Sanders was born in Fort Myers, Florida. He attended North Fort Myers High School in North Fort Myers, and was a letterman and All-State honoree in football, basketball and baseball. In 1985, Sanders was named to the Florida High School Association All-Century Team which selected the top 33 players in the 100-year history of high school football in the state.
The Kansas City Royals selected Sanders out of North Fort Myers High School in the sixth round of the 1985 Major League Baseball draft. He did not sign with the Royals.
Sanders enrolled at Florida State University and played three sports for the Florida State Seminoles: football, baseball, and track. Beginning his freshman year, he started in the Seminoles' secondary, played outfield for the baseball team that finished fifth in the nation, and helped lead the track and field team to a conference championship.
Under head coach Bobby Bowden, Sanders was a two-time consensus All-American cornerback in 1987 and 1988, and a third team All-American in 1986, intercepting 14 passes in his career, including three in bowl games, and managed to return one interception 100 yards for a touchdown breaking Fred Biletnikoff's interception return record by one yard. He won the Jim Thorpe Award in 1988. He was also a standout punt returner for Florida State, leading the nation in 1988 with his punt return average, and breaking the school's record for career punt return yards. Sanders made an interception with 5 seconds left to seal Florida State's 13-7 win over Auburn in the 1989 Sugar Bowl, during the 1988 postseason. Based on those accolades, his jersey at Florida State, #2, was retired in 1995. He finished his career with 126 punt returns for 1,429 yards.
While playing baseball under head coach Mike Martin at Florida State, Sanders hit .331 in 1986; he was known more for base stealing, compiling 27 Stolen bases in 1987.
Sanders once played the first game of a baseball doubleheader, ran a leg of a 4 × 100 relay, then returned to play another baseball game.
Sanders played a nine-year, part-time baseball career, playing left and center field in 641 games with 4 teams. He was originally drafted by the Kansas City Royals in the 6th round of the 1985 draft, but did not sign with them. The New York Yankees selected Sanders in the 30th round of the 1988 Major League Baseball draft, and he signed with the team on June 22. He opened the 1989 season with the Albany-Colonie Yankees of the Class AA Eastern League. Though he planned to leave the Yankees in July to attend NFL training camp, he became embroiled in a contract dispute with the Falcons, and used the Yankees as leverage. He received a promotion to the major leagues, and spent the summer with the Columbus Clippers of the Class AAA International League. He made his major league baseball debut on May 31, 1989.
Sanders made the Yankees' Opening Day roster for the 1990 season. On May 22, 1990, Sanders became involved in a dispute with Chicago White Sox' catcher Carlton Fisk. Sanders started by stepping up to the plate with one out and a runner on third, drawing a dollar sign in the dirt before the pitch and then failed to run to first base after hitting a routine pop fly to shortstop, trotting back to the dugout instead. The Yankee fans booed, and Fisk told Sanders to "run the fucking ball out" and called Sanders a "piece of shit." Later in the game, Sanders told Fisk that "the days of slavery are over." Fisk was furious. "He comes up and wants to make it a racial issue, there's no racial issue involved. There is a right way and a wrong way to play this game."
By mid-July, Sanders expressed that he was unsure if he would remain with the Yankees or report to NFL training camp for the upcoming NFL season. He requested a $1 million salary for the 1991 season, and the Yankees ended negotiations on a contract extension with Sanders. He left the team, finishing the 1990 season with a .158 batting average and three home runs in 57 games. In September 1990, the Yankees placed Sanders on waivers with the intention of giving him his release, as Yankees' general manager Gene Michael said that Sanders' football career was stunting his baseball development.
Sanders later signed with the Atlanta Braves for the 1991 MLB season. On July 31, Sanders hit a key three-run homer to spark a comeback win against the Pittsburgh Pirates during the Braves' run to the National League West Division title. However, he had to leave the Braves the very next day to report to the Atlanta Falcons because of a clause in his NFL contract and missed the postseason. Before the 1992 season, Sanders reworked his NFL deal whereby he still reported to the Falcons for training camp in August, but was allowed to rejoin the Braves for the postseason.
During his most productive year in the majors, the 1992 season, he hit .304 for the team, stole 26 bases, and led the NL with 14 triples in 97 games. During the 1989 season, he hit a major league home run and scored a touchdown in the NFL in the same week, the only player ever to do so. Sanders is also the only man to play in both a Super Bowl and a World Series.
In four games of the 1992 World Series, Sanders batted .533 with 4 runs, 8 hits, 2 doubles, and 1 RBI while playing with a broken bone in his foot. Despite Sanders's performance, the Braves ultimately lost to the Toronto Blue Jays in six games. In Game 3, he narrowly avoided being a victim of what would have been only the second triple play in World Series history (following Bill Wambsganss's unassisted triple play in 1920). With Sanders on second base and Terry Pendleton on first, David Justice hit a deep fly ball to center field that Blue Jays Center fielder Devon White unexpectedly caught with a leaping effort. Pendleton passed Sanders on the bases for the second out, but umpire Bob Davidson called Sanders safe after he scampered back to second base. Replays showed that Toronto third baseman Kelly Gruber tagged him on the heel before he returned to second.
In 1997, Sanders finished 2nd in the NL with 56 stolen bases in 115 games while with the Cincinnati Reds before leaving baseball for three years.
Sanders returned to the Reds in 2001, but was released after playing in only 29 games and batting just .173. Following his release from the Reds he signed a minor league contract with the Toronto Blue Jays triple-A affiliate, Syracuse Chiefs. Sanders was hitting .252 for Syracuse before the Washington Redskins found a loophole in his contract which compelled him to return to the Redskins. His football contract had been negotiated to allow for Sanders to play both baseball and football, but the terms of the contract stated that Sanders could miss NFL training camp and the first few games of the season only if he were playing Major League Baseball. Since he was not then on an MLB roster, Sanders had to leave Syracuse and return to the Redskins so he would not violate his NFL contract. But before arriving at training camp, Sanders informed Redskins personnel he was retiring from professional baseball. In his final professional baseball game, Sanders hit a solo home run and an RBI single in Syracuse's 12-6 win over the Toledo Mud Hens. As those in MLB and the NFL urged Sanders to concentrate on only one sport, he would often explain, "football is my wife and baseball is my mistress."
At the 1989 NFL Scouting Combine, Sanders ran a 4.27 second 40-yard dash. He was the fifth pick overall in the 1989 NFL Draft by the Atlanta Falcons, where he played until 1993. Despite fumbling (and recovering) his first NFL punt (which was re-kicked on a penalty), Sanders ran for a touchdown on his second attempt of his first game. During his time in Atlanta, he intercepted 24 passes (including a career-high 7 in 1993), three of which he returned for touchdowns. In 1992, he also led The League in kickoff return yards (1,067), yards per return (26.7) and return touchdowns (2). On October 11, 1992, Sanders played in a Falcons game at Miami and then flew to Pittsburgh, hoping to play in the Braves' League Championship Series game against the Pirates that evening and become the first athlete to play in two professional leagues in the same day. Sanders ultimately did not, however, appear in the baseball game that night. Over his five years with the Falcons, Sanders scored ten touchdowns (three defensive, three kick returns, two punt returns, and two receptions).
After five seasons Sanders signed on to play the 1994 season with the San Francisco 49ers, where he had arguably his best season as a professional football player, recording six interceptions and returning them for an NFL best and a then-NFL record 303 yards and three touchdowns. Two of his interceptions were returned for a gain of at least 90 yards, making him the first player to do this in NFL history. On October 16, 1994, Sanders made his dramatic return to the Georgia Dome in a 49er uniform. After getting into a scuffle with his former Falcon teammate Andre Rison, Sanders intercepted a pass from quarterback Jeff George and returned it 93 yards while mockingly staring down the entire Falcons sideline before high-stepping into the end zone. Sanders was later voted the 1994 NFL Defensive Player of the Year and recorded an interception in the 49ers 49–26 victory over the San Diego Chargers in Super Bowl XXIX, earning him his first championship ring.
Following his successful season with the 49ers, Sanders, along with his agent Eugene Parker, courted numerous teams in need of a cornerback. The several teams in the "Deion Sweepstakes", as it was called by the media, were the Philadelphia Eagles, Oakland Raiders, Miami Dolphins, New Orleans Saints, San Francisco 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys, who had lost their starting cornerback Kevin Smith to injury for the rest of the season.
On September 9, 1995 (which fell in Week 2 of that NFL season), Sanders signed a lucrative contract with the Dallas Cowboys (seven years, $35 million with a $12.999 million signing bonus, because owner Jerry Jones was superstitious of the number 13), essentially making him, at the time, the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL. Sanders later stated in his book Power, Money & Sex: How Success Almost Ruined My Life that the Oakland Raiders offered him more money than any other team, but he chose to play in Dallas for more time on the offensive side of the ball, a chance to win back-to-back Super Bowls, and because of his friendship with Cowboys wide receiver Michael Irvin. Arthroscopic surgery kept him sidelined until his debut in Week 9, which was once again in Atlanta against the Falcons; the Cowboys won, 28-13. He went on to help the Cowboys win their third title in four years in Super Bowl XXX against the Pittsburgh Steelers, where he returned a punt for 11 yards and caught a 47-yard reception on offense, setting up Dallas' first touchdown of the game and a 27–17 victory. Sanders played four more seasons with Dallas, earning Pro Bowl selection in all of them. On June 2, 2000, he was released in a salary cap move.
Soon after being released by the Cowboys, the Washington Redskins and Daniel Snyder signed Sanders to a hefty $56 million, 7-year contract. At the end of the 2000 season and an above-average statistical year, Sanders abruptly retired after only playing one year with the Redskins.
In 2004, Sanders announced that he was going to end his retirement, after being lured back to football by Ravens cornerback Corey Fuller, linebacker Ray Lewis and best friend Joe Zorovich. A major reason for doing so was to play with Ray Lewis. He signed a 1-year deal with the Baltimore Ravens to be a nickelback. Sanders chose to wear the number 37, which matched his age at the time, to preemptively let people know that he was well aware of his relative senior status as an NFL player (additionally, the number 21, used by Sanders throughout his career, was already being worn by Ravens Pro Bowl cornerback Chris McAlister). Against the Buffalo Bills in Week 7 of 2004, Sanders scored his ninth career interception return touchdown, moving him into a tie for second place with Ken Houston and Aeneas Williams, and behind Rod Woodson (with 12) for all-time in the statistical category.
In January 2006, after playing two seasons as a corner and safety for Baltimore in which the Ravens did not qualify for the postseason, Sanders once again retired from the NFL and became an analyst for the NFL Network.
During his 14-year NFL career, Sanders was a perennial All-Pro and one of the strongest pass defenders ever. He was known for being a relatively poor tackler and he was not much of a factor in run support.
Sanders also occasionally lined up with his team's offense. During the 1996 season, Sanders skipped the baseball season, concentrating on football, and attended the first NFL training camp of his career to better familiarize himself with the nuances of the wide receiver position. He became only the second two-way starter (after the Cardinals' Roy Green) in the NFL since Chuck Bednarik for the first half of the season due.
Sanders is the only man to play in both a Super Bowl and a World Series, to hit an MLB home run and score an NFL touchdown in the same week, and to have both a reception and an interception in the Super Bowl. He is one of two players to score an NFL touchdown six different ways.
During his career, Sanders intercepted 53 passes for 1,331 yards (a 25.1 yards per return average), recovered four fumbles for 15 yards, returned 155 kickoffs for 3,523 yards, gained 2,199 yards on 212 punt returns, and caught 60 passes for 784 yards. Sanders amassed 7,838 all-purpose yards and scored 22 touchdowns: nine interception returns, six punt returns, three kickoff returns, three receiving, and one fumble recovery. His 19 defensive and return touchdowns was an NFL record (now held by Devin Hester). In the postseason, Sanders added 5 more interceptions, as well as 3 receptions for 95 yards, 4 carries for 39 yards, and two touchdowns (one rushing and one receiving). He was selected to eight Pro Bowls and won the NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award in 1994.College Football News named Sanders #8 in its list of 100 Greatest College Football Players of All-Time.The Sporting News named Sanders #37 in their Top 100 Football Players of the Century released in 1999.ESPN named Sanders #74 in its list of the 100 Great Athletes of the Century released in 1999.NFL.com named Sanders #34 on NFL's Top 100 list released in late 2010On November 11, 2010, Sanders was inducted into the Atlanta Falcons' Ring of Honor.On February 5, 2011, Sanders was announced as a Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee in his first year of eligibility.On May 17, 2011, Sanders was announced as a College Football Hall of Fame inductee.On August 6, 2011, Sanders was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Sanders also had a rushing TD in the playoffs (against the Philadelphia Eagles in January 1996). This makes him (including post season) one of only two players in NFL history (Bill Dudley being the other) to score a touchdown six different ways (interception return, punt return, kickoff return, receiving, rushing, and a fumble recovery).
On February 6, 2011, at Super Bowl XLV in Arlington, Texas, Sanders performed the pre-game coin toss.
Sanders did not attend classes or take final exams during the fall semester of his senior year at Florida State, yet played in the Sugar Bowl against Auburn. This caused the Florida State Legislature to create the 'Deion Sanders rule', whereby a football athlete at any state university could not play in a bowl game if he failed to successfully complete the previous semester.
In 1995, he signed with the Dallas Cowboys for a minimum yearly base salary and a nearly $13 million signing bonus in an attempt to circumvent the NFL's salary cap. This caused the NFL to institute its own 'Deion Sanders rule' whereby a prorated portion of a player's signing bonus counted against the salary cap.
Sanders became known for sporting a "do-rag" or bandana and for his high-stepping into the end zone followed by his touchdown dance celebrations. At the end of his Hall of Fame speech, he put a bandana on his bust.
His "prime time" nickname was given to him by a friend and high-school teammate, Florida Gators Defensive back Richard Fain. The two played pickup basketball games together during the prime time television hour, and Sanders' athletic display during those games earned him the nickname. His other nickname is "Neon Deion".
Following his first Super Bowl victory with the San Francisco 49ers, Sanders hosted Saturday Night Live, broadcast on February 18, 1995.
In January 1995, Sanders became the official spokesman of the Sega Sports line of video games. Sanders has also appeared in television commercials for such companies as Nike, Pepsi, Burger King, Pizza Hut, and American Express. These included a Road Runner Pepsi ad, with Sanders as Wile E. Coyote, and a Pizza Hut commercial in which he appeared with Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. He also makes a cameo as himself in the film Celtic Pride.
Sanders, known for his custom-made showy suits and flashy jewelry, frequently capitalized on his image. On December 26, 1994, Sanders released Prime Time, a rap album on Bust It Records (MC Hammer's label, of whom Sanders is a friend) that featured the singles "Must Be the Money" and "Prime Time Keeps on Tickin'". The album was universally panned by critics, and despite Sanders' fame, neither the album nor its singles charted in the Top 40.
Sanders also appeared in Hammer's "Too Legit to Quit" music video, and his alter-ego "Prime Time" showed up in Hammer's "Pumps and a Bump" video. Hammer, a big sports fan, had launched a new enterprise during his career called Roll Wit It Entertainment & Sports Management and boasted such clients as Evander Holyfield, Deion Sanders and Reggie Brooks. In 1995, Hammer released "Straight to My Feet" (with Deion Sanders) from the Street Fighter soundtrack (released in December 1994). The song charted #57 in the UK.
After retiring from the NFL, Sanders worked as a pre-game commentator for CBS' The NFL Today until 2004, when contract negotiations failed. Sanders turned down a 30% salary increase demanding to be paid $2.5 million, the highest of any NFL TV analyst. He was replaced by Shannon Sharpe. During Sanders' run, he participated in several sketches. The first was "Primetime and 21st", a mock street corner where Sanders (not yet a regular panelist) would give his opinions. Another was his "Sanders Claus" persona, one of numerous sketches that involved young kids in football jerseys, representing NFL players, receiving a sarcastic gift from Sanders. Deion actually debuted as "Sanders Claus" in a set of Nike commercials. Sanders still takes presents at Christmas time to local children's hospitals in his area dressed as "Sanders Claus".
Sanders frequently made guest appearances on ESPN, especially on the ESPN Radio Dallas affiliate, and briefly hosted a show called The New American Sportsman. He also hosted the 2002 Miss USA pageant.
Sanders also was co-host of the 2004 GMA Music Awards broadcast, taped in late April 2004, and slated for air on UPN in May 2004. When negotiations with fellow Viacom property CBS failed (see above) two weeks before the broadcast, and he signed a deal with ESPN, UPN promptly canceled the broadcast, and the show aired on the i Network in December 2004 (both UPN and CBS are now owned by CBS Corporation).
Sanders works at NFL Network as an analyst on a number of the network's shows. Prior to the Sunday night game, Sanders, alongside host Rich Eisen and Steve Mariucci, breaks down all the action from the afternoon games on NFL GameDay. At the conclusion of all the action on Sunday, Sanders, Mariucci, Michael Irvin and host Fran Charles recap the day's action with highlights, analysis and postgame interviews. For the 2010 season, Sanders joined Eisen, Mariucci and Marshall Faulk on the road for Thursday Night Kickoff presented by Lexus, NFL Network's two-hour pregame show leading into Thursday Night Football. The group broadcasts live from the stadium two hours prior to all eight live Thursday Night Football games and returns for the Sprint halftime show and Kay Jewelers postgame show. Sanders also has a segment called "Let's Go Primetime" on NFL Network.
In 2008, Sanders and his wife starred in the reality show Deion & Pilar: Prime Time Love, centering on them and their five children living in the small town of Prosper, Texas.
Sanders appeared as himself in the fourth season of The League, playing a prospective buyer of Andre's apartment.
In 2014, Sanders was featured in an episode of Running Wild with Bear Grylls, where he and Grylls hiked in the desert of southern Utah for two days, rappelling down canyon walls and later climbing up a mesa.
Sanders served as an alumni captain for Team Sanders in the 2014 Pro Bowl.
In 2014, he rejoined CBS Sports as a studio analyst for Thursday games only. He still works for the NFL Network on Sundays.
Sanders and his girlfriend Tracey Edmonds were featured together on an episode of Tiny House Nation that first aired on January 21, 2017.
In addition to his sports career, Sanders also had a career in music as a rapper. He released his debut album, Prime Time, through Hammer's Bust It Records label via Capitol Records, in 1994.
Sanders moved on to other ventures after his retirement. In 2003, Sanders took interest in Devin Hester, a return specialist from Miami. Sanders mentored Hester, counseling and advising him during various points of his collegiate career. The Chicago Bears drafted Hester in the second round of the 2006 NFL Draft. Since then, Hester has broken the record for the most total returns for touchdowns in NFL history with 15 punt returns and 5 kick off returns. Hester has cited Sanders as one of his major inspirations and idols, and thanked him for his training and advice. Hester, also known as "Anytime", occasionally performs Sanders' signature touchdown dance and high-steps in homage to his mentor.
Sanders also tried to adopt a high school running back, Noel Devine, who was one of the top recruits in 2007. Sanders was advised against this, but responded, "He doesn't have parents; they died. God put this young man in my heart. This is not about sports. This is about a kid's life." He now mentors Devine, and was a factor in Devine's extended wait to sign a letter-of-intent to West Virginia University. Devine eventually signed to play football for the Mountaineers. Sanders has also been a mentor to Oakland Raiders wide receiver Michael Crabtree, as well as Dallas Cowboys wide receiver, Dez Bryant.
In January 2004, Sanders was hired as an assistant coach to the Dallas Fury, a women's professional basketball team in the National Women's Basketball League, even though Sanders had never played organized basketball either in college or the professional level.
On September 2, 2005, in response to the after-effects of Hurricane Katrina, Sanders challenged all professional athletes in the four major sports to donate $1,000 each to relief efforts, hoping to raise between $1.5 and $3 million total. Sanders said "Through unity, we can touch thousands....I have friends and relatives that feel this pain. Help in any way you can." In April 2006, Sanders became an owner of the Austin Wranglers, an Arena Football League team.
Sanders has occasionally served as a celebrity spokesperson, such as representing Monitronics, a security system firm, at an industry conference in the spring of 2010.
In 2012, he co-founded Prime Prep Academy, a grouping of charter schools in Texas. The school was plagued by ethical, legal and financial issues, and closed on January 30, 2015, due to financial insolvency.
Sanders has been married twice — to Carolyn Chambers (1989–1998), with whom he has two children (Deion Jr. and Deiondra), and Pilar Biggers-Sanders (1999–2013) with whom he has three children (Shilo, Shelomi and Shedeur).
Sanders, along with J.M. Black, published his autobiography, Power, Money & Sex: How Success Almost Ruined My Life. World Publishing 1998. The book was inspired after he began counseling with Bishop T.D. Jakes. He notes his agent Eugene E. Parker as another person who influenced his life.
He appeared with his family on the NBC show Celebrity Family Feud which premiered on June 24, 2008.
On September 22, 2011, he served Pilar Biggers-Sanders with divorce papers. He then backed away from the story and denied he and Pilar would be divorcing. By December 17, 2011, he had followed through with filing for divorce. On March 12, 2013, he was awarded primary custody of his two sons, Shilo and Shedeur, and Pilar was awarded primary custody of their daughter Shelomi. However, one week later, a judge awarded custody of Shelomi to him as well. During the divorce battle, Pilar made several accusations of abuse against him on social media and in interviews, leading him to file a Defamation of Character lawsuit against her. In 2015, he was vindicated when the court awarded him a $2.2 million judgment against his ex-wife in the case.
He has been in a relationship with Tracey Edmonds since 2012.