Sanders keeps it simple as he signs with Ravens

3-year retirement ends with low-key beginning

September 01, 2004|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

In a moment that will be remembered for substance rather than style, Deion Sanders officially ended his three-year retirement and joined the Ravens last night.

Wearing a plain black dress shirt, a matching brimmed hat and jeans, an unassuming Sanders walked through the quiet halls of the Ravens' practice complex with cornerback Corey Fuller by his side and signed a one-year deal worth about $1.5 million (incentives could push the value over $2 million).

The scene - which came after most of the media crowd had left - was more personal than "Prime Time," the over-the-top persona that defined the seven-time Pro Bowl cornerback's career.

"This is the only team I would have come back for because of these two guys, Ray [Lewis] and Corey, and no one else," Sanders told a handful of reporters.

"I'm here for a Super Bowl. I'm not here to kick it. I'm here to win. I'm here to help my little brothers fulfill their dreams. That's the only reason to come."

One of sports' most charismatic performers and one of the greatest cornerbacks in NFL history, Sanders is attempting to break the mold again, making an unheard-of comeback in the NFL at the age of 37.

He is expected to practice with the Ravens for the first time this morning, beginning a reserve role as the team's nickel back (fifth defensive back).

Team officials indicated he likely would not travel to tomorrow's preseason finale against the New York Giants so he can prepare for the Sept. 12 season opener in Cleveland.

The Ravens have talked about holding personal daily workouts for Sanders and leaving a coach at the practice complex to get him caught up with the playbook.

"He's here early enough for him to be an impact for us at Cleveland," coach Brian Billick said. "Anytime you add a Hall of Famer to your organization, it's nothing but a positive impact."

Sanders will formally be introduced at a news conference today, although he has already become familiar with his new teammates.

Taking a break from his daylong physical yesterday, he dropped by after practice and went around the locker room shaking hands. He then was greeted with a hug from Ray Lewis, who orchestrated this comeback a month ago.

When he heard that nickel back Dale Carter was lost for the season with a blood clot in his lung, Lewis dialed Sanders and said, "I want to run something by you: I want you to come play with me."

After initially thinking it was a joke - Sanders responded, "Don't play with me" - he became serious about a potential return, testing his skills for weeks at his Dallas-area estate before making a final decision.

But those close to Sanders knew his mind was already made up.

"When a friend needs you, if you're a true friend, you've got to answer the call," Fuller said.

The motivation, though, runs deeper than just playing alongside friends, because Sanders' final season (with the Washington Redskins in 2000) tarnished a decorated career.

Nagged by a series of leg, foot and toe injuries, Sanders reportedly lost enough of his legendary closing speed to make him something he never was during his prime: ordinary.

"I'm not going to say I missed this game," Sanders said. "But I will say there was some business unfinished."

Playing for the Ravens - a team with increased Super Bowl buzz - gives him a chance for a third NFL title and an opportunity to optimize his talent in a more specialized role.

What he is risking is further smudging a distinguished image.

"He's not coming back for the money," Fuller said. "So he needs to go out and perform for his name and his pride."

Sanders' reputation was built on shutting down the game's best receivers, creating big plays and winning. He high-stepped his way to Super Bowl victories with the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys.

It was that emotion which Sanders admittedly lacked in what was thought to be his final season.

"I feel 10 times better after my last season," said Sanders, who spent most of his time away from the game as a television analyst. "I got my dog back - in African-American language, your dog means your passion, your fire."

The difference this time, Sanders and his friends say, is that it's more about pleasure than business.

"This man has everything," Lewis said. "He has money, he has rings, he has fame, he has all of that. But the simple mathematics of it all is he's just coming back to have fun and play football with his friends."

Said Sanders: "The fact that I'm back allows you to know that I never really left. I don't think I'm back; I think I'm home."

Sun staff writer Brent Jones contributed to this article.

Next for Ravens

Preseason matchup: Ravens (2-1) vs. New York Giants (1-2)

Site: Giants Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J.

When: Tomorrow, 7 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 45, Comcast SportsNet/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM)

Line: Giants by 3

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