- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 27, 2000

Deion Sanders sounded like the best man getting a glimpse of the groom in full attire. He couldn't let Bruce Smith walk two steps before pouncing.

"How does it feel to be in those new clothes?" Sanders howled at his new teammate. "You don't even look like Bruce."

It was quite a sight, the Washington Redskins' new superstars posing together for the team yearbook cover. Sanders was decked out in his traditional No. 21 and "Jesus" bandana both burgundy, of course while Smith donned his formfitting No. 78. The photo shoot marked the players' first meeting since they signed for a combined $81 million this offseason as unrestricted free agents.

Breaking up the monotony of the year's quietest period, Sanders engaged in a gregarious, wide-ranging interview not to mention some good-natured ribbing and a few games of H-O-R-S-E while Smith spoke seriously about both his slow emotional recovery from his father's death last month and the fact that two of the yearbook's three cover boys (along with Redskins icon Darrell Green) have never played in the burgundy and gold.

"I don't know if it's fair to the rest of the team that only a few guys are getting the spotlight," Smith said. "By no means do I want anyone to get the wrong message that we're out here seeking publicity. We're just doing what the team asks for us. But we're going to have a little fun with it and just wait until the fun really begins next month around the 20th."

That's when training camp starts, when Redskins fans for $10 a day get to see this fantasy-league team begin its anticipated run at the Super Bowl. Sanders yesterday complimented Redskins owner Dan Snyder and player personnel director Vinny Cerrato for assembling the all-star roster and reiterated his belief that great players are the key to success.

"You've got to have your horses," Sanders said. "I don't even know the rider's name who won the Kentucky Derby, but I remember the horse."

But the 32-year-old, eight-time Pro Bowl cornerback also chastised Redskins fans for talking as though an NFC title is guaranteed. Sanders said several times that the Redskins' 10-6 record (and 1-1 playoff effort) in 1999 must be judged in relative terms.

"You've got to understand: Last year the league was terrible, and everything that could go correct [for the Redskins] went correct," Sanders said. "They didn't really sustain any injuries. They were blessed… . I think fans are getting a little ahead of themselves. Just with one [victory] in the playoffs, a poor schedule, you're beating a team like Detroit [in the playoffs]. [Now] you think you've got it all, but you don't."

In that manner, Sanders repeatedly refused to hedge controversial opinions. Of ABC's decision to put comedian Dennis Miller on "Monday Night Football," Sanders said, "I just hope he's not an insult to this game, just a gimmick," adding that it is "straight-up ignorant" that the program has had so few black commentators in the booth.

And Sanders ripped many of the NFL's defensive coordinators while calling Ray Rhodes, the Redskins' new coordinator, the team's "biggest move of the offseason." Sanders said Rhodes, his former coordinator in San Francisco (1994), "knows how to milk the cow," meaning Rhodes can make adjustments to maximize his players' talents.

"I never milked a cow in my life," Sanders said. "I know what it looks like, I know what the utensils are, I know what to do but I've never done it. And there's a lot of defensive coordinators out there who are just like that."

Sanders also called St. Louis the NFC's forgotten title contender, reiterated his doubt in the concept of team "chemistry" and criticized what he considers sanctimonious United Way commercials. Of himself he said, "I have never approached a season like I've approached this one."

"It's a new start with a new team, and you have to be honest with yourself," Sanders said. "I've been driving an 18-wheeler for years. This is my 12th year, and I'm turning the corner with this thing… . You've got to maximize these moments. You never know how much more time you have left in this game."

Smith, of course, was far less bubbly but just as sincere as he talked about his late father, George W. Smith. Indeed, despite his joking and obvious friendship with Sanders, it was clear Smith is struggling to find celebration in everyday life.

"I'm trying to get back to my normal self," the 37-year-old, 11-time Pro Bowl defensive end said. "It's been a struggle, and it will continue to be a struggle. My father was the most important man in my life… . It still hurts me because he's not here. I can be in a crowd full of people, a room full of people, and just feel as low as I've ever been."

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