WESTMINSTER, Md. (AP) – 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 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.

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.

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.”

AP-ES-08-02-05 1842EDT

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.