Legendary NFL player Deion Sanders accepted a head coaching position at a historically black college in 2020. And during his three seasons at the helm, “Coach Prime” has brought unprecedented attention to HBCU esports.
On Saturday in Atlanta, Sanders pulled out of Jackson State Football from the sidelines one last time as the program’s coach.
Sanders will leave SWAC for an FBS level program after settling on the job in Colorado.
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The North Carolina Central Eagles beat the Sanders-led Tigers 41-34 in an exciting overtime game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Central quarterback Davius Richard helps the Eagles win with a 1-yard score in overtime. Richard rushed for 97 yards and had two touchdowns that day. Then it was up to the Eagles defense to stand on the goal line to secure the win.
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Sander’s return was a homecoming of sorts. Atlanta is the city where he made his NFL debut with the Atlanta Falcons. The place where he became the sensation known as “Primetime”.
“We’re only here in Atlanta for one reason, and it’s not to go to Magic City,” Sanders jokingly noted Friday, “it’s to win a football game.”
Jackson State entered the contest with a 12-0 record, but Saturday’s loss marked its second straight loss in the Celebration Bowl, a game dubbed the “HBCU Football National Championship.”
“I feel like we won, but we didn’t win this game,” Sanders said after the loss. He will now focus on overseeing the Colorado Buffalos’ football program.
Sanders was visibly emotional as he addressed his team one last time before the game. His emotions were still running high after the game as Sanders said: “I miss those guys already. I love her.”
The game made it into overtime after Tigers quarterback Shedeur Sanders tossed a 19-yard touchdown pass to Travis Hunter when regulation time was up.
Jackson State’s kicker Alejandro Mata’s extra point tied the game to 34-all. Sanders had an impressive day with four touchdowns in the air and one on the ground.
MEAC has dominated SWAC in the Celebration Bowl since its inception in 2015. Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference teams are tied 6-1 against Southwestern Athletic Conference opponents.
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Eagles coach Trei Oliver said he hopes the win will bring more respect to his team and their conference after the pre-game spotlight focused almost exclusively on “Coach Prime.”
“They had a chip on their shoulder,” Oliver said of his players. “The disrespect has been real since we’ve been down here.”
Latrell Collier’s 7-yard scoring run with 4:31 remaining gave NCCU the lead. The Tigers responded with a 15-play drive that included Sanders’ 10-yard fourth-down pass to TJ Martin.
Richard rushed for 177 yards on a touchdown and rushed for 97 yards and two points. Richard showed his versatility on a three-yard drive for the game’s first touchdown. He had a 21-yard run, a 30-yard catch on a trick play, and a 5-yard scoring run that gave the Eagles a 10-0 lead.
A fake punt early in the second half helped the Eagles retake the lead. Tight end Kyle Morgan took the snap on the fake punt and ran 43 yards to the Jackson State 24. Richard’s 12-yard scoring pass to Quentin Mcall gave North Carolina Central a 23-21 lead after Adrian Olivo missed an extra point .
Olivo’s 21-yard field goal late in the third quarter pushed the lead to five points.
Sanders completed 30 of 40 passes for 349 yards and four touchdowns. A highlight was an 85-yard touchdown pass to Kevin Coleman. The touchdown pass to Hunter at the end of the rulebook was perhaps the biggest highlight.
“Once I’ve thrown the ball, all I have to do is blow air under it, he’ll do the rest,” Sanders said of Hunter.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was spotted at the Celebration Bowl. He was there to watch and support his nephew Charlton “Charlie” Goodell, a defenseman who plays for Sanders. Charlie is the adopted son of Roger Goodell’s brother.
After the game, Jackson State linebacker Aubrey Miller shared his thoughts on HBCUs.
North Carolina Central starts their 2023 campaign against North Carolina A&T on September 3rd. Wide Receivers coach TC Taylor has been selected as Jackson State’s next head coach. Jackson State will return to Atlanta in 2023 to begin its season against South Carolina State in the MEAC-SWAC Challenge.
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For Sanders, his influence at Jackson State shed a light on college football outside of FBS programs. But his legacy could ultimately be defined by what happens at HBCUs as a whole after he’s gone.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.