Go to an Atlanta Falcons game for the first time, and you'll notice the crowd doesn't look like it does at any other pro sporting event in the United States. It makes sense that the Falcons have a diverse crowd. But at two points in recent history the fan base's demographics have gotten notably more diverse, and stayed that way: the Michael Vick and Deion Sanders years.
Atlanta's not an easy thing to write about, which is why we keep trying. The constant flood of transplants and jarring shifts in historical eras make it hard to sum the city up. But when you see a brash millionaire hosting a Victoria's Secret party after publishing a book about Jesus, your mind fills with Chick-fil-A. Whatever Atlanta is, that man Deion Sanders is it.
Whatever Atlanta is, drawing a dollar sign in the dirt on Yankee Stadium's home plate is ... I mean, that's too Atlanta for words. Having a rap career managed by Evander Holyfield tops even that, though.
Deion's arrival in Atlanta provided the Falcons with national relevance for the first time ever, ending a 10-year period during which the team did not exist. I refuse to grant that the team was just bad during the 1980s, and instead insist on believing they closed up shop to go watch Dominique Wilkins. All of a sudden Atlanta had one of the country's three or four most exciting athletes, a player whose swag felt like a one-man NFL invasion.
Sanders signed a contract, demanded you marvel at said contract, dribbled a punt for a touchdown against the Rams, and soon the Falcons became the most fun team in all of sports. Teammates attribute all of the early-1990s Jerry Glanville circus, all the James Brown and MC Hammer and Travis Tritt sideline oddity, to Deion. The player who made 2 Legit 2 Quit the city's pre-Olympics anthem was friends with multiple country music stars.
He made his first three Pro Bowls in Atlanta, along with his first two All-Pro teams, and won his first playoff game. There wouldn't be a Tomahawk Chop in Atlanta had FSU fans not saluted Deion with it at a Braves game. He won his first MLB playoff game here, too.
But most Atlanta? He wasn't born here.
Well, nobody's born here. Except for some of us. Zone 5, Piedmont Hospital.
But he played for lots of teams.
Well, everybody here roots for lots of teams. Embracing Atlanta means embracing America's sports melting pot.
But he taunted the Falcons in his first game against them.
And then, after the game, he proclaimed the Georgia Dome to be the house he'd built, and he wasn't far off. At that point, Deion Sanders was more Atlanta than the Falcons were. Besides, how many Falcons fans have wanted to slap Andre Rison in the head? Deion took the initiative.
But he did a lot of stuff old people don't like.
And he's a complex, religious man who baffled his teammates with how hard he worked, has built up a friendship with Arthur Blank, swears his public persona is just an alter ego ("You think Michael Jackson sit in that room wearing that white glove all day long?"), has mentored (or attempted to mentor) young football players, and is a proud father. As if he could be any other kind of father.
I don't know what he's doing in other cities that played host to his football games, but Sanders has made an effort to show he thinks of Atlanta as providing the bookends to his career, from throwing a Thank You Atlanta party to repeatedly calling the town his only home (despite buying and selling property throughout Texas) to sending Falcons gear to Canton.
The Falcons organization is making its claim right back, with Blank earning some of Deion's induction day time. Putting him in the Falcons Ring of Honor was a smart move on Blank's part, since it gave Sanders a chance to toast Atlanta on national TV in advance of his Hall of Fame induction.
Yes, I'm defensive about Sanders' Atlanta tenure earning at least as much recognition as his Cowboys years do. He was and is my favorite athlete ever, so that's just the way it's going to be. Though his team had more success in Dallas, he had more of a lasting impact in Atlanta than he did anywhere else. Deion Sanders wouldn't shut down a mall anywhere in Texas. But for a long time, Deion's going to be the only Hall of Famer we can claim.
And yeah, plenty of Georgians don't like him. He danced, he talked, he didn't tackle as if he played linebacker (no other cornerbacks are ever critiqued for their tackling skills; weird, huh?) and he left town for more money. To hear him tell it, he left for money period, as the Falcons decided not to compete for his services, but I get that he's not the most universally popular Falcons player by any means.
If we're talking the most Georgia athlete ever, the discussion beyond Herschel Walker would probably center around Ty Cobb, Hank Aaron, Chipper Jones and Jessie Tuggle.
Deion wouldn't qualify for the finals in that conversation. Turning down a scholarship offer from Vince Dooley isn't Georgia at all -- but doing so over redshirting is so very Atlanta. Though he's country -- his favorite meal is Golden Corral, his only arrest was for fishing on private property, I say again he was friends with Travis Tritt, and he used to set up rasslin' matches in Atlanta's locker room -- he's still big city.
Big, black, Southern city that's obsessed with football, has bizarre and complicated sporting allegiances, attends church and the club with equal measure, cannot simply go to a baseball game without mocking the other team via threats of scalping, will never stop surprising you, and will never stop telling you how great it is. Deion. Atlanta.