Jerry Rice Biography
Forced into Football, Joined rs (49e), Became Super Bowl MVP, Set Multiple NFL Records
Professional football player
In 1992 Jerry Rice, then the star wide receiver for the San Francisco 49ers, grabbed the record for most touchdown receptions in a professional football career, with 101. That milestone—coming as it did during the prime of his career—assured Rice a future berth in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. San Francisco Chronicle correspondent Ron Thomas described Rice as "a ballet dancer in cleats" whose "dazzling runs leave defenders grasping at air and gasping for breath. Even when Rice doesn't have the ball, he can dominate a game." In 2005, after brief stops at the Oakland Raiders, Seattle Seahawks, and Denver Broncos, Rice finally retired from football at the end of a remarkable 20-year career. Rice held NFL regular-season records for touchdowns scored, receiving touchdowns, receptions, receiving yards, total yards, and 1,000-yard receiving seasons, among others, and had earned three Super Bowl rings.
Rice is best-remembered for his play with the San Francisco 49ers, who dominated professional football in the late 1980s and advanced to the playoffs each year throughout the early 1990s. Rice—tall, fast, and obsessively determined to catch passes and score—was a big part of the reason for that success. Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell praised Rice for "the range of creative expression" in his performance, which is almost always carried out under double-team pressure. Boswell continued: "The way Rice moves while a ball is in the air, gliding like a hawk on an air current, and what he does after he grabs that ball, changing direction as suddenly as a snake in water, takes the breath from those who watch him and steals the heart from those who try to defend him." Sports Illustrated correspondent Ralph Wiley claimed that Rice "[is] running his name into the record books with a smooth and impeccable stride." Wiley also offered a tongue-in-cheek warning to Rice's opponents: "You're dealing with a cold executioner. You must study Jerry Rice—what he does, when he does it, how he thinks, what he doesn't like. You must find the flaw in his character. You must know him as well as you know yourself. Why? So you won't embarrass yourselves or the cities and the institutions you represent when Rice comes to terrorize you and tread on your painted end-zone grass."
Forced into Football
Wiley noted that Jerry Rice "grew up simon-pure. No street lights, or sidewalks, or traffic signs, or stadium concerts. No drugs, or crime, or sirens. No distractions." The reporter is referring to life in tiny Crawford, Mississippi, an all-black rural community where Rice was born on October 13, 1962. As a youngster the athlete saw few paved roads and even fewer of the luxuries that later became part of his life. His father was a bricklayer who built a home for the large family on the edge of a pasture. Rice and his five brothers amused themselves by playing sports, including a favorite pastime of chasing the horses in the pasture until one could be caught and ridden. When work was plentiful, Rice helped his father by carrying bricks and mixing mortar. "I always did have good work habits," he told Newsday. "I guess it's from my parents. I take a lot of pride in everything and try to be the best in what I'm doing. Every time I step on the football field, it's not like a job to me; I really enjoy it. Working with my father taught me the necessity of hard work. On my mother's side, I'm a caring person. I guess that's why I've been successful."
His work ethic notwithstanding, Rice was not above some pranks in high school. In fact, he says, he owes his football career to an attempt to play hooky from school one warm afternoon. As he tells the story, he was sneaking out of the school building when the vice principal saw him and told him to stop. Rice didn't stop, he ran, with the vice principal in hot pursuit. He was caught, whipped, and sent to the gym for football practice. Remembering the incident in the Los Angeles Times, Rice said that the principal "made me go out for the [football] team, and that's how I started playing this game. Until the day I played hooky, I had no intention of playing football."
In high school Rice played just about every position, from quarterback to tackle. He showed promise, but only one college coach made a recruiting trip to Crawford—Archie Cooley, then with tiny Mississippi Valley State in Itta Bena. According to Wiley, coach Cooley "took one look at Rice and began devising all manner of bizarre formations designed to spring Rice loose." A graceful, speedy, and nearly unstoppable wide receiver was born. Wiley wrote: "Rice helped put Mississippi Valley State … on the map…. [He] caught more than 100 passes in each of his last two seasons. As a senior he had 28 [touchdown] receptions. He has faced constant double-teaming since he was an 18-year-old freshman." With Rice's help the Delta Devils ran up a 24-6-1 record in their conference, a feat that drew the attention of 49ers coach Bill Walsh.
Joined rs (49e)
Walsh came to the 1985 pro football draft determined to win Rice's services for the 49ers. So sold was the coach on Rice that he traded up in order to select the young man sixteenth pick in the first round. Immediately Walsh took some heat for the decision, because Rice had not proven himself in the high-stakes arena of Big-Ten or Pac-Ten football. Walsh explained his reasoning in a Los Angeles Times feature. "Jerry's movements were spectacular for a pass receiver, no matter the level," the coach said. "Even a casual fan looking at him on that [Mississippi] team would have asked, 'Who is that?' We also knew about the long exposure he'd had as a receiver. He'd been catching 100 passes year after year. We felt that if they'd throw to him that much, and if he'd catch that many, he must have the basic instincts for the job."
Rice's rookie season had a rocky start. He dropped a record fifteen passes, a feat not lost on the press or the fans. In retrospect, Rice blamed his early failures on the complex offense that Walsh ran. He simply had to learn the moves, he said, to the point where he could run a play without thinking about it. It is not at all uncommon for rookie professional players to stumble a bit, especially those who have not seen much top-level competition in college. Rice recovered quickly. Even before his first season ended he had set a team record with 241 receiving yards in one game. He was a unanimous choice for the 1985–86 all-rookie team and a new favorite—despite his shyness—in the San Francisco area.
Rice turned in two stellar seasons in 1986 and 1987. In 1986 he scored an impressive fifteen touchdowns and averaged 18.3 yards per catch. The following year was one of his best. Eyebrows everywhere were raised as he set NFL records for receiving touchdowns (22) and touchdown catches in consecutive games (13). His regular season scoring total of 138 points led the league and set a team record as well. At season's end Rice garnered Most Valuable Player honors from the Pro Football Writers of America, the Sporting News, Pro Football Weekly, and the Maxwell Club. The recognition was unsatisfying, however. In 1987 the 49ers took a playoff loss to the Minnesota Vikings that deprived Rice of a trip to the Super Bowl. Asked how he felt at the end of that season, Rice told the San Jose Mercury News: "I don't think about how many touchdowns I scored. I don't think about the yardage. I guess a lot of people sit down and look at stats. But not me. I just want to go to the Super Bowl."
Became Super Bowl MVP
Rice finally got his Super Bowl wish in 1989, when the 49ers met the Cincinnati Bengals and won a dramatic 20-16 last-minute victory. Just prior to the game, Rice sprained his ankle so badly that he was listed as "questionable" for the contest. He played, and he was voted Super Bowl Most Valuable Player after a series of stunning catches and slippery runs that saved his team from defeat. Boswell described the action: "Rice shagged posts in traffic, like a 27-yarder in the final minute to set up the winning score … like his touchdown that tied the game, 13-13. He shook deep up the sideline for 30 yards with a defender in his lap. He caught hitches when cornerbacks laid off him in fear … when linebackers couldn't spin their heads fast enough to find him…. What Rice did this windy evening … warps the imagination and redefines what is possible."
Until that Super Bowl moment, Rice had been relatively unknown outside the San Francisco area. The 49ers had many other stars, from the white-haired coach to the riveting quarterback Joe Montana, and the team had won two Super Bowls in the 1980s without Rice. Super Bowl XXIII changed the determined receiver's status. Suddenly he was able to renegotiate his contract from a position of power, and his performances were chronicled in glowing sports features in print and on television. Nevertheless, within days of his first Super Bowl win, the Most Valuable Player was complaining that he had been ignored by the press and passed over for commercial endorsements. "I really don't want all the recognition, but I feel like I deserve to get some of it," he told the San Francisco Chronicle. "Right now you read the newspapers, there's nothing about Jerry Rice being MVP. If it was Joe Montana, Dwight Clark there would be headlines all over. I'm really just speaking from my heart. I think everybody in the Bay Area feels that way."
The matter might seem insignificant, but it isn't. Professional sports superstars can quadruple their multimillion dollar salaries with contracts for product endorsements. Montana, for instance, has earned vast sums with television commercials for Hanes underwear. When Rice did not receive the attention he felt he deserved, he suggested that race was the reason. In recent years he has been featured in some national advertising, but his endorsements still lag behind any number of NFL quarterbacks, most of them white.
Rice tried to diffuse his remarks on his celebrity by telling the Washington Post: "You won't hear that from me again. I guess I matured a little." Indeed, as the 1980s ended, Rice matured on the field as well as off. Still dogged by ankle problems, he turned in another outstanding season in 1989 and went with the 49ers to yet another Super Bowl—a 55-10 rout of the Denver Broncos—in 1990. Rice did not play as decisive a role in that Super Bowl win as he did in the one prior to it. However, his very presence on the field helped to confound the Bronco defense and assured a lopsided 49er victory. As early as the next season, the countdown began for Rice's record-breaking touchdown reception.
Set Multiple NFL Records
The record stood at 100, an impressive number compiled by Steve Largent, a former Seattle Seahawks receiver who had played more than ten professional seasons. Observers were amazed that Rice was closing in on the record after only six years in the league—and while still in his early thirties. The pressure mounted as Rice became a premier superstar on the 49ers with the injury-related benching of Montana and the retirement of Walsh. Meanwhile, the talented receiver had to contend with injuries of his own.
Notoriety in the NFL can be quite hard on a receiver, as defenders exert themselves doubly to catch and hit. It is remarkable that Rice has never been sidelined for long. He tends to play through injuries and nurse himself back to health in the off-season. He has a number of weapons in his arsenal with which to confound defensive backs. First, he is fast even when hobbled by leg injuries. He is also agile, at times seeming to move in two directions at once to slip by a lunging opponent. He has a good head for the game and a well-rehearsed list of proven moves. At six-foot-two he can make towering leaps for lofted passes, and he is strong enough to hold up under a hit and force his way for extra yardage. Rice's most distinguishing feature, though, is his determination. He has a passion for football and plays for the sheer joy of it. He simply craves the end zone. "You see a lot of receivers … they're satisfied once they catch the ball and they fall to the ground," he told the San Francisco Chronicle. "I'm not satisfied until I get into the end zone."
That bald obsession with scoring brought Rice to the brink of the receptions-for-touchdowns record in 1992. During the fourth quarter of a rain-soaked game against the Miami Dolphins on December 6, 1992, Rice ran a z-slant into the end zone and caught a twelve-yard reception. The catch was his 101st for a touchdown, breaking Largent's record. The sodden 49ers fans and players erupted in an ovation that lasted several minutes, and Rice ran to the stands to embrace his wife, Jackie. After the game, which San Francisco won, 27-3, Rice told the San Francisco Chronicle that he was relieved. "I've tried to downplay the record and focus in on football, but it's something I've been chasing for a long, long time," he said. "There is a lot of pressure off me now."
San Jose Mercury News reporter Bud Geracie was present when Rice scored his 101st touchdown. "Rice couldn't say what The Record meant to him, just that it meant 'a whole lot,'" Geracie recalled. "He credited his teammates, his coaches, his luck. He praised Largent. In his greatest moment, Rice was humble, classy and just happy to win the game." Rice collected his third super bowl ring with San Francisco in 1995. During the 1996 season, for the second time in his career he led the league in receptions—with 108—but succumbed to a knee injury early in the 1997 season, which limited his play to only two games. He returned to full strength in 1998 and logged 1,157 yards receiving. By 2000 his career receptions surpassed 19,000 yards, topping the next closest contender by more than 4,000 yards. By the end of that season, his sixteenth with the 49ers, Rice had accumulated 19,247 yards receiving. While many in San Francisco thought that Rice's best years were behind him and that it was time for him to retire, Rice had different ideas.
Not Quite Ready to Hang Up His Spikes
In 2000 Rice was listed on the 75-year NFL roster and was voted by the Pro Football Hall of Fame voters to the NFL All-Time Team. He had broken broke 14 NFL records and 10 Super Bowl records. "I love to score touchdowns," the receiver once told the Los Angeles Times. "There's nothing like the feeling you get in the end zone. When you score a touchdown, it feels like winning $6 million in the lottery." In June of 2000, at age 38, Rice refused a $1-million retirement bonus offered by the San Francisco management and opted instead to continue to play football, signing with the Oakland Raiders for four years and $5 million. In his first two seasons with the Raiders Rice showed that he could still play with the best, averaging 87 catches for 1175 yards. In 2003 his playing time diminished as the Raiders turned to younger, faster receivers. Rice was openly dissatisfied with his lack of playing time, and after just a six games of the 2004 season he won a trade to the Seattle Seahawks. The Seahawks had a young, inconsistent receiving corps and Rice brought needed stability to a team that was on the verge of joining the NFL's elite. The highlight of the 2004 season came when he made eight catches for 145 yards against the Dallas Cowboys on Monday Night Football.
Though Rice caught a total of 25 passes for 362 yards for the Seahawks, they were not ready to grant Rice a starting role. Rice, who could not tolerate being a backup, signed with the Denver Broncos and fought during their training camp and preseason to gain a starting position. When Denver coach Mike Shanahan offered Rice a spot as a reserve, Rice recognized that it was finally time for him to retire. In a tearful press conference held in September of 2005, Rice announced that "I never played for a legacy. I played because I love football." Rice retired with statistics that may not soon be surpassed: he caught 1549 passes for 22,895 yards, for a career average of 14.8 yards per catch; along the way he caught 197 touchdown passes.
In retirement, Rice returned with his wife to his hometown of Crawford, Mississippi, though he was back on television in 2006 as a contestant in the popular ABC reality TV show Dancing with the Stars.
Evans, J. Edward, Jerry Rice: Touchdown Talent, Lerner, 1993.
Fresno Bee, January 28, 1990.
Jet, January 8, 2001; June 25, 2001; September 26, 2005.
Los Angeles Times, December 13, 1987.
Newsday (New York), January 28, 1990.
San Francisco Chronicle, January 26, 1989; January 28, 1989; November 7, 1989; January 25, 1990; December 7, 1992.
San Jose Mercury News, September 2, 1988; December 7, 1992.
Sporting News, August 6, 2001; September 23, 2005.
Sports Illustrated, September 28, 1987; September 12, 2005.
Time, September 19, 2005.
Washington Post, September 1, 1989; January 22, 1989; January 23, 1989.
"NFL Players: Jerry Rice," NFL, www.nfl.com/players/playerpage/1291 (January 4, 2006).
"Player: Jerry Rice, Wide Receiver," Denver Broncos, www.denverbroncos.com/page.php?id=498&contentID=4377 (January 4, 2006).
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