The University of Colorado football team is undefeated, and the sports world is in a tizzy. It’s not just the winning; it’s what the winning has come to represent.
First, some context. Playing Saturday against rival Colorado State, the Buffaloes endured their opponent’s efficient offense and unsportsmanlike conduct to win in double overtime. A team that was a miserable 1-11 last year is now 3-0 and ranked in the top 20.
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They’re doing it under the spotlight. Colorado’s opening game was an upset of Texas Christian University, the most watched season opener in Fox Sports history. The next week, the city of Boulder brought in an estimated $18 million in revenue from the team’s first home game, a win over Nebraska. Then this past weekend, rapper Lil Wayne led the team onto the field wearing a Buffaloes jersey, with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, NBA all-star Kawhi Leonard and many more Black celebrities in attendance. Even a dude from Mississippi who served with me in the Navy was there with family and friends, despite having no connection to the state or to either school.
Why? They had gathered to see a marvel.
Credit the Buffaloes’ new head coach, Deion Sanders, and the roster of new players drawn by his charisma and philosophy. An NFL Hall of Famer — the multisport athlete is the only person to appear in both a Super Bowl and a World Series — Sanders was so talented and flashy as a player that his nicknames were Neon Deion and Prime Time. He brings the same energy to the helm, now as Coach Prime.P
Sanders became the talk of college football as head coach at Jackson State University, a historically Black institution in Mississippi just over an hour from where my shipmate grew up. Coach Prime successfully recruited some of the most sought-after athletes in the country. Players who could choose among luxuries at major and well-funded universities chose Prime and an HBCU instead.
In ror1, Travis Hunter, a two-way talent, became the first No. 1-ranked prospect ever to sign with an HBCU. Asked how he won the star over, Sanders responded matter-of-factly, “He came to the homecoming, and you can’t let a kid come to an HBCU homecoming if you’re another school and you want to keep him. … If he comes to our homecoming, then it’s a wrap. It’s over. It’s done deal.” If you know, you know.
By the time the University of Colorado hired Sanders late last year, his success was being questioned. It was said that he was winning because HBCU competition is weak. That his coaching ability was not likely to translate to big-time football against powerhouse universities. That par excellence in all-Black spaces is inherently lesser than excellence in the main.
Here is where the marvel appears — the true reason for the team’s sensation.
One of the most consequential questions people can ask of themselves is this: “What if they’re right?” What if they’re right about you and the reason you haven’t yet reached your goals? You’re too temperamental, too uncompromising, too uneducated, too unattractive, too bossy, too inexperienced, too smart for your own good. Each of us, in one way or another, has quietly wondered whether there’s a kernel of truth in the disparaging perceptions others have of us. None of us is immune.
If you grow up poor in a place that tells you poverty is personal failure, it’s natural to wonder why it is that you and your people couldn’t escape. Are they right? If you do succeed, it comes with an asterisk. “You’re different from your people,” they imply. “An exception.” Even in the military, I got snide remarks about being an affirmative-action charity case, selected for competitive positions because of an imaginary diversity quota. My old Navy buddy and I are both HBCU graduates who were challenged to defend the “Blacks-only” institutions, as another guy I served with once described them.
Few things are sweeter than seeing the negative stereotypes about people like you proved wrong.
Coach Prime and Colorado embody the most empowering answer to that haunting question “What if they’re right?” That’s why celebrities descended on Boulder. That’s why my Mississippi shipmate flew to Colorado with his crew. They came to see it in person, the moment the country learned yet again that it has misjudged us. The moment one of you does the thing that couldn’t be done.
Sanders’s coaching job at Colorado has captured the country because he is proving his doubters incorrect. There’s a righteous satisfaction in it, watching the people who questioned your ability have the revelation that they were wrong. They are not right about us. We are not inferior. Or deficient. Or broken.
This isn’t news, of course. Not to us, anyway. But it’s still something to see the proof of it take the nation’s breath away. With proper resources and support and room to breathe, our hard work and talent can thrive.
There is a phrase for what Sanders is achieving without compromising his identity one bit. The American Dream — but a more accurate version.
When his team took a surprising lead going into halftime during the season opener, Coach Prime said to his players: “You were a little apprehensive. You really didn’t know what we had. You really didn’t believe. But now you should.”
How can you not? It is a marvel, a sight to behold.
Opinion by Theodore JohnsonTheodore R. Johnson, a contributing columnist for The Washington Post and retired naval officer, is a senior adviser for New America’s Us@250 initiative and author of “When the Stars Begin to Fall: Overcoming Racism and Renewing the Promise of America.” Twitter