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Sanders: I flunked steroid test; Ravens refute story

WESTMINSTER, Md. -- Deion Sanders flashed his trademark
smile as he stepped in front of a wave of cameras, microphones and
tape recorders.

He spoke at length Tuesday about his second year with the
Baltimore Ravens when the questions suddenly turned to the hottest
topic in sports: steroids.

Someone asked Sanders if he believed that Baltimore Orioles
first baseman Rafael Palmeiro might have accidentally taken
steroids. Sanders' grin suddenly vanished. He paused for a moment,
then revealed a secret he had kept for nearly a year.

Sanders said that shortly before he decided to end his
three-year retirement last Aug. 31, he received medical treatment
for an ankle he hurt while playing basketball. When he took his
Ravens' physical, steroids were detected in his system.

"The next thing I know they're testing me weekly. I'm like,
what's going on? I had never had a prior," he recalled. "They
told me I flunked the steroid test. I was on the random steroid
test every week because I took something for my ankle."

The Ravens, however, said late Tuesday that Sanders never failed
a drug test, but was given weekly screenings because he skipped a
random drug test shortly before he retired from the Washington
Redskins in 2000.

Ravens spokesman Kevin Byrne said the missed test gave the NFL
"reasonable cause" to screen Sanders on a weekly basis upon his
return to the league.

Because the treatment was administered before he rejoined the
NFL and confirmed by his doctor, Sanders was not disciplined by the
league.

And now he's starting the second season of his comeback, one
that will likely be far different than the first.

The league's most renowned nickel back will not spend much time
returning kicks or playing wide receiver, now that the Ravens
appear to be fully stocked in both areas.

And this summer, "Neon" Deion has training camp to contend
with. Sort of.

While the rest of the Ravens banged helmets and shoulder pads
under an intense morning sun, Sanders jogged on the sideline in
workout clothes, taking an occasional break to lend advice to a
rookie or two.

"Right now I've got to gauge my body, and I don't want to go
three straight practices," he said. "Two-a-days is pretty tough
on me, professionally and athletically. I don't feel fatigued and I
don't feel sore, but I don't want to get to that point."

That's OK with coach Brian Billick, who really doesn't have any
pressing need to see what Sanders can do. When a guy has played in
eight Pro Bowls and intercepted 51 passes during an exceptional
career that has spanned three decades, he deserves a little slack.

"He went two hard ones yesterday. We're trying to program what
he needs, but at the same time not put him at risk," Billick said.

Sanders came out of retirement to help the Ravens win a Super
Bowl, but little went as planned. He ended up missing seven games
with hamstring and foot injuries, and Baltimore didn't even make it
to the playoffs. His disappointment was centered upon the team's
shortcoming rather than his own.

"I was just blessed to get out there and do what I was able to
do, but we didn't achieve what we wanted to achieve," he said.
"That's the priority."

Sanders didn't immediately commit to returning in 2005, but he
couldn't resist being a part of a unit that features Samari Rolle
and Chris McAlister at the corners and Ed Reed, the 2005 NFL
Defensive Player, and Will Demps as safeties.

"It could be the best secondary ever assembled," he insisted.

Sanders, who turns 38 next week, may be called upon to play all
the backfield positions. But his sagely advice is just as important
to the Ravens.

"When he first came in, everybody was looking for pointers.
They're still looking for pointers," Reed said. "Deion's giving
pointers and just being here alone makes us step up our game, so
anything he gives us is great."

Some may consider Sanders a distraction. Billick considers him a
coach, teacher and player rolled into one.

"There isn't a person in this organization that doesn't enjoy
having Deion Sanders here and doesn't think he isn't a valued part
of what we are trying to do," Billick said. "It's been a joy to
have him here. Deion can still play, there's no question. But what
he brings to the team, from a veteran perspective and an emotional
standpoint, is of great value to us."

Billick intends to use Sanders exclusively on defense this
season rather than utilize him as a punt returner or wide receiver.
Sanders was used as both last season because the Ravens had a
rookie kick returner and a thin receiving corps, but this year
they're strong in both areas.

"I would like to limit the total number of reps for Deion --
which we do have to be aware of at 38 years old -- to the
secondary," Billick said.

Sanders doesn't intend to take no for an answer.

"The door is still open. I need the ball in my hands," he
said. "I make things happen."