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Shedeur Sanders: A Leap Into Legendary

As Jackson State prepares to kick off another season, star QB Shedeur Sanders speaks to Boardroom about his offseason prep, HBCUs, NIL deals, and more.

Sporting his own clothing brand simply known as Legendary, Shedeur Sanders’ expectations for the upcoming college football season make all the sense in the world.

“Legendary,” he says with a calm smile over a Zoom interview with Boardroom.

The tale of Shedeur Sanders, starting quarterback for Jackson State University — and son of head coach and Pro Football Hall of Famer Deion Sanders — is set to resume on Sept. 4 when the Tigers’ season begins against Florida A&M University in the Orange Blossom Classic.

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From the outside looking in, Sanders has already built an impressive résumé that includes a Jerry Rice Award (most outstanding freshman player in the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision), the SWAC Freshman of the Year Award, and Second Team All-SWAC honors. 

Most importantly, he led his team to an 11-2 record and Jackson State’s first SWAC Championship since 2007.

So, with less than three weeks until the season, Sanders appears nerveless.

The Season Ahead

“I don’t feel any pressure because I’ve been going through this my whole life,” Sanders told Boardroom. “We’ve always been winners, so I can’t expect to do anything different.” 

While the Tigers’ 2021 season ended with a sour taste in their mouths after failing to win the Celebration Bowl against the South Carolina State Bulldogs, the loss is not on Sanders’ mind as much as the excitement of having a new offensive coordinator, Brett Bartolone.

“[Coach Bartolone] is going to take my game to a new level, [plus] he was under Mike Leach’s tree, so it’s just going to be different.”

Bartolone played under current Mississippi State head coach Mike Leach from 2012-2015 as a wide receiver at Washington State, nd eventually coached at the University of Nevada as an analyst under then-offensive coordinator Matt Mumme. Both Leach and Mumme are adherents of the “Air Raid” style of offense that primarily focuses on a pass-heavy playbook, spreading the defense out, and no-huddle play-calling.

Despite needing to learn the right rapport with his new coordinator, Sanders believes now that his first year is under his belt, Year Two will be more polished.

“It was my first time out there. Now, I understand what to do and the mistake I made. It’s more about mentally; I know [that] physically when the game comes and the time comes, that’s easy, but now, it is about mental preparation,” he said. 

Growing the Game for HBCUs

There wasn’t any preparation Shedeur Sanders could undergo to steel himself for the world in which he would be immersed when he decided to jump ship from FAU to Jackson State nearly two years ago.

“Before Jackson State, I probably heard a little bit about HBCUs, but then coming here and actually seeing it with my own two eyes and seeing how much the country is missing showed me it’s a whole new world,” he said.

The new world Sanders occupies is taking shape gradually, but the presence and impact the Sanders family has already made within the world of historically Black institutions cannot be denied. 

  • Deion Sanders donated half his salary ($150,000) to JSU to help complete upgrades to its football facilities.
  • Helped secure key donations from brands and celebrities like Walmart, Procter & Gamble, and Diddy.
  • Worked with Michael Strahan to donate suits for players to wear ahead of JSU’s first game in 2021.
  • Developed the Jackson State HBCU Showcase for the XFL.
  • Raised the equivalent of $185 million in advertising and media exposure, as a University spokeswoman told USA Today. 
  • Helped land multiple games on ESPN to increase visibility of JSU and HBCU athletics.
  • Helped Alcorn State University hire athletic trainers.
  • Vowed to help Mississippi Valley State build a new practice field.

He says he doesn’t feel the pressure of outside expectations, but Shedeur isn’t wearing blinders or earplugs. He is aware of the effect JSU has had thus far on the broader HBCU landscape — and how these changes have served to enhance the relationship between father and son. 

“Our success together determines the future,” Shedeur said. “It’s a really strong connection now because I understand this is business. This is the real world now.”

A Phenom’s Future

Sanders is two seasons away from being able to declare for the NFL Draft. In the meantime, one of the institutions he, Coach Prime, and Jackson State have the ability to improve for the better is the NFL Scouting Combine.

This year marked the first time the NFL hosted an HBCU Combine. Deion originally called for the separate Combine, but after taking the reins at Jackson State, he has since said that HBCU athletes deserve the visibility that comes with participation in the league’s official event that takes place each year in Indianapolis.

“I didn’t understand what I understand now,” Deion said in an interview with Boardroom last year. “I’m pretty darn sure all the exposure was not going to be as such. Invite those players to the regular combine! I don’t want to be separate in nothing no more! I want to be whole and I really mean that.” 

As the 2022 NFL Draft ultimately came and went, four players from HBCUs were selected — four times as many as the previous two years combined. Joshua Williams, a cornerback from Fayetteville State University who was the highest draft pick from a historically Black institution this year, opted to attend the official NFL Combine; no players who attended the HBCU Combine were selected.

Shedeur, still 21 months out from his own NFL Draft eligibility, doesn’t sound concerned about the future in any event. “I’m not too concerned with that. All that stuff will figure out itself and that’s what I have my team and my dad for when it’s time. For now, I’m just focused on this season,” he said.

And while football is indeed at the center of Sanders’ world, the surrounding community in Jackson, Mississippi is never far from his mind or his heart.

“Anybody can go to any school and play college football, but [the question is], what is your impact whenever you leave there? What is everybody going to know you as?”

These next 21 months present a unique opportunity to find the very best answer to those questions.

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The NIL Revolution

The unique hype and excitement around Jackson State has attracted brands of all sizes hoping to partner with individual players.

When college athletes were permitted to monetize their name, image, and likeness rights starting July 1, 2021, five members of the Jackson State football team signed individual NIL deals with 3 Kings Grooming, a Cincinnati-based company that sells hair products and equipment. The Tigers’ biggest recruit, 2022 5-star cornerback Travis Hunter, signed a multi-year partnership with Greenwood, a digital banking platform focused on cultivating wealth in Black and Latino communities. 

Meanwhile, Shedeur has had no trouble cashing in himself.

In Sept. 2021, he signed an NIL deal with Beats by Dre, becoming the company’s youngest signee.

“We initially launched our partnership with Shedeur Sanders by releasing a launch spot that showcases his journey at Jackson State, and we’re looking to expand upon those efforts through both content and product-driven initiatives to help amplify HBCU stories,” said Aminah Charles, Beats’ Head of Sports Marketing for North America and a former Hampton University volleyball player. “As a former HBCU student-athlete myself, it was rare that I saw our programs and our athletes being highlighted in the media. Through our partnership with Shedeur, Beats is looking to change that narrative by helping to create more visibility for these underrepresented voices and their stories.”

The Beats executive shared that her company and Shedeur are working on a number of initiatives ahead of the season as well as custom headphones he’ll wear throughout the season. 

In the big picture, Sanders is humble when it comes to his growing portfolio of brand deals. “I’m just blessed to be a part of it, I’m thankful they gave me the opportunity to represent their brand. I thank my on-the-field team and off-the-field team without them none of this would be possible.” 

Additional brands that have linked up with Sanders following his on-the-field success in college include Tom Brady’s apparel label, BRADY Brand, Oikos, and Gatorade.

“Shedeur exemplifies everything we look for in an athlete partner, he is a driven competitor on the field and has quickly become one of the most elite student-athletes playing today,” said Jeff Kearney, Gatorade’s Global Head of Sports Marketing. “We’re excited to be working with Shedeur as part of our Fuel Tomorrow initiative, which will underscore PepsiCo’s larger commitment to amplify and elevate HBCUs.”

In June, Sanders’ deals garnered him enough recognition to earn a nomination for Male Athlete of the Year at the NIL Summit in Atlanta.

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Team of Tigers

While it’s understandable that he would be the foremost face of his team as far NIL money is concerned, Sanders is acutely aware that not every one of his teammates will be able to enjoy the same windfall.

With that in mind, he doesn’t let his success alienate himself from his teammates, and he has a specific responsibility to make sure that never happens.

“Shedeur doesn’t carry himself to where people really hate on him because he’s such a down-to-earth dude,” said Kobe Paul, a redshirt freshman wideout who has known Shedeur since they were five years old. “He’s the exact same guy as when we were kids. I haven’t seen any change.”

From his own perspective, the Jackson State signal-caller said he hasn’t experienced any blowback over his newfound stardom, as he quickly internalized that his actions speak louder than his words — when he signed one of his first NIL deals with Beats, he gifted his entire team with headphones. 

“How I carry myself is that everything is genuine. The opportunities I have, I would like to share them with my teammates and do stuff like that. I’m not a selfish guy, stuff [that’s] just for me doesn’t make me happy. What makes me happy is seeing other people who don’t have the same opportunities as me be able to do and experience different things,” he said. 

As for what’s next regarding NIL, the quarterback said there are no companies on his partnership wishlist because he has such a helpful support team to help navigate those opportunities. He has the luxury of continuing to focus on football.

“I have to take care of my business on the field and leave the rest of the stuff off the field to my team,” he said. “Improving on the field, breaking records, and doing better than I did last year, that’s the way.”

And just like his personal clothing brand portends, Shedeur Sanders aims to build a career that’s ultimately remembered for being legendary.

“Legendary is doing something that hasn’t been done before. People throw the word around, but I really live by it, I mean it. I feel like what we’re doing here at Jackson State, it’s the perfect thing. It’s like a movie.”

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