to do is tilt is head and you know what that means: ‘I see you.’ Now your mama’s got to yell and clap and all that, but your father, all he has to do is nod and you know what that means. To me, that’s what what ESPN is doing. They are nodding in our direction. They see us.”

There have been decidedly different reactions around the country to ESPN’s announcement. The reactions range from, “Hey, that’s really cool, really neat,” to “Come on, Ohio State is playing at Penn State, Georgia and Florida are playing, Kentucky is at Tennessee. Why in the world would ESPN boost a SWAC game nobody cares about?”

Those people espousing that last line of thinking just don’t get it. This is unique. This is really cool. How many times do you really need to set up outside of stadiums Ohio State or Alabama? ESPN GameDay has featured those schools nearly 60 times each over the years.

This will be new, this will be different. And this will be great show if they do it right. SWAC games aren’t just about the football. They are an experience. ESPN should feature Deion, yes, and the two teams. But they would also feature the truly incredible bands, the drum majors, the dance teams, the ambiance of the SWAC experience. Show the ribs and chicken on the grills. Give the viewers a listen to the music that will be blaring all over the grounds and parking lots of The Vet. Tell them about the rich history of the SWAC and for that matter the rich history of The Vet, where SEC doubleheaders were once played and where Walter Payton ran the football and Jerry Rice caught it and Steve McNair ran and threw it. Tell them about one Sunday in 1984 when Alcorn and Mississippi Valley State packed the stadium and had TV ratings that blew away the NFL.

Tell them about W.C. Gorden and Eddie Robinson and Marino Casem. Tell them about how Jackson State leads all the Mississippi schools in production of Pro Football Hall of Famers with four.

This could be the best ESPN GameDay of the season if they do it right.

They can also tell viewers about last year’s Jackson State-Southern game, football’s version of a passion play. Sanders had missed three straight games after being hospitalized with blood clots in a leg. Two of his toes were amputated. He lost 30 to 35 pounds, he says. He returned to the field at Southern in Baton Rouge for a huge game. We’ll let Sanders take it from there.

“I can remember Shedeur (his son, quarterback Shedeur Sanders) coming to the hospital that week and saying, ‘Dad, I need you,’” Deion Sanders said. “So I was going to do whatever it took … My baby needed me.”

Deion Sanders coached from a wheelchair on the sidelines. And for three and a half quarters, it looked as if Southern was going to win. Then Shedeur Sanders threw a dramatic touchdown and Shiloh Sanders (Deion’s cornerback son) intercepted a Southern pass. And Jackson State prevailed 21-17. “That was a big, big win for us,” Deion Sanders said Tuesday.

So, with ESPN cameras in town Saturday, what will Coach Prime’s Tigers do for an encore? There’s no telling, but the matchup is intriguing. Southern, 5-2, has won four in a row and is in first place in the SWAC West. Jackson State has won seven straight and is in first place in the SWAC East. 

So does ESPN’s College GameDay add to the pressure of an important rivalry game?

Not according to Deion Sanders. “A mother raising three kids by herself, that’s pressure,” Sanders said. “That father trying to fight drug addiction, that’s pressure. People trying to deal with the trials and tribulations of this country, that’s pressure. This is football.”

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.