OVER THE HILL? NO, RAIDERS’ RICE IS STILL ON THE WAY UP

SAN DIEGO — Ahab had his whale, and Sisyphus had his rock. Jerry Rice has his hill. It’s 2 1/2 miles. He goes straight up. Running. Two-and-a-half miles. And that’s during the off-season.

“I’ve been doing that my whole career,” Rice says. “Every day. You can’t get complacent. Guys come and try and train with me, but a lot of them, well, they can’t finish that hill.”

Rice finishes. It kills him sometimes. His thighs burn. His knees hurt. His breath beats like a sledgehammer in his chest. But he finishes. And how Jerry Rice finishes has always been what defines him best.

When he was catching all those passes from Joe Montana and Steve Young — it wasn’t the way he pulled the ball in, it was what he did with it afterward, motoring across the middle and down the sideline to turn a 10-yard catch into a 70-yard touchdown.

How he finished.

In the first 12 years of his career, it wasn’t just how well he played, but that he missed only four games total. Four games in 12 years? For a receiver?

How he finished.

And now, at age 40, the oldest man ever to play his position in a Super Bowl, what matters to Jerry Rice isn’t the rings he already has, it isn’t the records he has broken, it isn’t his place in the San Francisco sports pantheon or anything else that is behind him. What matters is the one game he still has to go.

What matters is how he finishes.

“This is an opportunity of a lifetime,” he says of the Super Bowl, which he has won three times. “And maybe, when you know it’s coming to an end, you cherish it a little more.

“Some of my old teammates don’t believe I’m still at it. They bump into me, and the first thing they say is, ‘The old man is looking pretty good.’ Then they say: ‘Keep it going.’

“I’m not going to say I’m as good as I used to be, not skills-wise. But knowledge makes up for everything. When I first came into the league, I felt like I was going to live forever.”

He stops. He smiles.

He doesn’t say he won’t.

There are really only two questions in Jerry Rice’s career. How did he get overlooked? And how did he get let go?

Rice was not picked until deep into the first round of the 1985 draft. He was selected by San Francisco, a team that had just won the Super Bowl. Where, you ask, were all the losing teams? How did they all pass on him? How could Bill Walsh and his scouts spot something so obvious and so many others miss it?

No one has ever adequately answered that question — except to say that Rice attended Mississippi Valley State, a traditionally black university in the Southwestern Athletic Conference, and some thought the level of competition wasn’t the same as that at some of the bigger name schools. Never mind that Walter Payton came from a similar program. Some people are slow learners.

But just as perplexing as the 49ers’ foresight in 1985 is their oversight 16 years later. They let Rice go. They could have kept him. He wanted to stay. They let him go anyhow.

Why? Did they get tired of his excellence? Did they think he was done? Or was it a question of age?

“You know, in this league, they believe that once you get in your 30s you’re over the hill,” Rice says. “I never thought it would happen to me. I had always wanted to play my whole career with one team. But I had to pinch myself and wake up — because I saw it happen to one of the best quarterbacks who ever played the game, Joe Montana. After that, I knew anything was possible.”

Typical of Rice, when the 49ers dumped him, he went back to the hill. He ran up. He ran down. Day after day. He admits now, he didn’t know if he were running for his own exhaustion, but he ran anyhow. And the calls started coming. And he considered the teams: Detroit, Seattle, Oakland.

In the end, he chose the team across the bay. He kept his family where it was. He kept his commute pretty similar. The only thing that changed were his statistical numbers.

They went up.

In his first season as a Raider, he started 15 games and caught 83 passes for 1,139 yards.

In his second season, this one, he started 16 games and caught 92 passes for 1,211 yards.

At this rate, he’s liable to break his own records — the day he qualifies for Social Security.

Let’s put this simply: There is Jerry Rice, and there is everybody else. Long after he’s gone — and that might be next century — his standards will remain. Receivers will shoot at his marks: They will try to go to Super Bowls in their 20s, 30s and 40s. They will try to amass the 21,000-plus yards and the nearly 200 touchdown catches. They will try to stay in the kind of maniacally flexible shape that Rice does.

That’s the difference between Rice and the wanna-bes, like Keyshawn Johnson or Terrell Owens. Rice understands the big picture. He always has had his eye on it. He never spent much time in the self-promotion jungle, because making too many commercials or doing too many talk shows keeps you away from your body, your focus — it keeps you away from the hill. And the hill, some hill, is always in front of Jerry Rice.

There’s one called the Super Bowl waiting Sunday. Rice, who is older than the opposing coach, will pull up his socks and lace up his shoes and tug on his helmet and go running, once more, for that uphill grade, taking with him the hopes of every balding, paunchy football fan.

Nobody lives forever. The joy is in watching someone try.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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