Sanders just another pawn in NFL rivalry

Competition, as anyone knows, is the heart of sport. The drive to compete has persisted throughout history, from the Olympic Games in ancient Greece to the NCAA's March Madness.

And, since we have needed someone to compete against, a subdivision of sport was formed namely, rivalry. From the Trojans and Greeks to the Trojans and Bruins, competition and rivalry has gone hand in hand.

Some might even say rivalry is the essence of sport, the right to say, "My team is better than yours, ergo I am better than you." In many cases, rivalry has transcended sport, becoming what some would call "patriotism" (or, "My country is better than yours, ergo ...").

Most of the time, though, these rivalries are good-natured. Sure, sometimes the spirit of the rivalry goes sour, but it's nothing compared to what's now going on in the professional ranks.

Take, for instance, the Deion Sanders Sweepstakes. The Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers have taken this whole rivalry thing to a new level and it has been anything but good-natured.

It could, in fact, be summed up in the words of Nate Newton, the Cowboys' offensive tackle who said, ''Deion is our baby now. Everybody on the team is happy. We've taken him away from San Francisco and that's all we care about.''

Or maybe this quip from Dallas owner Jerry Jones, the man who signed "Primetime" Sanders to a seven-year, $35 million deal last Saturday: "We got Charles Haley away from San Francisco and won two Super Bowls with him. Maybe we can do the same with Deion.''

San Francisco president Carmen Policy, in the 49ers' defense, sent his jab to Dallas via Sanders: ''Good luck to you personally, and may your team fail.''

It's this kind of animosity that makes the Dallas-San Francisco rivalry the best in sports better than the NBA's Bulls-Knicks, better than the NHL's Blackhawks-Red Wings, better than baseball's ... well, better than baseball.

But it's not like this is anything new it's just ... more intense. The 'Boys and 'Niners have played each other in the last three NFC Championship games, and the winner has gone on to win the Super Bowl each time. This time, however, Sanders has been declared the make-or-break player, the "Neon" light that could guide the highest bidder to another world championship.

And Sanders is right where he wants to be: at the center of it all. The man who plays two sports, who plays both sides of the football, who not only dances in the end zone, he dances on his way to the end zone, finally made up his mind about where he wanted to go. He is becoming the third All-Pro defensive player in four years to jump ship and join the opposition.

Haley, a defensive lineman, left San Francisco and signed with the Cowboys, helping them win the Super Bowl in '93 and '94. Then linebacker Ken Norton traded his silver and blue for the red and gold, and assisted the 49ers to their win last January.

So the big questions now are, will Sanders live up to the billing? Will his smiling mug the one that's sure to be placed on San Francisco's locker room wall still be smiling come next January? Or will the 49ers be the ones to get the last laugh?

Jerry Jones is betting $35 million that he, Sanders and the rest of the Cowboys will be the ones grinning. Nevertheless, it'll still be fun to watch.

Monty Phan is sports editor for the Arizona Daily Wildcat. His column appears weekly.

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