Sanders seeks ring of truth to add to Prime Time hype

January 26, 1995|By JOHN EISENBERG

MIAMI -- Even more certain than a victory by the San Francisco 49ers in Sunday's Super Bowl is the likelihood that Deion Sanders will astound in some way.

It is almost a given. Sanders responds to big moments like no other athlete of our time. He returned a punt for a touchdown in the first quarter of his first NFL game. He hit a home run in his first game as an everyday starter in the big leagues. He hit .533 in his first World Series. He ran an interception back for a touchdown in his first game with the 49ers.

In his first Super Bowl, he is bound to run back a kick or a pick, or catch a touchdown pass, or fly to the moon. A peaking, cocksure athlete who once compared himself to "a Hollywood entertainer," he is not going to waste his moment on the biggest sporting stage. You can make book on it. To borrow his phrase, this is his house.

But are you ready for a surprise? For once, he doesn't care what he does, or if he does anything at all other than stand there and look pretty. For once, the secretary of self-promotion will gladly dance into the background and let his teammates hog the glory -- as long as the 49ers win.

"I just want that championship ring, that's what I'm all about here," Sanders said yesterday in an interview session. "I don't care if the Chargers don't throw one ball at me and I don't make one play. I've had enough exposure and hype for 10 people. I've won enough individual awards and gotten enough attention. I just want that ring."

That is the sound of Prime Time himself realizing that, for all of his success, he had become an example of style outweighing substance; that there is more to life than limos and commercials and $2,000 suits; that if sports is your life's work and you have any self-respect at all, there is no substitute for winning.

Sanders, 27, has succeeded in becoming one of the planet's most remarkable and well-known athletes, but he hasn't won a championship since he was a Pop Warner football player in Fort Myers, Fla., almost two decades ago. His Florida State Seminoles didn't finish No. 1 until he had left. His Atlanta Braves won three straight National League West division titles, but always lost in the postseason. His Atlanta Falcons never amounted to much.

There was always a loss in the end, always a bad ending. It was getting old.

"People view you differently when you're a winner, more seriously, more respectfully," he said.

He wants a piece of that. The winner's aura. The one thing his image can't buy.

Thus, when he was selling himself as a free agent to NFL teams last summer, he turned down more money from lesser teams to play one year with the 49ers.

"People went around trying to figure out if something funny was up, why I would take less," he said. "Hey, it ain't hard to figure. I wanted to win a Super Bowl. This was the place to do it."

He will get his ring Sunday barring the biggest upset in Super Bowl history.

It will complete one of the best single-season performances by any player in recent memory. He was the league's Defensive Player of the Year, and largely responsible for energizing the formerly staid 49ers.

Not bad for a guy who prefers not to get his uniform dirty. ("They don't pay me to tackle," he said. "My job is to break up passes, intercept balls and dance.")

Still, don't look for his championship season to be the first of many. His new emphasis on winning is not necessarily a permanent priority.

"I made a lot of [financial] sacrifices this year; next year, I'm not going to make a lot of sacrifices," he said. "I'm playing for a million dollars right now. I'm not going to play for a million dollars next year."

In other words, once he can sleep at night knowing he was a champion, he can go back to selling himself, which, he admits, has been his priority all along.

"When I was a senior in college I looked at how much quarterbacks and receivers made and how much cornerbacks made, and it was a lot less," he said, "so I had to come up with something to get to the point where I could build my mother her dream house and make sure she didn't have to work another day in her life. We came up with Prime Time."

Prime Time. His extravagant alter ego. To some, it is the most vivid example of the greed and individualism that are blotches on the face of sports today. To Sanders, who is married, enjoys fishing and dotes on his 4-year-old daughter, it is just a contrived and profitable piece of fun. "A big show," his mother, Connie Knight, told the Miami Herald this week.

For the record, Sanders explains it all thusly: "Where I grew up in Fort Myers, drug dealers were the superstars. They wore a lot of jewelry, had nice cars and nice clothes. That's who the kids looked up to because there were no superstar football players.

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