NFC South: Frank Kleha

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- You think of Deion Sanders and your first image of him might be as a member of the Cowboys, 49ers, Redskins or Ravens.

But as Sanders gets ready to enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday, let us not forget that his NFL career actually began as a member of the Atlanta Falcons. Drafted fifth overall in 1989, Sanders played for the Falcons through 1993. He hasn’t forgotten his time in Atlanta and neither have the Falcons.

[+] EnlargeDeion Sanders
Allen Steele/Allsport Deion Sanders will become the first player drafted by the Falcons to enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“When I was dreaming as kid, I couldn’t often times share those dreams because I thought they were so out of the box. Never would people think that a kid from Ft. Myers, Fla., who was small in stature, but big on confidence, would ever have his name recognized in a stadium in the only place he played in which he called home,’’ Sanders said last year when he was inducted into the Falcons' Ring of Honor. “I want to thank the Atlanta Falcons, ironically 21 years later [from the year he was drafted and also the jersey number he wore in Atlanta], for making my dreams come true.’’

This isn’t like the Baseball Hall of Fame, where a player has to declare what team’s hat he wants on his plaque. Members of the football Hall of Fame represent all the teams they play for.

This will be a big moment for the Falcons because Sanders is the first player they’ve drafted to make the Hall of Fame. Although Rankin Smith owned the team when Sanders played for the Falcons, new owner Arthur Blank has developed a strong bond with the player who was nicknamed “Prime Time.’’

Blank already is in Canton and he and Sanders have agreed to carve out some private time to sit and talk Saturday morning. Although the Falcons are in the middle of training camp, the team will send a large contingent to Ohio.

Blank’s son, Josh, also will be on the trip. Other members of the organization who will be in attendance include player programs director Kevin Winston, vice president of communications Reggie Roberts and senior director of media relations Frank Kleha.

Winston has worked closely with Sanders, who maintains a youth foundation in Atlanta. That’s not his only lasting bond with the city. Sanders also hosted a “Thank You Atlanta’’ party at 200 Peachtree on July 16, with proceeds going to his foundation.

Sanders’ only rule for the party was that all attendees had to wear red and black.
I just sent in my final ballot for the Pro Football Writers of America annual awards and it’s fair to say there were a number of NFC South votes on there.

The ballot had been narrowed down to five finalists for each award. I had made an NFC South nomination in each of the five categories and I do have to admit I’m a little disappointed that former Tampa Tribune sports editor Tom McEwen was not a finalist for the McCann Award and former Carolina fullback Brad Hoover didn’t make the final cut for the Good Guy Award. I had nominated both and felt very strongly about those nominations.

Anyway, we’ll move on to the people who are finalists for each of the awards. Tampa Bay running back Cadillac Williams, who has overcome two major knee injuries, is a finalist for the Halas Award, which is given to the person who overcomes the most adversity.

Atlanta’s top-notch public relations staff of Reggie Roberts, Frank Kleha, Matt Conti and Brian Cearns is a finalist for the Rozelle Award, for the league’s most helpful PR staff, for the second straight year.

Longtime New Orleans Times-Picayune columnist Peter Finney is a finalist for the McCann Award, which goes to a writer for long-term contributions to the business. That helped me absorb the McEwen blow. Finney is to New Orleans what McEwen is to Tampa Bay -- a sports face of the area. McEwen gave me my first job in the business, so I’m admittedly partial. But I’ve gotten to know Finney through the years and he’s a fine gentleman and a very worthy candidate.

New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees is a finalist for the Good Guy Award, which goes to the player who does the most to help the media do its job. No argument against Brees. One other thing on Brees I should share with you: A lot of times, the media might paint a guy to be better than he is just because he can throw a football -- or run fast or whatever. But Brees is one of those guys who is every bit as good of a person as you'd imagine.

There is no NFC South tie to the five finalists for the Horrigan Award, which goes to a person who is not a player or public relations worker, who does the most to help the media do its job. I made a nomination for a certain NFC South executive. He didn’t make the cut, so I won’t name him. He’d be embarrassed (and turn red) anyway because he doesn’t like attention.