Gold Jacket Deion Sanders apologizes to hometown in long-awaited return

Story courtesy of Florida Times

Deion Sanders' return to Fort Myers, Florida, on Saturday was an effort at reconciliation with his hometown. 

The two-time Super Bowl winner and World Series player was awarded a key to the city during a community forum Saturday night at Fort Myers High School. 

The relationship between Sanders, 51, and the city he grew up in has been a rocky one. It included failed business proposals such as a 2005 attempt to build affordable housing where it's needed the most and an arrest for trespassing and fishing on a private lake near Southwest Florida International Airport. 

But on Saturday night, all of that appeared to be forgotten as Sanders was welcomed on stage with a standing ovation with audience members cheering loudly for him. 

The event was attended by about 150 people, and their recognition of Sanders prompted the Pro Football Hall of Fame member, known as "Prime Time," to apologize to his childhood city. 

"This is long overdue. This is like a reconciliation for me," Sanders said. "The reason it hurt so bad was because I don't give a damn what they say about me in Dallas, Atlanta, San Francisco, New York," Sanders said. "I don't care because it was my job. ... When  you talk about me, some things I let slide, but you are all family. You only get one shot at calling the place home."

"Thank you from the bottom of my heart," Sanders said. "God was saying reconciliation. This has been reconciliation and a spirit of peace since I got here."

"I apologize to you as well. You have no idea what you all did to me this particular weekend. The best is yet to come."


For his return, Sanders brought with him Dallas-area Pastor Omar Jahwar to hold Prime's Community Correction, a forum meant to understand the problems that Fort Myers faces. On Sunday, Sanders was set to host his Prime Elite Underclassmen Camp for local athletes at Bishop Verot High School. 

The Saturday night talk was a fact-finding mission but included few details on how to help the city. Sanders promised to return. 

Violence, poverty and lack of opportunity are some of the factors that lead to violence in a community, Jahwar said. 

"Social civility is available to young people even when they don't understand it," Jahwar said. "Violence becomes the language of those who are underserved."

Jahwar mentored Antong Lucky, founder and former leader of the Dallas 415 Bloods gang, and the two are now part of Urban Specialists, a group that looks to use the experience of former gang members as the best way to keep others from that life. 

"The key thing for us to do, especially people who are trying to help, is to listen," Lucky said. "You've got to hear what people want without judging them."

Lucky said violence, drug dealing and gangs become part of the equation because of proximity. It's what they see in their community, Lucky said, and it's a cycle that continues. 

However, Sanders didn't get caught up in it. Sanders grew up in Dunbar but at an early age said he would stay away from drugs and alcohol to remain focused on sports and school. 

"I am only up here right now because I had a plan," Sanders said. "I did not allow anyone out there to affect my plan."

Sanders was almost brought to tears when he spoke about his mom, Connie Knight, and the long work hours she put in at Lee Memorial Hospital. 

Sanders also thanked her for exposing him to life outside his neighborhood. He said she would take the North Fort Myers High School graduate for drives down McGregor Boulevard and to Naples. The exposure to a different life showed him what was possible. 

"I was exposed to so much that I had a choice so I didn’t fall prey," he said. "I had seen another way. That influence changed my life."

Henderson said Sanders' "message quite frankly was one of the most powerful messages I have witnessed in my adult life."

His apology was an "outward demonstration" of his character. 

"I'm not sure that was necessary, but he felt that was necessary and that's what I respect and I honor that," Henderson said. 

Lehigh High School football coach James Chaney, who played with Sanders at North Fort Myers and Florida State University, said it was good for his team to hear Sanders talk about his accomplishments. 

Chaney said he was grateful for Sanders' return and the past should remain in the past. 

But he said it's important to remember there are men in Dunbar and Fort Myers who are working to make change for others. 

"I don't ever want to discount what the average man has done for our kids,"  Chaney said. "You don't have to be a NFL player to give back, and I feel (Sanders) feels that, too."

Earnest Graham, football coach at Evangelical Christian School and a former NFL player for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, said Sanders appears to be "a man of purpose" and will get things done.

Fort Myers Councilwoman Terolyn Watson is hoping the city and Sanders can move forward and facilitate changes that are needed. 

"I think Deion's main message tonight is the choices you make in life can make a difference," Watson said. "He's one of our most successful people. He has a great story. He's a great role model."

Darrell Rowe, 14, was excited to see Sanders in person. He plays football and basketball and participates in track. 

"He's someone I can look up to, someone who made it out," the Oak Hammock Middle School student said. "I can do the same thing and I can make it out."

"You are indeed a hometown hero," said Fort Myers Mayor Randy Henderson.