Darren Woodson stood on the sideline at Mountain America Stadium on a picturesque fall evening a couple of weeks ago and watched Deion Sanders coach the Colorado Buffaloes against Arizona State.
It was surreal.
"I remember coming out of the tunnel at Super Bowl XXX together, and you couldn't have convinced me that he would ever be a coach," said Woodson, who played at Arizona State.
"I saw him doing TV. Coaching is just a different road. It's a totally different road. He had such a persona about him, and I just thought that TV would be the natural course of business."
But coaching seems to be pretty 'natural' for Sanders, considering some of the most influential men in his life have been coaches.
Dave Caple, his youth league coach, taught him the importance of discipline, and his high school coach, Ron Hoover, reinforced it.
Hoover suspended Sanders for the last several games of his junior year, and it played a role in North Fort Myers missing the playoffs. That experience taught Sanders the importance of decisions and consequences.
Mickey Andrews, Sanders' defensive coordinator and secondary coach at Florida State, pushed him to greatness with his unyielding approach.
So, no one should be surprised Sanders became a coach. He saw first-hand how a coach can change the trajectory of a young man's life.
Caple, Hoover, and Andrews created a foundation for Sanders' life, and he's spent much of his adult life paying that debt forward.
"My desire to mentor young people probably started when I was playing high school sports. I always took it upon myself to target several young men and help develop them not just as athletes but as men," he said recently. "I like being a mentor because it challenges you to be consistent as a person because someone is always watching. I like to be held accountable."
During the five seasons Sanders played for the Dallas Cowboys, he often worked with young players after practice.
"His energy was contagious with his teammates, and that's also what you want to see in a coach," Cowboys vice president Stephen Jones said. "His competitiveness rubbed off on everybody, and you're seeing it as a coach.
"Those young men want to follow him. They believe in him, and they trust him."
Sanders was drawn to players who liked grinding such as cornerbacks Kevin Mathis and Omar Stoutmire.
Mathis, an undrafted free agent, played nine seasons in the NFL, while Stoutmire, a seventh-round pick, played 11. He created a youth football and baseball organization - TRUTH - and modeled it after the Fort Myers's Rebels, the team he played for as a kid.
"People weren't there when he was working at NFL Network, doing commercials and coaching and mentoring these young kids," Woodson said. "I knew he was serious, but I didn't know to what level until he went to the high school level."
These days, Sanders is the head football coach at Colorado, where he has energized a moribund program that went 1-11 in 2020 and was outscored by 29 points a game.
Mathis is an assistant at Colorado, where he coaches the cornerbacks. Stoutmire's son, Carter, is a freshman cornerback. He started in Colorado's 27-24 win over Arizona State.
"He's an unbelievable kid," Sanders said. "I wish every freshman could come in here like Carter Stoutmire."
Sanders used the transfer portal to add nearly 60 players to the roster and transform the team. Celebrities ranging from rappers to NBA stars to Instagram influencers fill his sidelines during games.
He's been on the cover of Sports Illustrated, GQ, and Time Magazine in the last year.
All the attention has made a few college coaches uncomfortable. Some have attacked him anonymously in stories, while others, such as Colorado State Jay Norvell and Oregon coach Dan Lanning, took veiled shots at him publicly.
"Teams are trying to beat me. They're not trying to beat our team. They keep forgetting I'm not playing anymore. I had a great career," Sanders said after a 42-6 loss to Oregon last month.
"That's what it really is. I signed up for it, so let's go. These are grown men. I'm not out there. If I were out there playing against every coach (Colorado) played against, we would be totally dominant."
For now, the goal is for the 4-3 Buffaloes to win enough games to play in a bowl game.
"On the field, it's like nothing you've ever seen. You feel it when you watched him on TV. You felt it when you saw him live," he said. "You could feel there was something rare, unique, and special about him.
"His personality. His energy as a person. The way he communicates and the way he communicates is great. Nobody thought he could turn that program around so fast, but he has."
Jean-Jacques Taylor is president of the JJT Media Group and frequently appears on Media Mash. He's the author of Coach Prime: Deion Sanders and the Making of Men. https://www.harpercollins.com/products/coach-prime-jean-jacques-taylor?variant=41001195569186