ATLANTA — One game stood between Jackson State and a supreme storybook ending. The writing—filled with four-months worth of lessons in the peaks and valleys of adversity in a dozen wins—had been plastered on the wall for the Tigers to reach perfection.
However, not all movies culminate with a picture-perfect, fairytale ending. Chasing “dominance” and perfection is not easy. Tom Brady and the 2007 Patriots couldn’t quite finish the job. A Jackson State-dominant crowd of fans inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium for Saturday’s Celebration Bowl, rocking their pom poms to the music of The Sonic Boom of the South, hoped Deion Sanders’s final Tigers team could have a different outcome. But it turned out they couldn’t, as Jackson State fell to North Carolina Central, 41–34, to send out Sanders on a disappointing note.
All the season, much like the ‘21 campaign, the lights had shined bright on the SWAC’s champion entering Saturday’s game despite the MEAC holding a 5–1 advantage in the annual postseason battle. But in overtime with the blazing lights on the nationally televised stage, it was the Tigers that needed one more incredible play to add another overtime to a thrilling contest. JSU quarterback Shedeur Sanders, who finished 30-for-40 for 349 yards and five touchdowns (one rushing), delivered a 19-yard strike to freshman sensation Travis Hunter in the left corner of the end zone, leading to JSU fans erupting with excitement at the end of regulation.
But Eagles quarterback Davius Richard—who played with a broken finger on his way to a 15-for-20 passing performance, 175 yards and one touchdown while rushing for 103 yards on 22 carries—capped off a four-play, 25-yard drive in the Eagles’ overtime possession with one of his two rushing touchdowns. One would think going 25 yards for a touchdown after going 81 yards in 15 plays to end regulation wouldn’t be too much to ask of JSU. It was.
Sanders dropped back, scrambled to his right to find a wide open Hayden Hagler, who dropped what would have been the game-tying score. On the ensuing play, when Shedeur’s pass went over the head of Kevin Coleman Jr. and fell to the ground, the clock struck midnight on the Tigers’ undefeated campaign.
The perfect season was now blemished. As NC Central players stormed the confetti-draped field inside the dome after the win, it marked the end of a Tigers era, the Deion “Coach Prime” tenure at Jackson State, and an ending that had been brewing for roughly two months, sources close to the program told Sports Illustrated.
None of the accolades—the caliber of players and the eye-popping stats and awards won by JSU entering the game—mattered in the moment. Rewind nearly one year to the date when then-MEAC champion South Carolina State defeated JSU, 31–10, in the same venue and a city that Sanders holds closely. The lopsided affair in last year’s clash bred the program’s mantra for complete dominance throughout the ‘22 season.
With a historic undefeated regular season and back-to-back SWAC titles all in hand amid Sanders’s highly debated departure from the program to become Colorado’s new football coach, a Celebration Bowl win was the last challenge left for JSU. With back-to-back losses in the bowl game, he felt like he let his players down, even with all he achieved and said he wanted to bring to the program. “I feel like we won but we didn’t win that game,” Sanders said.
When Sanders became the Tigers’ 21st head coach, he not only desired to win. He wanted to recruit “game changers,” create a “navigation system” that led players to the NFL, send back men to parents who gave him boys, increase graduation rates and level the playing field for JSU and HBCUs. That was the plan. And, according to the Pro Football Hall of Famer, he did “everything” he said he would in three seasons —at least within his capacity—alluding to some “dysfunction” and “tension” in his rationale to leave Jackson and dash to Boulder.
“Name one thing in football, that we haven’t accomplished that I said we would,” Sanders said ahead of Saturday’s game. “I’m a change agent. … Until we address these underlying issues that nobody wants to talk about, ain’t nothing gonna change.
“When we leave… you gonna find out what all we did for Jackson State and all we wanted to do. I just pray to God that in all our getting … [they] get some understanding, on change, and where change really starts. It does not start in the football department.”
Sanders’s tenure as JSU’s head coach ending also marked the culmination of the JSU journey for Shedeur, Aubrey Miller, Shilo Sanders as well as others who will graduate, go on to play with Sanders at Colorado or enter the transfer portal. But for Sanders and Miller, it was not the way they planned their JSU experience to end.
Miller, who was recently chosen to play in the Senior Bowl, sat at the table during the news conference, reflecting on his time and in particular playing with Shedeur, Hunter and all his teammates. “All these guys gone go somewhere,” Miller said. “If I could do it again, I’d do it all over again.”
But aside from Shedeur and Miller dominating on the gridiron, they—like other JSU players—played for a Tigers program that brought a sense of relief to Jackson fans and a city battling through a water crisis, infrastructural woes that date back five decades and high crime rates. Despite the nuances, fans supported the team and served as a major part of a symbiotic relationship throughout the last three seasons.
“Everything about the city of Jackson I love,” Shedeur said.
Miller adds: “We did not give them what they wanted but they always show up and show out. … Y’all went through the same things we went through, no water, no electricity. We were still encouraged and all of this will go down in history.”
Even SBOTS senior drum major, Marvin Garcia Meda, who was always seen in the band’s iconic halftime shows, believes this year’s team was special. Meda, the first Hispanic head drum major in the university’s band, could also be found on the sideline of some games showing Shilo drum major routines with his mace that he might imitate in a celebratory moment with the team.
“When he went to get his mace, he told me I had to teach him some more moves,” Meda says. “The bond between the band and the football team is like no other. We wanted to see the team succeed.”
There’s no doubt that Sanders has left his mark on Jackson and the program. But as much as JSU needed him, the Pro Football Hall of Famer needed JSU. “[Coach] Prime needed us and we needed him,” said JSU student and community activist Maisie Brown.
“He came at a time where a state and this country needed to be unified. One thing we here in Mississippi can do is unify over football. You had Mississippi State and Ole Miss folks at our game to see the hype. Jackson State football for decades has been a symbol of black joy. … It has been carrying JSU even before Prime.”
If not for Jackson State, Sanders wouldn’t have had the opportunity to pursue and accept a job at a Power 5 program. He had no prior collegiate coaching experience. But with his name, his ability to hire a top-level staff and his ability to market the program, JSU athletic director Ashley Robinson gave him an opportunity. It worked.
But, even in Sanders’s clarification for taking the job at Colorado, a faction of people will forever feel that his time at JSU was not long enough. However, at the same time, they enjoyed the run that brought JSU out of the football doldrums from 2014 up until Sanders’s arrival.
“We hit the lottery under Coach Prime,” says Ken Clark of Tiger Talk with the 1400Klub podcast. “He did a lot of things for us in a very short period of time that he was able to leverage.”
Now, the Tigers will be tasked with keeping the momentum and buzz that Sanders brought to the program in newly named head coach T.C. Taylor, who is no stranger to JSU’s program. Before coming back to JSU in ‘19 to serve as the tight ends and wide receivers coach under Sanders, he was a former quarterback and standout wide receiver.
But even more, he has prior coaching experience at NC Central from ‘14 to ‘18, where he helped the Eagles o their first appearance in the Celebration Bowl as well as experience with the SWAC’s Texas Southern and a community college in Mississippi.
Sanders believes Taylor can lead the program into its next chapter. Former players like Jordan Jefferson, a wide receiver at JSU from ‘16 to ‘19, believes so, too. “He’s the best coach to continue the momentum at JSU,” Jefferson adds.
Now that the confetti has fallen in favor of the Eagles and the credits in the movie that was Jackson State’s season have come to an end, a new era that does not consist of Sanders begins.
But, in a new beginning in pursuit of dominance under Taylor, Sanders set a blueprint and a standard for the program moving forward. “We needed the boost,” says Hilliard Lackey, a JSU professor of urban and higher education. “He put us in a position of what we could be and what we ought to be. It was the realization of things we dared not even dream about.”