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Deion Sanders: The Candlestick Days

Often regarded as one of the most polarizing figures in NFL history, Deion Sanders truly possessed a unique blend of athletic grace and showmanship. He channeled those rare physical gifts into an illustrious career in the NFL while moonlighting as a baseball player in the major leagues during his offseasons. In the fall of 1994 and the summer of 1995, Deion Sanders played for both the 49ers and the San Francisco Giants, making Candlestick Park his personal playground.

The 49ers

Ever since he was drafted fifth overall in the 1989 NFL Draft, Deion Sanders proved to be a true sensation for the Atlanta crowd. On top of ruling the Falcon's defensive backfield, he also electrified crowds with sensational punt returns. Beginning in 1991, Sanders would be invited to three Pro Bowls and named first-team All-Pro twice as the Falcons went from surprise playoff contenders to also-rans.

As the clock ticked down on his original rookie deal, Deion Sanders wanted more than the Falcons could offer. As early as the 1993 Super Bowl, when the Cowboys were bulldozing their way to another Super Bowl triumph over the Bills, speculation was building that Sanders would sign with the Cowboys the next year.

That speculation was off by a year as he signed with the 49ers for a single season at just over $1 million. He was drawn to their side of the rivalry with the Cowboys and he wanted to help the 49ers beat Dallas. He didn't want to take the easy road to the Super Bowl but he also knew that Super Bowl titles are few and far between.

Deion Sanders was signed early in the season and started his first game as a 49er in a convincing win against the Rams. He got his first interception in the red and gold a week later against the Saints, a thrilling 74-yard return for a touchdown that sealed a close 24-13 victory at Candlestick Park.

Three weeks later, he added another pick-six to his resume, a 93-yarder in the Georgia Dome against his old teammates. Atlanta was disgusted as they watched him high-step into the endzone, his trademark that was honed and perfected in the city that had once adored him.

Four weeks later, he injected life into the 49ers-Cowboys rivalry with an interception in the 49ers 21-14 win over their hated rivals. From there, his lone season in San Francisco took off. There was the 43-yard interception at New Orleans in Week 13 and the unforgettable 90-yard pick-six in a Super Bowl preview against the Chargers as the 49ers ran away with a 38-15 victory. By the time he intercepted John Elway in the second to last week of the season, Deion Sanders had picked off six passes, returned three for touchdowns and had earned the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year award.

But the season wasn't finished. Far from it. Entering the playoffs, the 49ers were on a mission to dethrone their eternal tormentors and defeat the tw0-time defending Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys. It was the sole reason why Deion signed with San Francisco in the first place.

The 49ers dominated the Bears, but like any good cornerback, Sanders was quiet as the Bears shied away from throwing to him. But that game was just a tune-up as Deion Sanders saved his best for last. In the middle of the third quarter, the 49ers led 38-21 as the Cowboys drove to cut the deficit. Lined up at San Francisco's 40-yard line, Troy Aikman launched a pass that was picked off by Deion Sanders. The 49ers would go on to win 38-28.

Two weeks later, Deion ended his time with the 49ers by intercepting the last pass in Super Bowl XXIX. A fitting end to a stellar season. But the convincing 49-26 victory didn't come without drama in the locker room. It was no secret that the team's two biggest stars, Jerry Rice and Deion Sanders, were polar opposites in terms of perceived work ethic.

While Jerry Rice was notorious for his strenuous offseason workouts, "Neon" Deion brought more than enough flamboyance on the field. Of course, with that flamboyance came responsibility and judging from his overall ability and career, there is little question that Deion Sanders worked hard at his craft. If anything, his charisma had done more to help push the 49ers past the Cowboys as they were able to play looser.

Still, perception can be a reality for those who fail to do more than simply observe. On top of that, rice and Sanders never liked each other as they had battled for supremacy for the past several years. The tension boiled over during the week of the Super Bowl with Rice calling Sanders out for partying too hard in Miami with the Super Bowl on the line. Cooler heads prevailed in time for the 49ers to run circles around the beleaguered Chargers, but from then on there was a sense that that was Deion's final game in the red and gold.

The Giants

Going into the 1995 baseball season, Deion Sanders was an outfielder for the Cincinnati Reds. He played decently for them, but not well enough for them to keep him and he was traded to the Giants in the middle of the summer.

His first game as a Giant was in Florida against the Marlins on July 24. In six plate appearances, Deion had a hit and an RBI, helping his new Giants teammates to defeat the Marlins 8-3. Two days later, he returned to Candlestick, treating the home crowd with two hits and a double against his old team, Cincinnati.

As the summer went along, he had yet to sign a contract with an NFL team. ever since he walked off the field at Joe Robbie Stadium with the red and gold confetti falling on his shoulder pads, Deion had yet to hear back from the 49ers.

But after a day game at Candlestick, his mindset changed. Deion was sitting in a restaurant when he saw on a nearby television screen a member of the 49ers wearing his jersey number. At that moment, he knew that the storied franchise that he had recently led to the Super Bowl had moved on from his services.

While he sought employment in the NFL, Deion Sanders continued to play for the San Francisco Giants. The first of his five home runs occurred on August 2nd in an otherwise dispiriting 11-3 loss at San Diego.

Eleven days later, he hit a home run at Candlestick Park in a 6-3 win against the Cubs, his first in a home jersey as a Giant. This began a bit of a hot streak for the sleek athlete. The Giants traveled to Philadelphia for the weekend of August 18-20 and although they would be swept, Deion Sanders provided a spark to the Giants' offense. He opened up the offensive fireworks with a home run in each of the first two days and finished the weekend with three hits and scoring a run in five plate appearances in a crushing 8-7 loss.

Deion's last game as a home resident of Candlestick Park came on September 24, a 3-1 loss to the Rockies that sunk the Giants' record to 75-71, with Sanders mustering just a single hit in five plate appearances. With the Giants settling for third place in the NL West, their season was over.

By the time his baseball season ended, Deion had been a Dallas Cowboy for more than two weeks, having signed a record seven-year, $35 million deal on September 9th after the Cowboys lost starting cornerback Kevin Smith for the season. In 52 games as a San Francisco Giant, Deion Sanders batted a .285 average while driving in 18 runs and scoring 29 times.

After he left the Giants following that lone half-season, Deion Sanders went on to win the Super Bowl with the Cowboys and spent much of the rest of his career focused solely on football, appearing in two other scattered seasons with the Reds as he continued his quest for a third Super Bowl title. That elusive third Lombardi Trophy never came and he retired in 2005 as a Baltimore Raven having left his mark on two of America's favorite pastimes.

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