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Hall of Fame election: Sanders personified shutdown corner

ARLINGTON -- Let the critics tell it: Former Dallas Cowboys cornerback/kick returner/receiver Deion Sanders could do it all on the football field except tackle.

That was the only perceived slight in the game of the league's first true two-way player since Chuck Bednarik.

Sanders is one of 17 finalists, including former Cowboys defensive end Charles Haley, up for induction today in the Pro Football Hall of Fame class of 2011. The announcement will come at 6 tonight (NFL Network).

Save for a shocking snub by the sometimes prickly voters, his inclusion should be automatic considering he is the man who originated and personified the term shutdown corner.

That brings us back to seemingly the only knock in his game, which was, ironically, some of his own doing.

"It was a statement I made when I played for the [Atlanta] Falcons," Sanders recalled. "A reporter asked me to describe my play at corner. I said 'They pay me to cover. They don't pay me to tackle. They pay me to cover, that's my No. 1 job.' From that it went to 'he can't tackle.'"

His attempt to be loquacious and pointed about the realities of his job and his gaudy paycheck became fodder for his critics.

There were many who didn't like Sanders' cocky and flashy style.

Others didn't like his status as the league's first true mercenary.

Instead of being celebrated for being able to play in the NFL and Major League Baseball -- he is the only man with a World Series ring and a Super Bowl ring -- Sanders was criticized as being a me-first player because he missed parts or all of training camp to play baseball.

Owners fawned over him, giving Sanders control over his career like none before.

Before "God" told the late Reggie White to leave the Philadelphia Eagles to help bring a title to the Green Bay Packers, it was Sanders who was the first hired gun to key Super Bowl success.

His move from Atlanta to the San Francisco 49ers in 1994 helped stop the Cowboys from being the league's first three-peat champion. After he helped quarterback Steve Young finally get his first ring, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones gave Sanders a five-year, $25 million deal, including a then-record $13 million signing bonus to join the Cowboys in 1995.

Sanders was the key to a Cowboys team that already included future Hall of Famers in quarterback Troy Aikman, running back Emmitt Smith and receiver Michael Irvin and completed its dynasty with a third title in four years.

"We had some great players on that team," Jones said. "I stood before the entire team before we signed Deion and literally went through every detail of his contract on a big chalkboard in front of the entire team and showed them exactly what he was going to get paid.

"When I was through, I said, 'Now, do we want him or not?' I looked and it was almost an absolutely unanimous cheer saying, 'We want him. Let's go get him.' He was a big difference-maker when we won the Super Bowl."

Irvin had legendary battles with Sanders going back to their college days at Miami and Florida State, respectively, and then when Sanders went to Atlanta and San Francisco before they waged wars on the practice field with the Cowboys.

Irvin said the Hall of Fame was built for players such as Sanders because he changed the game and is still emulated today.

"You still see guys imitating the things he did," Irvin said. "He is a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He changed the game."

It's one thing to lock down an opposing receiver, preventing them from getting the ball; it's another to shut down an entire side of the field. Quarterbacks didn't even look in his direction for fear of a pick six, causing Sanders to break out into one of his patented touchdown dances that were both lauded and despised.

"I was an original," Sanders said.

Again, this brings us back to the only perceived slight in his game.

While Sanders' play will never be confused with the bone-crushing style of the aforementioned Bednarik, he said he has never cost his team a game because of a missed tackle. More to the point, he said he never turned down a chance to make a tackle as Cowboys cornerback Mike Jenkins and Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie have done in recent years.

"You never caught me in a situation where you caught Jenkins," Sanders said. "You never caught me in a situation where it's been turned down or hurt my team. But from being strong vocally, that comment made it seem as though that's where my game suffered. If that was the case, it would be all over ESPN. That has never happened because there are no holes in my game."

Perceived or not.

Clarence E. Hill Jr.