Updated: Sep 11
Why 5- Star Recruits like Travis Hunter are choosing Coach Deion Sanders' Mentorship over the wealthy and prestigious schools who court them.
Choose Your Mentor (The Hero’s Journey)
On December 15, 2021, an 18-year-old wide receiver and cornerback from Suwanee, Georgia, made what a reporter called, “the most shocking decision in the history of college football recruiting.” Dismissing full scholarship offers from every powerhouse school in the country (Alabama, Georgia, Michigan, Florida State, etc.), the nation’s number one football recruit chose Jackson State University, a historically black university in Jackson, Mississippi. And in case you didn’t know, Jackson State is not “big time” football. It’s a small program that lacks the big donors, fat TV contracts, and fancy facilities you’ll find throughout the "Power 5" football factories in the SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, and for now at least, the PAC-12.
So why did Travis make the historic decision to attend an HBCU over an SEC titan? The answer is Deion “Prime Time” Sanders, or Coach Prime as he’s known. By signing with Jackson State and not Florida State, Travis chose the man over the institution. In doing so, he gained a mentor more valuable than NIL money from Alabama or degree from Michigan. Though NIL money matters (as does a degree from Michigan), I’d argue that having a man like Deion Sanders in your life – to guide you, push you, and love you – matters even more.
A great mentor is a life swerving force, and an ancient one a that. In his famous 1949 book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell argues that every culture and society throughout world history celebrates the “Hero’s Journey” through their own mythic narratives. Despite many of these disparate societies having no communication with one another, the structure of their old narratives are essentially the same, Campbell explains. They begin with the “Call to Adventure,” when a young man must travel to “distant lands… beyond the veil of the known and into the unknown.” But before he departs, he encounters “a protective figure” – a mentor (think Yoda, Gandolph, and Mr. Miyagi) who will train and prepare him for the obstacles ahead. Thanks to his mentor, the hero learns new skills, overcomes his fears, and heads into the unknown to slay the dragon. In doing so, the hero gains revelation and returns to his community a changed (and better) man.
That said, I know plenty of successful people who’ve never had a powerful and loving mentor in their lives, but holy shit, I think having one helps.
Mac Hinman, Phil Emery, Bob Martin, Tom Taylor, Gavin de Becker, and Steve Pressfield – plus my wife, Chanda. At one time or another, these mentors have given me the guidance and horsepower to slay the dragons – those obstacles (including the ones in my head) that stand between me and my goals. Each of them saw something in me, and I saw something in them. As a result, we chose one another. Just like Travis chose Coach Prime, and Coach Prime chose Travis.
And that’s the best part about mentors. We get to choose them! We get to choose whom to include in our lives, and whom to exclude. As my mentor Gavin likes to say, "make slow and careful choices about whom you include in your life, and fast choices about whom you exclude."
After an injury plagued freshman year at Jackson State, Travis Hunter continued to choose Coach Prime. After Prime accepted the job as Head Coach for the University of Colorado, Hunter followed him from the boiling heat of Mississippi to the clear mountain air of Boulder, Colorado. The climate -- and especially, the culture -- of Boulder couldn’t have been more different from the deep south of Hunter’s childhood. But he didn’t care. He wasn’t moving to Boulder to wear REI fleeces, eat vegan, and ski the Rockies; he moved there – into the unknown – to continue his hero’s journey, guided by his mentor.
He also didn’t move to Boulder because Colorado football was any good. After all, they hired Coach Prime for a reason. Last year, the Colorado Buffalos lost eleven games and won just one. And they didn’t just lose those games, they got annihilated -- losing by an average of 29 points! If that’s not bad enough… after their fifth game of the season, Colorado ranked 128th nationally in offense, 130th in defense and 125th in turnover margin. Few Division-1 football teams in 2022 were as bad as University of Colorado. But Travis, the number one football recruit in America, didn’t care. And that’s because he chose the man, not the institution.
Fast forward nine months to last weekend’s game against TCU. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that Coach Prime and his Buffs shocked the football world by beating the national champion runner-up on their home field in Fort Worth.
Amidst a hostile crowd and 106-degree Texas heat, Travis played a mind-blowing 152 snaps. He played both ways as cornerback and wide receiver, two of the most exhausting positions on the football field. He also intercepted a pass in the red zone, made game-saving tackles, and had over 100 yards receiving. It’s one of the most impressive performances I’ve ever seen on a football field. Overnight, Travis Hunter became a candidate for the Heisman Trophy.
Though it seems like everything has worked out for Travis, there was no guarantee it would. What if Deion had never received an offer from Colorado? What if Travis continued to play in relative obscurity at Jackson State? Had this occurred, his NIL earnings and NFL draft status would have suffered – which means Travis losing out on millions of dollars.
By choosing Coach Prime, Travis Hunter did something rare: he chose the man over the institution. Most of us aren't like Travis; we choose the institution. This means we don’t take the risk Travis took. Instead, we take the safe bet, the steady job, the guaranteed pay, and then settle for whatever “mentor” that institution assigns us. In short, we take “the track” – that well-traveled predictable road to success traveled by thousands before us.
But we always have the option to swerve off the track and exercise extreme agency like Travis did. Many in the press said Travis was crazy to go to Jackson State instead of the traditional route to Alabama, et al. He did it anyway. Sure, Travis risked losing millions by going to JSU, but he also gained the opportunity of a lifetime. He gained Deion Sanders, arguably the greatest athlete of the 20th Century, as his mentor.
What is there to say about Prime Time that hasn’t already been said? Beyond the bling, rings, and swagger, he’s the real deal. He’s the first professional athlete to hit a homerun and score a touchdown in the same week. He has World Series and Super Bowl rings. He played 14 seasons in the NFL and 9 seasons in Major League Baseball, he was All-Pro six times, ran a blazing 4.21 40-yard dash without warming up, and changed the game forever as a return specialist and “shut-down” cornerback since QBs refused to throw the ball to his side of the field. Beyond his athletic prowess, I suspect Travis (and many blue-chip recruits since) see something else in Deion beyond the usual “great coaches” like Nick Saban, Bear Bryant, and Urban Meyer. They see a bit of themselves.
It seems obvious that Travis, a black athlete from the deep south, can identify more with Deion Sanders in a sport dominated by African Americans athletes, but not African-American head coaches. Right off the bat, as a black coach in major college football, Deion has set himself apart as a potential mentor for these athletes.
I suspect Travis also sees Deion as someone who does things “his way” – which he clearly does if you watch any of his Colorado team meetings. There’s a swagger, a certainty, and a rebelliousness to Deion Sanders. And for any free-thinking person who wants to learn a thing or two, that’s appealing. Plus, Hall of Famers like Troy Aikman and Steve Young have all praised Deion as one of the best teammates they’ve ever had.
Considering that Travis Hunter had the opportunity to learn one-on-one from this man, his decision now seems rational. And where he learns from Coach Prime – at Jackson State, Colorado, or wherever else – doesn’t really matter. What matters is that Travis went with the man, not the region, culture, or school.
Watching Prime's career over the last couple of years (including this excellent documentary at Jackson State), I see four character traits that ultimately set him apart from his coaching peers. I see these traits as the tipping point -- causing 5-star recruits like Travis to choose Coach Prime over the "big time" schools (and coaches) courting them. These four traits make Coach Prime the ideal mentor for any hungry young man eager to start upon the Hero's Journey.
Right after Colorado hired him, Coach Prime flew to Boulder and held his first team meeting (see here) -- and man it’s one for the ages. You could just title the meeting, “I’m coming!" In his typical direct and honest way, Coach Prime told a demoralized team that had just gone 1-11 the truth: "I’m coming,” he said, “and when I get here, it’s gonna be change. So I want ya’ll to get ready to go ahead and jump in that [transfer] portal because the more of you that jump in, the more room we’ve got… because we’re bringing kids who are smart, tough, fast, disciplined, and with character.”
“We got a few positions already taken care of,” he continued, “because I’m bringing my own luggage with me,” meaning standout players from Jackson State like his two sons (Shedeur and Shiloh), plus Travis. And that luggage, he said, “is Louis” – meaning Louis Vuitton.
Shell-shocked by his honesty, the players sunk into their chairs, knowing their new head coach just dared them to quit and clear the roster for better, hungrier players.
At the end of this meeting, Deion asked the stunned team for questions. A few brave souls raised their hands.
Player: "Which current assistants are you keeping?"
Prime: “Probably none.”
Player: "What major changes do you see going forward?"
Player: "What’s the offseason going to be like?"
Prime: “For those of you who we don’t run off, we’re going to try and make you quit. I’m coming.”
And boy did he, crashing into the Colorado program like a neutron bomb.
By the Spring, Coach Prime overhauled the Buffs roster unlike any coach in the 154 year history of college football. Of the 85 scholarship players on the 2022 roster, 75 are now gone. 88% of that team is history. They either graduated, quit, got cut, or entered the transfer portal (often after they got cut). In their place are 86 brand new players, including 53 from the transfer portal (nine from Jackson State and a bunch more from Alabama, Clemson, and other big schools). Add in a few dozen from high schools and junior colleges and you now have a completely new football team (with seasoned players) at the University of Colorado. All that in a matter of six months.
During that first team meeting before he overhauled the program, I found myself cheering Coach Prime when he said, “For those of you who really got it, who really want it, who really deserve it, and you got to play by a fool who don’t want it, don’t deserve it, that don’t even love it – I promise you, it’s my job to get rid of him.”
For anyone thirsting to be exceptional, Coach Prime’s blunt honesty is as refreshing as a desert oasis. And like an oasis, hard-working young men – men who hate mediocrity and hate those who tolerate it -- have (and will) flock to his program.
In the opening scene of the final episode on the Amazon series, “Coach Prime,” about his last season at Jackson State, Prime stands tall before his team in a JSU track suit, ball cap, gold chains, and gold whistle. He tells the team about a toxic “family member” whom he has given a second, and even a third chance. He said, “I don’t want that poison to affect the rest of my family. So, I need ya’lls help. What should I do?”
An uncomfortable fog comes over the team. Their head coach is sharing something deeply personal. He’s their mentor, but he’s asking them for advice.
Soon, a few players speak up. They say, he’s family and you should give him another chance. But one player says something else. He says, “When you can, you should get rid of the cancer.” Coach Prime responds, “Amen.”
With his arms crossed, Prime says, “So we’re at odds. Some say let him go, some say help him.”
“Who agrees with one more chance? Stand up.”
Dozens of players stand up on the left side of the room, and then a few more stand up after taking cues from their teammates.
After they sit, Coach Prime asks, “Who agrees with getting rid of him?”
Nearly the entire right side of the room stands with a handful more from the left side. A clear majority feels Coach Prime should cut the cancer from his family. And he does. Right there.
“Let’s go,” Prime says nodding to a player in his seat. “You out. They voted.”
A second later, a young man with braids in his face, slinks out of his chair and hunches dejected towards the door hoping the camera doesn’t catch his face. After he leaves, Coach Prime tells the team, “That’s the family member.”
Wow. What a lesson!
As the camera pans towards his team, their mouths are gaping open. This is something they will never forget. And hopefully, the wayward young man Coach Prime just dismissed will never forget either; perhaps it's the wakeup call he needs to straighten himself out. But if he doesn’t, that’s on him. Because Prime's team is moving forward cancer-free.
In the next scene, Coach Prime says, “You either affect us or infect us. You can’t have poison in your life. You gotta get it out.”
Amen. Like any great barbarian chieftain, he holds his warriors accountable.
It’s worth noting that Deion dismissed the player as the cameras rolled. That’s on purpose. Because Prime knows great college football players (and assistant coaches) are watching.
If I’m a standout player at Alabama watching that scene, I want him as my coach! And I’m thinking hard about that transfer portal to Colorado. Guess what? A few did. Alabama cornerback Jahquez Robinson and linebacker DeMouy Kennedy both transferred to the University of Colorado in the offseason. Like Travis Hunter, they too chose the man for their hero's journey.
Moments after Colorado's victory over TCU last week, it becomes obvious why Travis Hunter chose Coach Prime – and above all, that reason is love.
Watch Coach Prime with Travis and his son (staring QB, Shedeur, who just set a CU record for passing) during the post-game interview, and you’ll feel the love. After watching that interview, I turned to my wife and said, “All those who disparage the game of football as too violent and too dangerous for their sons, need to watch this interview. They need to see the love, fellowship, and lessons this game (and its coaches) teach these young men.”
When the reporter asked Coach Prime, “how proud are you?” He said, “Look at my son,” hugging Shedeur. “And my other son,” embracing Travis. I can watch that over and over because it's real -- it's True Brotherhood. Watching that interview, I have to think even more blue-chip players will be entering the portal next year to Colorado – wanting that man and that Fellowship .
Of Note: Deion has another son on the team, Shilo Sanders, who leads the defense in tackles!
One of my favorite NFL players of all time is 49ers Hall of Fame wide receiver, Jerry Rice. Along with Tom Brady, Lawrence Taylor, and Deion Sanders, I'd put Rice on the Mount Rushmore of NFL greats.
In 1994, the 49ers had two of those Mt. Rushmore players on their roster when they signed Deion to a one year contract. In doing so, he proved to be the athlete the Niners needed to beat Dallas in the NFC Championship and win the Super Bowl. Despite wining the big game, however, Rice and Sanders could never get along. The reason, according to Deion, was that "Jerry could never enjoy the ride.” In short, Jerry Rice didn’t have fun playing the game of football like Deion did. For him, it was all business.
For Deion, it was business too, but also a ton of fun -- on and off the field. Prime TIme even had his own music video and pal'd around with MC Hammer on the sidelines in Atlanta, telling the world that he and the Falcons were “too legit to quit.” And when you watch old film of Deion pumping his arms before a punt return, high stepping towards the end zone, or dancing on the field before, during, and after the game, you see a ten-year-old kid playing the game with passion, wonder, and fun.
Before you say Prime was a poor sport or bad teammate, consider what his teammate and author of 37 books, Tim Green, wrote here: “Anyone who’s played with Deion is proud to have called him a teammate. Even the most red-necked country boys in the NFL have to admit that Deion is an asset as well as a pleasure to have on your team.”
So I’ll ask again. If I’m an elite college football player, I’m thinking long and hard about entering the transfer portal that ends in Boulder, Colorado. Because unlike the monkish Jerry Rice, I want to “enjoy the ride.”
And if there’s a better philosophy for life than that – to do what you want, how you want, and have fun doing it -- then please let me know. Until then, play hard barbarians and don’t forget to enjoy the ride.
Who knows how this season will turn out for the Buffs, but I find it nearly impossible to believe that Coach Prime won’t eventually turn Colorado into a winner. The big winners, however, won’t be the fans or even the school’s profits from TV deals, ticket sales, and merch. The true winners will be the Buffs’ players and their parents. Because one thing is for sure: Coach Prime molds men. And they return to their parents, from the Hero’s Journey, as changed (and better) men.