American Football: Sanders has his golden opportunity

Super Bowl spotlight on 49ers. Matt Tench reports from Miami
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The Independent Online
As the last rites of another shambolic Super Bowl media day were played out at a windswept Joe Robbie stadium, a handful of persistent members of the Fourth Estate continued their interrogation of George Seifert, the head coach of the San Francisc o 49ers. Forty yards away, Deion Sanders was holding court in front of at least 10 times as many, his slight frame submerged amid a swarm of microphones, cameras and notebooks.

The contrast could not have been more vivid. Seifert, whose coaching gifts have returned the 49ers to the sport's showpiece after a five-year wait, is a dapper, likeable character, but someone whose idea of controversy might be to wear a cravat that clashed slightly with his shirt.

Sanders, the cornerback Seifert added to his defence early in the season, is rather different. Known from his college days as "neon Deion" or "Prime Time", he has dazzled in the public eye ever since his remarkable athletic talents established him as an outstanding performer at American football and baseball.

The world's media had made the obvious choice. Amused, but clearly not overawed, Sanders responded with a bravura performance, one that in its honesty and intelligence, not to mention entertainment value, carried a distant echo of Muhammad Ali.

The NFL could hardly disguise a sense of relief that the 49ers' opponents in Sunday's Super Bowl, the San Diego Chargers, are being portrayed here as rank outsiders. Faced with the media deluge that has accompanied the opening of the O J Simpson trial, someone had to shine in Super Bowl week. Sanders certainly did that.

By turns witty, revealing and thoughtful, Sanders was always articulate in front of an audience that he feels has often misunderstood him. His preference for displaying more gold than a small branch of Ratners, and his brash playing personality that rejoices in high-stepping runs and choreographed touchdown dances, has led to a host of misconceptions. "A lot of people were not ready for a cocky black man," he reflected.

The jewellery had been there from early days when it was, and still is, a sign of achievement in the black community in Florida where he was raised, he explained. There, it was the drug dealers who wore the most, and by doing the same he was making a statement about his own accomplishments on the sports field. There was, he realised, a price. "In white society I was looked upon badly, frowned upon. Which I understand. I won in a sense, but I lost in a bigger sense."

Asked what he considered the biggest misconception, Sanders said: "That I'm selfish, that I don't care about anyone but myself. I mean, 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 that any way you want. Outside the lines I like to have a good time and have fun. I don't do anything mean to people.

"If people are genuine with me I'm going to be genuine with you. I love what I do and I respect what you guys do. It took me a long time to give you guys that respect because so many negative things have been said about me."

About his image, a unique blend of razzle-dazzle that accompanies his brilliant defensive plays, Sanders was equally candid. "When I looked at a piece of paper," he said of the time he was about to leave college, "it said running backs make a lot of money, quarterbacks make a lot of money, defensive backs don't make a lot of money. I wanted to buy my mother her dream home. That was when we came up with Prime Time. Ding!"

Prime Time's first stage was Atlanta, where he divided his talents between the Falcons, the city's perennially moderate gridiron outfit, and the Braves, with whom he contested baseball's World Series a couple of years ago.

Having decided to leave the Falcons, Sanders had plenty of alternative offers of employment. Despite a clear sense of his own worth, he made his decision for a refreshingly novel sporting reason: he wanted to win a Super Bowl. Spurning contracts that would pay him three times as much, he signed with the 49ers. Though with a guaranteed $1m, stretching to $1.75m if the 49ers win on Sunday, it must be admitted that he joins the higher echelons of the underpaid.

When he arrived there were many in northern California who felt Sanders' personality was bound to clash with the straightlaced atmosphere that surrounded the 49ers. Clash it did, but to general astonishment it was the 49ers who changed.

Revelling in an organisation that matched his talents, Sanders told his new team-mates to loosen up. "If I see anyone tight, I'm gonna slap 'em," he told the team before their regular season game with the Dallas Cowboys. They won that game and, perhaps sensing that a more relaxed approach might finally overcome the Cowboys, the team that had dominated the sport for two seasons, Seifert allowed his team to change its personality.

By the time the Cowboys were beaten a second time, in the NFC Championship game, even Seifert, Steve Young and Jerry Rice appeared at ease with the new ethos.

On Sunday Sanders gets the biggest stage of all to parade his talents. He will surely use it and follow any memorable play with an equally memorable celebration. There will be something fitting about the game's biggest event showcasing its biggest personality. But it would be unwise to suggest that he needs the publicity. As he told the throng this week, "I've had enough exposure, enough hype. I'm household."