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49ers Have to Be on Shark Alert : Cowboys: Kenny Gant has become popular in Dallas and a target for opponents with his celebration dance.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As with any fine work of art, this one did not evolve for the purpose of fame or riches.

In the beginning, Kenny Gant danced only for himself.

It was the sixth game of last season. The Dallas Cowboys against the Seattle Seahawks. Gant against Seahawk quarterback Dan McGwire.

There was a safety blitz. A sack. An inspiration to celebrate.

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Gant wasn’t supposed to be here. He was from a small town, a small school, had never stepped inside an airplane until being drafted in a distant round.

Standing over McGwire at Texas Stadium, thousands suddenly cheering for him, Gant remembered a maneuver he had fooled with in practice.

He stuck his right hand above his helmet and began shaking it like a fin. At the same time, he swung the ball in his left hand and took several exaggerated steps.

In front of a television set in Lakeland, Fla., a minister and a schoolteacher blushed.

That night when the phone rang, Kenny Gant knew he had a hit.

“I said, ‘What in the world was that ?’ ” Patricia Gant recalled. “I said, ‘Son, are you crazy?’ ”

As crazy as a shark.

Fifteen months later, Gant’s “Shark” dance has become the biggest thing in this town since the two-step.

If the Cowboys defeat the San Francisco 49ers Sunday in the NFC championship game, the dance could be the biggest thing since the Ickey Shuffle.

As a special teams player, and linebacker in the nickel defense, Gant dances after sacks, big hits, forced fumbles, or anything else that feels good.

Gant dances even when the ball is dead. Before kickoffs, he is the player on the goal line, 30 yards behind the rest of the kickoff team, posing and strutting and firing up the crowd.

Of particularly interest is his “Three Stooges” routine, in which he slaps his hands wildly across the front of his helmet before the ball is kicked.

“He puts a smile on a lot of people’s faces,” Cowboy safety Bill Bates said.

And steers them toward their wallets. One can now purchase foam-rubber sharks, a shark poster, and T-shirt that proclaims Texas Stadium as “the Shark Tank.”

Gant has unwittingly become the most sought-after Cowboy who is not named Aikman, Smith or Irvin.

If nothing else, he is the only team member who has made a paid appearance at a bar mitzvah.

“I was really impressed with the religious aspects of it, with all the candles and everything,” he said. “Then I danced.”

If you think that dance looks good on the artificial turf, you should see it on the ice.

Gant recently performed it at Reunion Arena before a game between the Dallas Stars and . . . the San Jose Sharks.

He can barely step outside these days without being spotted by somebody who immediately breaks into the dance. In restaurants. In banks.

“Even in the doctor’s office,” he said.

What makes the dance work so well is that, when he is not dancing, he is hitting somebody. Gant has led all non-starters in tackles for the last two seasons.

His worth was never more evident than last weekend in the playoff game against the Green Bay Packers. Remember when Corey Harris fumbled a kickoff at the end of the first half, leading to a quick Cowboy touchdown and a 17-3 lead?

It was Gant who caused the fumble.

“At first, some people looked at him like, what in the world was going on?” special teams veteran Dale Hellestrae said. “But then you see the plays he’s making. Jimmy (Johnson) gives impact players like that a little leeway.”

The only time the Dallas coach has been angry with Gant this season, oddly enough, is when he didn’t dance.

That was last week, after the tackle on Harris. Gant separated his left shoulder for the fourth time this season on the play and apparently could not move.

Because they were in the last two minutes of a half, the Cowboys were forced to use an injury timeout to attend to him.

When he was finally helped to his feet, sensing that the crowd was disappointed with no dance, he charged off the field pumping his left arm and shoulder.

Johnson felt that if Gant was sound enough to celebrate, he was sound enough to get up without any assistance.

“I said, ‘The hell with your shoulder, get off the field, you just cost us a big timeout,’ ” Johnson said. “Of course, we scored right away so it didn’t hurt us.”

Gant’s antics have made opponents even angrier.

“Lots of guys come up to me and say, ‘Our coaches would never let us get away with that,’ ” he said.

Earlier this year in Indianapolis, while doing his goal-line dancing before a kickoff, he noticed two members of the Colts’ kickoff team run to the sideline.

On the kick, those same two players sandwiched him.

“And one of those guys had never blocked my position before on the films,” Gant said. “I knew what they were doing and I just told them, ‘I’ll be back.’ ”

So was the dance, which Gant considers much too important to discontinue because of a couple of thugs.

“The fans pay a lot of money for their seats, I think they deserve more than just a game,” he said. “I think they deserve excitement.”

Last year, when the dance was merely an idea, Gant had all the excitement he could handle.

After barely making the team in his first two seasons, this ninth-round draft pick out of Albany (Ga.) State noticed teammate Kevin Smith acting like a shark during practice.

Smith was imitating a dance that he had seen on a rap video and in practice while at Texas A&M.; Gant felt secure enough to join him.

“I showed it to Kenny, then he just started doing it in a game one day, surprised everybody,” Smith said. “But then, if he wasn’t a shark, he would be something else. He’s that kind of guy.”

You would not know it to talk to him. He barely speaks above a whisper. He shrugs when talking about his newfound popularity.

But he laughs when recalling that owner Jerry Jones did the Shark on the team plane returning from the NFC championship game in San Francisco last year.

And he does smile when talking about what has become the real reason for the dance.

“When I’m doing my thing before the kickoff at Texas Stadium and 60,000 people are screaming at me,” he said, “I know they’re thinking, ‘Look at that crazy guy. He better go down there now and do something good.’

“That keeps me on my toes.”

How true.


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