Sanders, Rice span superstar spectrum SUPER BOWL XXIX

January 29, 1995|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,Sun Staff Writer

MIAMI -- San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Jerry Rice remembers the time he lined up to start a game against the Atlanta Falcons, focusing on his duel with cornerback Deion Sanders.

It doesn't get much better in pro football than Rice vs. Sanders: the best wide receiver against the best cover corner in the game.

Rice, who is so intense that he often doesn't sleep much the night before games, was concentrating on the play.

That's why he was startled when Sanders reached out to shake his hand.

"Right before the play, he's trying to shake my hand and I'm like, 'No, not right now. Wait till we get started.' He's funny," Rice said.

"He said Jerry Rice didn't want to shake his hand. It wasn't like that," Rice said. "What would it look like right before the snap of the ball and we're shaking hands?"

The thought didn't bother Sanders.

"I try to shake all my opponents' hands," he said. "I wish the best of luck for the guys across from me. I want you to have a great game and I want to have a great game, so I always pretty much shake the guy's hand, or, after the first play, tell him to have a great game. I want to see everybody enjoy the game."

Sanders and Rice aren't dueling these days. Since Sanders signed a one-year deal with the 49ers this season, they're on the same team.

They are two of the main reasons the 49ers are 18-point favorites to win their fifth Super Bowl title today against the San Diego Chargers at Joe Robbie Stadium.

Rice is Steve Young's favorite target, and Sanders has "taken a good secondary and made it what other people call the best secondary," said 49ers free safety Merton Hanks.

The two men clearly respect each other's talents. Rice even gave up $170,000 in bonus money to help the 49ers squeeze Sanders' $1.134 million salary under the cap.

The last time they played against each other, in December 1993, Sanders had two interceptions and Rice caught six passes for 105 yards.

The 49ers took a 24-7 lead before the Falcons rallied to win, 27-24.

Call it a draw. Neither man would declare victory.

"I think Deion won most of those battles," Rice said. "The last time we played, he had two or three interceptions. It left a bad taste in my mouth."

Said Sanders: "Jerry's a great player. He had a hundred-and-some yards, a great game. This is not about me and Jerry. I think we're playing the Chargers, aren't we?"

The Chargers are the opponents, but these two men are really playing against the standards they have set.

"What links these two guys is their drive to be the best," Hanks said. "That's what stands out more so than anything else."

That's about the only thing that links them. It's hard to imagine two more different individuals.

"Jerry is a tightly wound, focused individual," 49ers defensive back Toi Cook said. "Deion's a little bit more loose. The end results are the same."

Said 49ers defensive lineman Charles Mann: "Deion's not the kind of person you see on camera on the football field. Rice is basically what you see on the football field. Sanders is 'Prime Time' when he's on the field. Off the field, he's Deion."

Sanders acknowledges that he set out to cultivate his "Prime Time" image with the dancing, the jewelry and the showboating on the field.

"I manipulated the press," Sanders said. "I created something larger than a football player."

Said Cook: "Deion has a star mentality. He recognizes the power of the media and the power of marketing. I think that's brilliant."

Sanders was successful in turning himself into a celebrity, but he may have overdone it a bit.

"Being a blue-collar throwback, I hated the guy before he got here," said first-year 49ers linebacker Gary Plummer. "But I told him one day my 8-year-old was a huge Deion Sanders fan. The next day in my locker, I found a Deion Sanders baseball glove. Never in a million years did I think I would say this, but Deion Sanders has become my friend."

Most of the 49ers say Sanders is a hard-working, dedicated player when the camera's not on him.

He seems to have gotten all the personal glory he needs.

"I don't care about awards personally," said Sanders, who today will become the only man to play in a World Series and a Super Bowl. "I think about team-wide goals now. That's why I came here."

On his image, he said: "When I'm between the white lines, I may come off cocky, I may come off arrogant. Between the white lines, I'm convinced that I'm a bad boy. You can take me any way you want. Outside the white lines, I like to have a good time and have fun. I don't do anything mean to people."

Living up to the image has become a burden.

"I'm 27 years old and I feel like I'm at least 34," he said. "Maybe because the two sports are really tearing my body down."

Sanders is quiet off the field. He doesn't even drink and was upset when fans in San Diego threw alcohol on him this season.

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