The NFL that Deon Grant has chosen to be a part of next season has become a bullish league of rich men, one where during the 1999 season, the average salary topped the $1 million mark for the first time.
Grant has become the game's top prospect at defensive back, a position for which pay scales swelled exponentially the last half of the 1990s. Ever since the creation of Deion Sanders, NFL teams have signed safeties and cover men to contracts in the multimillions.
Consider that New England's Ty Law earned $11.6 million in 1999, and safety Carnell Lake topped his position at $5.25 million. Of the five highest-paid Atlanta Falcons, cornerback Ray Buchanan is among them. And of the five defensive backs drafted in April, Champ Bailey (fifth) and Chris McAlister (10th) signed bonuses in the millions.
All this was public knowledge to Grant, a child football prodigy who worked as a busboy at Augusta National and dreamed of joining the world's jet set.
Now, Grant is a blue-chip Internet stock ready to go public and join the National Forbes League.
"I thought about my mom," Grant said Tuesday of Joyce Wright, a single mother raising Grant's two younger sisters.
"I thought about how I can help her financially, buy her a big home, you know."
Increases with television contracts, four new franchises since 1995 and a collective bargaining agreement designed to aid the superstars have helped the players get richer, especially to-be rookies like Grant.
So the moral to all of this is simple: Mommas, you want your babies to grow up to be 6-foot-3 speedsters able to match the likes of Isaac Bruce stride for stride.
In three seasons of schooling at Tennessee, Grant has won an SEC title and a national championship and has become the nation's best at his position. His amateurism reached its apex.
There's a lot of rah-rah about college athletics. But let's face it, athletes are no different from regular students in that they all want the highest-paying job possible once they're ready to leave campus.
When William Avery left Duke two years early, he did so knowing he wasn't ready for the NBA rigors. He needed another year of college seasoning, and his playing time and blunted progress affirm his critics.
As for Grant, as with Bailey a season ago, the timing seems ideal. Safety is an easier position to learn than quarterback or offensive lineman. Grant's body has matured to an NFL size. And there is reasonable risk to staying longer than necessary.
"This is the right time for me," Grant said. "I feel I'm ready."
Knowing what he does about the NFL, its pay scales, the heavy receiver draft forthcoming and how he'd be the top prospect to cover people, Grant determined his future plans with ease.
The Josey Eagle and reigning SEC defensive player of the year sat down with coach Phil Fulmer for a heart to heart days before the Fiesta Bowl to discuss the safety's future, essentially a way to make sure Fulmer understood.
"Coach said he'd be behind any decision I made, but that he'd like for me to consider staying," Grant said.
But the safety knew that draft expert Mel Kiper considers him among the top 10 future stars. And when Tennessee assistants called NFL personnel directors on Grant's behalf in December, most repeated the praise.
"Top 12," said Grant, one of five Volunteers to leave Tennessee early this year. "That's what they all told me I'd go. No one else said anything worse."
And so a decision to forgo his final season of college eligibility was made with no hair pulled. All he's got to worry about now is what color paint he'd like the house to be. Reach Rick Dorsey at (706) 823-3219.
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