Posted: 6:40 a.m.
Sanders just wants you to know him like he knows him. Which is why he likes the "Fathead" commercial promoting Johnson's life-size poster.
"It gave people an opportunity to see him as a personality. That this is a good, fun-loving guy who loves the game and has a great time doing what he does," Sanders said. "If you negate those kinds of commercials and (don't) give him time to articulate his thoughts, you really don't get to know him. You think he's arrogant, and selfish and all of that. He's not of the sort. He's just a competitor that entertains with the game of football.
"He's doing things so much more professional now. He's having a good time week in and week out with the celebrations, with the way he just goes about the game. He loves the game of football and I commend that. He's learning to do things the right way. Even going back and forth with players getting ready to oppose him. He challenges them, but he does it respectfully. There's always a respect there."
Sanders invited Johnson to his camp two springs ago in Dallas and the bond has been so tight since that Sanders sees himself as a big brother, counseling him when he's gone too far and encouraging when he's hit just the right note.
"He's a young man I truly love like a brother," Sanders said. "I really care for him in every way. His welfare, his spiritual life, his mental life, as a father, teacher, husband, all of those capacities. His development on the football field has been unbelievable."
It was Sanders who pioneered and then perfected the art of end-zone entertainment and celebration during a Hall of Fame career that looks to be in its final season as a nickel cornerback in which he is more coach than corner, more mentor than nickel at age 38. He simply can't get enough of Johnson's celebrations and is still enjoying last week's proposal to a cheerleader after his 68-yard touchdown catch. There can't be a favorite act.
"Everything because he's so darn creative and I love it. Last week was phenomenal, using the cheerleader as a prop. It was just funny," Sanders said. "The river dance. Seeing Cincinnati, the river, adding that together. That was hilarious."
Sanders, the former CBS studio analyst, has also been pleased that his student is listening to his advice about being media accessible.
"That's the main thing. I want him to allow people to get to know him," Sanders said. "Sometimes we're so closed off as persons because we've been hurt by someone with a pen in their hands, that we don't tend to open ourselves up. But he's doing it a lot more this season, opening himself up and allowing you guys to get to know him."
At 27, Johnson is of the generation that reveres Sanders and has to pinch himself that they have become such good friends. During the week before the last game against Baltimore, Johnson stood in front of his locker while he talked about Sanders and then snapped open his cell phone.
"Let's call Prime right now," he said, but there was no one in and he left a message.
Johnson's running mate, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, remembers being unable to afford a Sanders poster for his room while growing up in the pre-Fathead days. But when he went away to college and was able to scrape together enough money to buy the Cowboys No. 21 jersey of his favorite player, he ended up losing it when he let someone borrow it.
Houshmandzadeh was almost as disappointed in Baltimore three weeks ago when Sanders didn't match up with him in the slot as much as expected. He said since the Ravens feared the run, they responded much of the time to the Bengals three-receiver set with a regular defense instead of using Sanders as a third cornerback.
But Sanders doesn't regret coming back to football in 2004 after taking a few years off. The past is as good as the future. As he reminisced about his days as a Cincinnati Red, he fondly recalled how hard-working the city is and how laid-back the people are, how he enjoyed driving his motorcycle to the games while living downtown, and he didn't even bring up that he once got arrested on that bike after a dustup with a Cincinnati police officer.
Sanders, who still keeps in touch with former Reds teammates Barry Larkin and Chris Sexton, says that even though the goal of winning the Super Bowl is gone, he let Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Corey Fuller talk him into coming back so he could enjoy working with younger players. Ravens head coach Brian Billick insists, "They couldn't have a better role model," and Sanders thinks it's been a success.
"I don't judge it by wins and losses," he said. "I'm not a coach."
But he'd like to be. Make that a head coach in high school or college. It has got Bobby Bowden's former Florida State star day-dreaming of a future he hopes includes building a "Prime Center" for abused children.
"Oh my God. Imagine me recruiting the state of Florida," Sanders said. "Bobby is a legend. I don't think anybody wants to take over for Bobby. I don't think anybody wants to fill those shoes. To be groomed by Buddy, that's the way to do it."
But for now, he's grooming the Chad Generation.