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Wednesday, August 30, 2000
Where Sanders goes, teams win

By Ron Flatter
Special to ESPN.com

"I never wanted to be mediocre at anything. I wanted to be the absolute best," says Deion Sanders on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

Deion Sanders is the only player to have appeared in a Super Bowl and World Series.

For his first five seasons in the NFL, Deion Sanders played for the Atlanta Falcons, who dressed in black and white.
Deion Sanders
Starting with the Falcons, Sanders has been selected for the Pro Bowl eight times.
Those colors fit him well. With Sanders, there are no shades of gray.

Strutting into the end zone on a long return, he inspired just as many cheers on Sunday as he did critics on Monday. "Some people will come out to see me do well," he said. "Some people will come out to see me get run over. But love me or hate me, they're going to come out."

Sanders is the only man to have played in a Super Bowl and a World Series. While nowhere near as proficient in baseball as he was in football, Sanders was an outstanding base stealer who was a mediocre hitter. Back to the NFL: In 1996 with the Dallas Cowboys he became the first regular starter on offense and defense in 34 years.

But make no mistake, with eight Pro Bowl selections as a cornerback, defense is where Sanders earns his big bucks. After intercepting 30 passes in his first six seasons, quarterbacks stopped throwing his way.

Sanders, who earned back-to-back Super Bowl rings with the San Francisco 49ers and Cowboys, is a big-play guy. He holds the NFL record for career returns for touchdowns with 19 (nine on interceptions, six on punts, three on kickoffs and one on a fumble). He also has three touchdown receptions.

Off the field, his value comes in being "Prime Time." A prominent pitchman for Nike and Visa, he cashes in on a flamboyant, jewelry-laden persona that is not limited to the playing field. As a Florida State senior, Sanders arrived for the climactic home game against Florida in a white limousine. He emerged wearing a tuxedo.

"How do you think defensive backs get attention?" Sanders said. "They don't pay nobody to be humble."

He was born Aug. 9, 1967, in Fort Myers, Fla. By the time he was eight, he was playing organized baseball and football.

At North Fort Myers High School, Sanders played cornerback and quarterback. He was all-state in football, baseball and basketball. After scoring 30 points in a basketball game, a friend nicknamed him "Prime Time."

At Florida State in 1987, Sanders, a sophomore outfielder, helped the Seminoles reach the College World Series. But he became nationally known as a two-time football All-American, winning the 1988 Jim Thorpe Trophy as the nation's top defensive back.

When the Falcons made him the fifth overall selection in the 1989 NFL draft, Sanders showed up wearing thousands of dollars worth of gold jewelry and an attention-getting black leather ensemble complete with an embroidered "Prime Time."

He spent the summer of '89 in the outfield of the New York Yankees' Triple-A Columbus team. After joining the Yankees, he homered against Seattle on September 5. Three days after signing a $4.4-million, four-year contract with the Falcons, Sanders ran back the first punt he received for a touchdown against the Los Angeles Rams on September 10. That makes him the only pro athlete to hit a homer and score a touchdown in one week.

Where Sanders was flashy playing football, he was low key in baseball. "You can't jump around and get excited and go crazy in baseball," he said. "Nobody ever masters that game."

Two seasons with the Yankees proved that. After batting only .177 in 71 games, he was released near the end of the 1990 season.
Deion Sanders
Sanders, who played for the Yankees, Braves, Reds and Giants, hit .263 and stole 186 bases in 641 games over nine seasons.
By then, he had become a full-time Falcon, and started all 16 games that year.

In 1991, Sanders batted .191 in 54 games as a centerfielder for the Atlanta Braves. Where baseball was a struggle, Sanders seemed to have football mastered. He earned his first Pro Bowl invitation in 1991, intercepting six passes to help the Falcons reach the playoffs as a wild card.

But the sport he once called his "girlfriend" sought more of a commitment. "The only way I have a chance to be successful in baseball is to give it a shot for a full season," he said just before 1992.

That year, Sanders seemed torn. He hit a career-high .304 with a National League-leading 14 triples. He had the Falcons waiting for him until the fourth game of the year. They were paying him $750,000 a season, but they fined him $68,000 for going AWOL to the Braves, who were paying him $600,000.

On October 11, Sanders played for the Falcons at Miami, then took a charter flight to Pittsburgh for the Braves' playoff game that night, hoping to become the first athlete to play in two pro sports the same day. But Braves manager Bobby Cox didn't play him. Broadcaster Tim McCarver criticized Sanders and, three days later after Atlanta won the NLCS, Neon Deion's response was to dump ice water on McCarver.

After going hitless in five at-bats in the Pirates series, Sanders batted .533 (8-for-15) against Toronto in the World Series. Something had to give, and after 1992, Sanders would not make baseball his No. 1 priority again.

Despite being a part-timer, Sanders still led NFC Pro Bowl vote-getters among cornerbacks and kick returners in 1992. He also led the league with a 26.7-yard average on kickoff returns.

Sanders was batting .276 in 1993 when he went on the disabled list with a respiratory infection, ending his season in August. He arrived late with the Falcons, but that did not prevent him from leading the NFC with seven interceptions in 11 games.

In 1994, Sanders was traded to Cincinnati. He was hitting .283 with 38 steals when the players' strike ended the season in August.

If nothing else, the strike hastened Sanders' free-agent auction in the NFL. He signed a one-year deal with San Francisco, where he tied the 49ers' single-season record with three interception returns for touchdowns and became the NFL Defensive Player of the Year. His four tackles and interception helped the 49ers beat San Diego 49-26 in Super Bowl XXIX.

In 1995, Sanders was traded to the San Francisco Giants and hit .268 for the season. A free agent in football again, he inked a seven-year deal worth $35-million (with a $13-million signing bonus) with the Cowboys on Sept. 9, 1995.

A month after arthroscopic ankle surgery, Sanders made his Dallas debut on October 29. He wasn't used much as a return man and teams seldom threw the ball anywhere near him. But his presence at cornerback helped Dallas win the Super Bowl that season.

After sitting out the 1996 baseball season, a rested Sanders started all 16 games at cornerback and eight at wide receiver to become the first two-way NFL player since Chuck Bednarik in 1962. He caught 36 passes for 475 yards and a touchdown on offense and simply minded his half of the field while teams avoided him on defense.

Saying he "got bored," Sanders returned to the Reds for 1997 - and stole 56 bases, second most in the National League. After retiring from the game again, he came back with Cincinnati in 2001, but batted just .173 before he was released. For his career, he hit .263 with 186 steals, 39 homers and 168 RBI.

During 1997, Sanders was going through a messy divorce and he says he drove his car off a cliff in what he described as a suicide attempt. He says he was going 65-70 mph and the drop was 30 or 40 feet. "The car went down and hit and there wasn't a scratch on me or on the car," he wrote in his autobiography.

In 1998, Sanders returned an interception and two punts for touchdowns for Dallas. He also ran back another punt for a TD in 1999, when an injury limited his playing time.

Released by the Cowboys for salary-cap reasons on June 2, 2000, Sanders three days later signed a $56-million, seven-year contract with Washington. But he played only one season with the Redskins - getting four interceptions to increase his career total to 48 - and then retired before the 2001 campaign.

Sanders spent the 2002 and 2003 seasons on CBS' NFL pre-game show. When the network wanted to cut his salary for 2004, Sanders, who had been out of football for three years, came out of retirement and joined the Baltimore Ravens. Although injuries limited him to five games, he made three interceptions.