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The New Deion : Sanders Develops Another Aura: Winner

ASSOCIATED PRESS

His effect on the team has been remarkable, from attire to attitude. And, above all, he has transformed its defense.

But playing for the 49ers also has changed Deion Sanders. For the first time in his two-sport career, Sanders is developing the aura of a winner--after years of having a self-centered, impetuous image.

Sure, he still finishes high-stepping interception returns with flashy end zone dances. And he’s hardly humble about his talent or wealth, both of which are extolled in his new rap video.

Yet even as he leads the San Francisco defense into Sunday’s NFC championship game against Dallas, Sanders says he’s growing weary of the spotlight.

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“In college, maybe you wanted the glamour and the limelight and all the interviews. But now I’d rather be away from it,” he says. “Everybody wants exposure and endorsements and making a lot of money, but you can’t leave yur hotel room and go anywhere. None of my teammates want to go out with me.

“Once in my life, all this was cool. Now I just like to play the game and go home.”

The man who doesn’t huddle with his teammates, who has always stood apart because of his exceptional ability, almost sounds lonely.

Perhaps it is a natural process. Or maybe he finally is comfortable on a team where he is surrounded by stars--not as great as Sanders, possibly, but with enough talent and confidence to treat him as an equal.

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When Sanders was being wooed by several teams this fall, 49ers officials debated among themselves whether a player with such a selfish reputation would upset the team’s chemistry.

There was the memory of Sanders infuriating the Atlanta Braves by refusing to give up football during the World Series, and of Sanders spoiling a Braves locker room celebration by dumping water on broadcaster Tim McCarver.

But the 49ers have gotten a player who has become the consummate teammate, a man who at times actually shies away from discussing himself.

The change even is evident in his headwear. One of Sanders’ trademarks is a red bandana, which half a dozen teammates have copied this season. During the playoffs, though, he is wearing a gold bandana with the 49ers’ insignia.

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Rookie fullback William Floyd, who like Sanders is a product of Florida State and an emotive player on the field, says he’s seen a change in Sanders during this season.

“Guys were expecting him to come in with his nose in the air, and he’s been one of the guys,” Floyd says. “I think he’s a lot more focused on what he wants to do. He came here for a reason.”

That reason is winning a Super Bowl. Sanders turned down far more lucrative offers to sign an incentive-laden one-year contract on Sept. 15, hoping the move to San Francisco would get him a championship ring.

The NFL’s defensive player of the year is now just two wins from that goal, and already his image is being refined by playing for the 49ers.

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“I guess they’ve made me look like a winner,” he says. “I’m the same person that came up here. I’m just with 47 better football players.”

Sanders, 27, was the last of six new starters on a San Francisco defense revamped after consecutive NFC championship game losses to Dallas. His importance goes far beyond the six interceptions he had this season, three of which he ran back for touchdowns.

Just ask the Chicago Bears, who were so determined not to challenge Sanders last weekend that they ceded half the field to San Francisco. Sanders had no tackles and no passes defensed, but the Bears lost, 44-15.

His ability to shadow an opponent’s best receiver has allowed San Francisco’s defense, which improved to eighth from last season’s 15th in the league rankings, to go from a read-and-react scheme to a more attacking style.

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Sanders’ presence at right cornerback allowed Merton Hanks to return to free safety, where he has made seven interceptions, and unleashed strong safety Tim McDonald to free-lance more near the line of scrimmage.

“He was kind of the missing ingredient that shored things up and allowed everybody to be that much more freeflowing,” says 49ers coach George Seifert.

Sanders also helped bring the 49ers, known in the past for their stoicism, a new attitude. Now he’s got quarterback Steve Young dancing in the locker room, and has even loosened up the professorial Seifert.

Sanders and Seifert didn’t hit it off during a meeting in early September. The coach lectured Sanders on 49ers etiquette and questioned his commitment to the team. An insulted Sanders nearly walked out.

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Seifert now plays along when Sanders pleads for a chance to play on offense, and declares the cornerback “has good karma.” Seifert even smiled when Sanders made a theatrical production out of a 93-yard interception return for a score in Atlanta on Oct. 16.

For Floyd, criticized by Seifert for his end zone celebrations after scoring twice at Detroit on Oct. 9, the arrival of Sanders brought fun to the 49ers.

“I think he’s had a big impact on this team,” Floyd says. “I think Deion coming in and loosening everything up really helped take a lot of the pressure off me.”


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