In North Dallas High School’s gymnasium, two coaches, a UTD professor, a homeless college student, a film crew and the school band waited for the arrival of an old man named Willy, whose picture was plastered across a huge piece of banner paper. The band shouted his name in rhythm as the coaches looked on in confusion, and after a few moments, a tall man in a leopard print hat walked through the paper, smiling. It was MLB and NFL legend Deion Sanders.
In a June episode of “Celebrity Undercover Boss,” Sanders, disguised as an old man named “Willy,” visited football coach and UTD alum Desiree Allen of North Dallas High School. Later in the episode, Sanders separately visited Jonathan Palant, a vocal music professor at UTD and conductor of the Dallas Street Choir. The show follows a different celebrity every week as they go undercover to find undiscovered talent. Sanders, who was brought to tears by his visits to North Dallas High School and the choir, ultimately bestowed large donations to Allen, her football team, the choir and one of its homeless members.
Allen, one of the first and only female high school football coaches in Texas, was approached by “Willy” under the guise that he wanted to start coaching his own team. Allen trained him in the basics of coaching, as Sanders attempted to conceal his prior knowledge of the sport. In a candid conversation after practice, Allen told Sanders that she had regularly used her own resources to properly outfit the inner-city high school team, several of whose players are homeless. Later in the episode, Allen said she sees it as her job to create an outlet and safe place for her players.
After revealing his true identity, Sanders praised Allen’s commitment to her players and coaching ability. Sanders then donated $10,000 to Allen to reimburse her for equipment costs, and an additional $10,000 to fund the team. He also invited her to help coach the national football camp he runs for the 21 best high school football athletes in the nation.
Allen played sports at UTD, and after graduating with a degree in mathematics in 1999, she went on to coach the women’s basketball team. Since then, she has worked four years at North Dallas High School as both a math teacher and the football team’s assistant coach. Allen also plays in the Women’s Football Alliance, a national women’s full contact football league. Her team, Dallas Elite, has made it to the national championship game every year since its founding in 2015.
UTD professor Jonathan Palant has been teaching vocal music at the university since 2016, a year after founding the Dallas Street Choir. Palant started the choir after working with the homeless community to create a performance designed around the Street Requiem, a funeral dirge to honor those who died on the streets. Since then, the choir has performed at venues ranging from Dallas homeless shelters to Carnegie Hall and the Washington National Cathedral.
As Sanders helped set up a room for one of the choir’s rehearsals, he spoke to and became invested in the stage crew coordinator, Michael, a young man who at the time of filming was homeless while attending college. Sanders fought back tears as Michael described his time in the foster care system and the struggles of living on the street.
“Our segment was originally intended to be about the Dallas Street Choir, but after they met Michael, they started to film him more and more and follow(ed) him,” Palant said. “I’m thrilled that they latched on to Michael’s story because he is an exceptional person.”
Sanders’ gift allowed Michael to finish his undergraduate degree and to subsidize an apartment and food for one year. Palant said Michael is now in the process of applying to graduate school and is looking for a job while still serving as the stage crew coordinator for the Dallas Street Choir. Sanders, who briefly helped conduct the choir during the episode, also donated a significant, undisclosed amount to the choir to fund the purchase of music, incentives, post-rehearsal meals and day-to-day operations.
“It’s been transformative both for me personally and for others. Having a place to express themselves physically, having an opportunity to teach the broader community about homelessness and just show that those who are experiencing homelessness have a whole lot more to say than are often given credit for — that they’ve got heart and passion and goals,” Palant said.