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 sports.
On Saturday in Atlanta, Sanders donned Jackson State football appeal from the sidelines for one final time as the program’s coach.
Sanders is set to depart the SWAC for an FBS level program, after he opted to take the job at Colorado.
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The North Carolina Central Eagles beat the Sanders-led Tigers 41-34 in a thrilling overtime game inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Central quarterback Davius Richard helped lift the Eagles to victory with a 1-yard score in overtime. Richard ran for 97-yards and had two touchdowns on the day. It was then up to the Eagles’ defense which made a goal-line stand to secure the win.
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Sanders 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 thing and it’s not to go to Magic City,” Sanders jokingly remarked on Friday, “It’s to win a football game.”
Jackson State entered the contest with a 12-0 record, but Saturday’s loss marked the second straight defeat in the Celebration Bowl a game that has been dubbed as the “HBCU football national championship.”
“I feel like we’ve won, but we didn’t win that game,” said Sanders after the loss. He will now turn his attention to leading the Colorado Buffalos football program.
Sanders was visibly emotional as he addressed his team for one last time before the game. His emotions still ran high after the game with Sanders saying, “I miss these guys already. I love them.”
The game made it to overtime after Tigers quarterback Shedeur Sanders threw a 19-yard touchdown pass to Travis Hunter as time expired in regulation.
Jackson State’s kicker Alejandro Mata’s extra point tied the game at 34-all. Sanders had an impressive day, with four touchdowns in the air and one on the ground.
The MEAC has dominated the SWAC in the Celebration Bowl since its inception in 2015. Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference teams are 6-1 against Southwestern Athletic Conference opponents.
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Eagles coach Trei Oliver said he hopes the win gives more respect to his team and their conference after the pregame spotlight was almost solely focused on “Coach Prime.”
“They had a chip on their shoulder,” Oliver said of his players. “The disrespect was real since we’ve been down here.”
Latrell Collier’s 7-yard scoring run with 4:31 remaining gave NCCU the lead. The Tigers answered with a 15-play drive that included Sanders’ 10-yard, fourth-down pass to TJ Martin.
Richard passed for 177 yards with a touchdown and ran for 97 yards and two scores. 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 reclaim 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 McCall gave North Carolina Central a 23-21 lead following Adrian Olivo’s missed 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 regulation was perhaps the biggest highlight.
“When I threw the ball, all I’ve got to do is put air under it, he’s going to 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 defensive lineman who plays for Sanders. Charlie is the adoptive 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 Sept. 3. Wide receivers coach TC Taylor has been selected as Jackson State’s next head coach. Jackson State will return to Atlanta in 2023 to kick off their season against South Carolina State in the MEAC-SWAC Challenge.
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For Sanders, his impact at Jackson State shone a light on college football outside the FBS programs. But his legacy could ultimately be defined by what happens at HBCUs as a whole after he leaves.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.