NEW ORLEANS — So let’s say Jerry Rice is coming straight at you, and, uh-oh, Joe Montana is looking his way, and here comes the pass, and Rice is chugging down the sidelines, then he slows, then he curls, then he leaps in the air. Quick. What do you do?

A) Leap with him.

B) Watch with your mouth open.

C) Sneak off the field.

D) What’s the difference?

The answer, of course, is (D) because, nine times out of 10, Rice is going to catch it anyhow. You could throw a blanket over him in midair, he’d catch it. You could slide a bed of nails underneath him, he’d catch it. Hey. This is a guy who, according to his father, once leapt into a thornbush to catch a football. And he got it.

That was back in Crawford, Miss., a place you can find on the map about as easily as you can find a flaw in Rice’s post patterns. It was there, in a silent rural town with no stoplights, that Jerry, the son of a brick mason, prepared for NFL stardom by snagging bricks thrown to him by his father, and chasing horses across an open field in an attempt to ride them bareback.

Unorthodox training methods, perhaps. But whatever works. “For as long as I can remember, I could catch things,” Rice says, as the countdown continues to Super Bowl XXIV. “I was just born with it. I had really big hands. Matter of fact, the boys in school used to tease me about them. Girls did, too. They said, ‘How come your hands are so big?’ I used to walk around with my hands in my pockets all the time, because I was ashamed.”

He nods, then grins.

“Not anymore.”

Not anymore. Can you even remember NFL football before Jerry Rice’s hands? Only 27 years old, he has already established such a gleaming plateau for receivers, that the casual fan now measures other pretenders by his standards.
“Well, he’s good, you know, but he’s no Jerry Rice . . . “

Who is? You watch him work, you find yourself blinking. There was that little dump pass over the middle against Minnesota in the first round of the playoffs, and Rice cradled it and never let his legs stop moving and — ta-da!
— he’s in the end zone, 72 yards downfield. Blink.

There was the sideline pass last week against the Rams in the NFC championship, where Rice stretched his body like Mr. Fantastic in the Marvel Comics — I swear he went from 6-feet-2 to 8-feet-5 — and he pulled in the ball with his toes kissing the inbound grass. Blink.

“I enjoyed that one,” he admits. “I watched it on film. Couldn’t believe I made it. Yeah. That one was all right.”

So were all the others. All 390 catches. All 73 touchdowns. All 11 twirling receptions in last year’s Super Bowl, which earned him the MVP award and pretty much everyone’s nod as the best pass-catcher in the game. And he’s only in his fifth season. Rice, with the lean-muscled frame of an NBA guard, and the soft, boyish face of a college art student, is so dominant in his league that you wonder why we didn’t hear about him growing up, the way we heard about, say, Wayne Gretzky or Darryl Strawberry. We knew those guys were coming before they ever made a sneaker commercial.

But Rice? Perhaps because he grew up in Sleepyville, U.S.A., perhaps because he chose Mississippi Valley State to forge his college legend, perhaps because he was chosen — Lord, can you believe this? — 16th in the 1985 draft, well, Rice just seemed to arrive in the big time, already dressed, and began catching the first of a million footballs.

“You know, I’ve been here two years, and in two years’ worth of practices, I’ve seen him drop three passes,” says 49ers safety Chet Brooks. “Three. Total. And they were all last year. He hasn’t dropped one yet this year. He gets mad when he drops one. Yells at himself and everything.”

Brooks shakes his head as if talking about a flying saucer.

“I mean, this is practice, you know?”

Question: Who can cover Jerry Rice one-on-one?

Answer: Nobody.

Source: Jerry Rice.

“Right now, I honestly don’t think there is anybody who can do it.”

Question: What is the best way to defend Jerry Rice?

Answer: There is none.

Source: Jerry Rice.

“If you take away the long ball, I’ll go for the short stuff. If you cover

the short stuff, I’ll take it long. Something is gonna give and I’ll find it.”

Well. What did you want? Humility, too? And yet, when Rice says these things, it doesn’t seem like boasting. He can, after all, do everything he says, from twisting in midair to breaking countless tackles. Rice can actually accelerate into a cut, and come out of a catch faster than he went into it. Here’s another question: How would you, Jerry, rate yourself in the different aspects of receiving?

“Well.” Laughter. “Gee.” More laughter. “I’d have to say, in catching the ball, 100 percent. In blocking, 100 percent. In running after the catch, 100 percent. In speed. Hmm. Maybe 95 percent. I could stand to lose five pounds.”

Hey, Broncos! A flaw!

Not that they’ll notice it. What Rice calls slow, the rest of the world calls blurry. He has the kind of speed that cannot be measured by a stopwatch. He gets to the ball during games, and if that means a 4.2-second 40-yard dash, that’s what he’ll run. Ask him to do it in practice, and you might only get a 4.4. That is what separates the great players. They know the difference between Broadway and summer stock.

And ever since Crawford, Rice was headed for the big time. He was a high school hero. And his college exploits at Mississippi Valley were so awesome that his coach devised a whole new offense just to take advantage of him. The Delta Devils never huddled. They just lined up and looked for Rice. On one balmy night in October 1983, Rice caught 24 passes against Southern University.

Twenty-four catches? In one game?

The stylish receiver — who once was nicknamed “Fifi” by his teammates because of his poodle-like haircut — seems more eager than most 49ers to get the ball kicked off.

“I get so tired of all this talk. Reporters go to the Denver guys and get what they say, then they come here and tell us and we get p—-d off. Talk doesn’t win a Super Bowl. If it did, I’d hire Jesse Jackson.

“Besides, I hear the way Denver is promising to be real aggressive. I can’t believe they say that against us. I hope they are aggressive. I like it that way.”

Which is another thing that distinguishes Rice. Unlike some receivers, who seem to be made of porcelain, he loves to block.

Come Sunday, on every Roger Craig or John Taylor big- gainer, check and see if Rice doesn’t level somebody. You might think a million-dollar receiver would protect his limbs and hands like a concert pianist. But Rice shrugs at the suggestion.

“You can break a finger walking down the street. I’d rather do it trying to win a football game.”

You take that, the midair acrobatics, the ability to slide between defenders, sometimes two or three, and the seemingly mystical connection Rice has with Montana, and you might as well clear a place on the wall. There’s Hall of Fame stuff brewing here. Or should we say boiling?

When he was younger, his brother used to throw four bricks at him. All at once. Rice would snare one, two, three, four, in midair. No wonder football seems easy. One ball? That’s all?

“I want to be the best ever,” he says. “I’ve made up my mind.”

He opens his hands, those big, soft hands he used to hide in his pockets, and rests his chin in his palms. At the moment, there seems to be very little stopping him. Very little at all.

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