MIAMI — Many fine football players will shed sweat in Sunday’s Super Bowl. Only one will be a legend.
Jerry Rice stands alone.
You watch the microphones on Deion Sanders and the probing spotlight on Steve Young and the human interest around Stan Humphries and Natrone Means and you almost have to laugh. As good as they all are, none — and I am absolutely serious here — none is in Rice’s class. None will be the topic of conversation 30 years from now. None will lead the fat history of players to try his position, none will be considered the greatest quarterback, greatest linebacker or greatest defensive back ever to play the game.
But the greatest receiver?
Jerry Rice stands alone.
Does anyone realize how unusual a talent No. 80 truly is? Certainly not most of the media here, which is more captivated with quickie sound bites by rapping wannabes. And certainly not corporate America, which has made beefcake posters out of Junior Seau and video games out of Sanders but has left Rice nearly untouched.
The hell with them. What do they know about football? What do they know about beating one man, passing another, and outfighting the third in midair for the ball? What do they know about running into the sky and landing with your legs still in stride, so you needn’t waste time accelerating? What do they know about twisting your torso as you make a reception, to avoid contact, or grabbing the back end of a spiraling football? What do they know of countless Pro Bowls or countless NFL records or two Super Bowl rings, and a Super Bowl MVP trophy?
What do they know of Rice, a man who can still, as his college coach once marveled, “catch a BB in the dark”?
You can look at his numbers and be dazzled — he has more touchdowns than any other player in NFL history — but it’s dazzled the way a non-musician is dazzled by Mozart, or a child is dazzled by computer graphics. The flash gets your attention.
But the magic is in the details.
Jerry Rice stands alone. Greatness at work
He was born in rural Mississippi, the son of a bricklayer, and he started running one day and never stopped. “I was like Forrest Gump,” Rice said this week, laughing. “I didn’t even know where I was running. I was like 9 years old and I was running roads, six miles, seven miles.”
Farm kids sometimes grow into football players from the strength of their chores. Rice might have seemed destined for receiving after catching bricks tossed by his father, and chasing horses near his home.
But more than anything, he became the best there ever was because of two things: 1) his body — 6-feet-2, minimal fat, huge hands — and 2) his work ethic. Even today, at age 32, the minute he accomplishes something, he sets the bar higher and starts again. His personal drills would leave an Olympic team gasping — and these are in the off-season. And his emphasis on body control, from health food to the bandage he wears for his nasal passages, has given him his most incredible record of all: not a single game missed in his 10-year NFL career.
Incredible, right? Yet you look back on the year he was drafted, 1985, and you see 15 players taken before him. These include two receivers, Eddie Brown and Al Toon, both no longer in football, and such forgettables as Duane Bickett (Indianapolis), Kevin Allen (Philadelphia) and Ethan Horton (Kansas City).
“To be honest, I felt like I should have gone before those other receivers,” Rice admits now, “but I figured, in time, I would show everybody where I belonged.” He’s sorry about retirement comment
He has done that over and over. So why isn’t there more fuss? He is articulate, handsome, a perfect spokesman for any product. When was the last commercial you saw starring Jerry Rice? Is it because he doesn’t dance?
“I could, you know,” he says. “I mean, I have some coordination, and a little rhythm. . . . “
The point is, he shouldn’t have to. This is a man who will soon own the ultimate statistical prize for his position: the NFL record for most receiving yards — that is, if he comes back next season. Earlier this week, he made a comment about retiring.
“I’m sorry I ever said that now. What I meant was that I know how hard it is to get to a Super Bowl, and I treat each game like it’s my last one.”
Maybe he should quit. Michael Jordan did, and if he doesn’t return, in time, that will cement his legend even more. Go out on top. With a championship. Maybe Rice should. Maybe that would do it.
There are two questions I had always wanted to ask him. One is if he would have done as much with a mediocre quarterback — instead of Joe Montana or Young.
“Yes, I would,” he says, “because the special players make the plays no matter what. The quarterback throws it up there, but it’s still the receiver’s job to get it. If the balls were higher instead of right in my hands, I would just have to adjust — and I’d work until I could.”
My second question is if he has ever had a bad game.
“Yes,” he says.
Ever have two in a row?
He smiles. “And to be honest, the last game we played, against Dallas, I didn’t think I did so well. . . . “