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Sanders is the latest in a line of athletes who aren't ready to walk away

September 11, 2004|Lauren Peterson | Times Staff Writer

The first time Ray Lewis and Corey Fuller spoke to him about playing for the Baltimore Ravens this season, Deion Sanders thought they were kidding.

He had retired before the 2001 season. He was now 37 years old.

But once it became clear that his friends weren't joking, Sanders quickly warmed to the idea and soon he had joined a growing list of prominent athletes who have come out of retirement in recent years.

Mario Lemieux retired, then came back with the Pittsburgh Penguins as a player/owner. Nine-time Wimbledon champion Martina Navratilova returned to tennis and competed in the Olympics this year. Roger Clemens enjoyed a sentimental farewell tour with the New York Yankees last fall -- and came back to baseball with his hometown Houston Astros this spring.

None, including Sanders, who signed a one-year, $1.2 million contract with the Ravens, said they came back for the money.

Sanders says he's back to play with friends and earn a third Super Bowl championship ring -- a profile that experts say is typical.

"It clearly reflects that they missed it, and it's OK that they missed it," said Jim Mastrich, a Rutgers University psychologist.

"If sports is the thing that gave the most meaning to your life, it's no surprise that you'd go back to it."

Sanders was chosen for the Pro Bowl seven times in 12 seasons with the Atlanta Falcons, San Francisco 49ers, Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins. He left the Redskins three years ago, having fulfilled only one year of a seven-year, $56-million contract.

A Super Bowl champion with the 49ers and Cowboys, Sanders said he would not have come back to a team that didn't have lofty aspirations.

"I want the opportunity to win it all, and that is it," Sanders said during his introductory news conference earlier this month. "I walked from how many millions of dollars over in Washington ... [because] I didn't think that the team could get it done."

Because of his age and time away from the NFL, Sanders has faced skepticism about his return, but he has proved naysayers wrong before.

In the early years of his career, he split time between football and playing outfield for the Atlanta Braves. He is the only athlete ever to play in the World Series, in 1992 with the Braves, and in the Super Bowl -- 1995 with the 49ers and a year later with the Cowboys.

And he's never dodged the spotlight, reveling in nicknames such as "Neon Deion" and "Prime Time."

To miss the attention -- even if it brings pressure -- is natural, experts say.

"It's like, 'Wait a minute, I take that back,' " Mastrich said. "And if you think about it, if you love performing, that's going to be a hard thing to give up."

And not just for Sanders.

Soccer star Alexi Lalas left the L.A. Galaxy in the fall of 1999 at 29, was "retired" for 18 months, then came back to play three more seasons. He retired for good -- he thinks -- in January.

"Performing in front of people, and getting that reaction, is addictive," said Lalas, now president and general manager of the San Jose Earthquakes. "Anyone that tells you otherwise is lying to your face. It's a wonderful rush."

Navratilova, whose No. 9 world ranking is second-highest among U.S. women's doubles players, played in the Olympics last month at 47. She said her return was based on the internal, intrinsic sources of competitive satisfaction.

"I was in good physical shape and I thought I might as well play. It was a lark, almost," she said. "Then, I just had so much fun, and the fans were so supportive, that I thought I might as well keep going to see how good I can get again. It's a challenge."

Sometimes the challenge is a little too much.

Edwin Moses, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in the 400-meter hurdles, tried a comeback this year at 48, comparing his work to "an artist with a paintbrush. I could wake up in the middle of the night and hurdle."

That didn't take him back to the Olympics, though. Moses, now 49, was injured in training and wasn't able to compete at the U.S. trials.

Lalas, conversely, returned to soccer and had a career year in 2002, helping the Galaxy to the MLS Cup title.

"It was a tremendous relief that I could still play and do well. It wasn't necessarily vindication," he said. "But the time I was away made me a better player and a better person."

That sounds good to Sanders.

"I'm here at the beck and call of the coaches and the players," he said. "I'm going to do what I need to do to help this team win. Whatever that entails."

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