By Glenn Dickey
Fourth in a series of profiles of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's seven-member Class of 2010.
Jerry Rice had obvious physical skills, but what set him apart was his drive to do whatever it took to be the very best.
It didn't seem that way at the start because he dropped so many passes in the first half of his rookie season with the 49ers that sportswriters were running charts on him. Fortunately for him and the 49ers, Bill Walsh understood the problem: Because Jerry was having so much trouble learning the complex offense, he couldn't concentrate on the physical end.
Walsh kept him in the lineup, and it soon paid off. In a December 1985 game against the Rams, Rice caught 10 passes for 241 yards. He was on his way. He ended the season with 49 catches for 927 yards and was named the NFC Rookie of the Year.
Rice kept getting better and better. That was no coincidence. He worked very hard on an offseason program, started by Roger Craig, whose main feature consisted of running up hills. Other 49ers joined them — briefly. None of the others could stay with Rice and Craig.
Rice and Craig set a model for the 49ers because of their hard work off the field and during practice, as well as their constant effort in games. When a team's stars play and practice that way, lesser players follow their example. Even after Walsh retired, the 49ers gave maximum effort, in practice and in games.
Rice was always looking for a way to improve. Before his third season, 1987, in training camp, he told me he had lost 10 pounds in the offseason so he could be just a little quicker. I was astounded because he had been lean before losing the 10 pounds, but he was indeed quicker that season. Though he played in only 12 games because 1987 was a strike-shortened season, he caught 22 touchdown passes, an NFL single-season record at the time.
It wasn't just on-the-field improvement, either, that Rice sought. When he first came to the 49ers, Rice went back to Mississippi in the offseason because that was his comfort zone. But he realized that, if he truly wanted to be part of the San Francisco Bay Area, he had to live there year-round, so he bought a home in Redwood City.
After being named the Super Bowl MVP following his fourth season, he expected to be signed up for commercials. He got no offers because of his country style of speech. So, he hired a speaking coach, and soon he was doing commercials.
By that time, he was already measuring himself against the best in the game — and the best in the game's history.
Ira Miller and I interviewed him for The San Francisco Chronicle in training camp in 1993, and he admitted that he checked every week to see what other top receivers, especially Michael Irvin of the Cowboys, had done that week. He wanted to be ahead of everybody.
He also told us he wanted to be the first name in the record books, and he achieved that. By the time he finally retired — quite reluctantly — he had all the important career records.
Rice had help, and not just from his teammates. Walsh had crafted a system that was perfect for Rice. Previously, when a team had a long gain on a pass play, it was almost all from the pass itself. But long passes were low-percentage plays. Walsh reasoned that it would be better to throw shorter, high-percentage passes and have the receiver run for extra yardage after the catch. He constantly emphasized to receivers that they needed to be prepared to run for that extra yardage when they caught the ball, and Joe Montana put the ball in the perfect position for them to catch passes in stride.
Nobody ever got more out of that system than Rice. The phrase "yards after catch" became popular because Rice's running added so many yards to the play.
Rice was all about football, and he abhorred the demonstrations that had started to permeate the game during his career. When he caught a touchdown pass, he just laid the ball down in the endzone. When Terrell Owens, a quite different type of player, joined the 49ers and started his stunts, Rice advised him that, when he caught a pass in the endzone, "act like you've been there before." Unfortunately, Owens didn't take that advice.
That didn't mean Jerry was humble. He knew his worth, and he demanded respect. Everybody around the 49ers, including the media, knew that he demanded that the first pass of the game went to him. The opposition knew that, too. He was double-covered, sometimes even triple-covered — but he caught the pass, anyway.
He wasn't happy when the 49ers changed quarterbacks, from Montana to Steve Young, and he went public with his complaints. He insisted that the ball that Young threw was harder to catch because Young was left-handed and the ball had a different spin.
But Rice never let his personal feelings interfere with his physical effort. Eventually, he caught more touchdown passes from Young than from Montana, and he and Young combined to set game records as the 49ers won their fifth Super Bowl by beating the Chargers 49-26 in January 1995 in Miami.
Nobody could have known it at the time, but Rice had a relatively short time left as the very best. In the first game of the 1997 season against Tampa Bay, Rice was running a reverse when Warren Sapp grabbed Rice's face mask and threw him to the ground, tearing ligaments in Rice's knee. Sapp drew a 15-yard penalty, but Rice was out for the year.
Typically, Rice worked very hard to rehab, and he came back for the 1998 season, but he wasn't the same player. He had lost just enough speed that he couldn't break loose for those long gains.
That change in his game prompted the one angry exchange we ever had. Early that season, I wrote that the 49ers' offense wasn't as effective as it should be because Young was still making Rice the focus, though Owens was the more talented receiver at that point.
The next time I was at a 49ers practice, Rice started screaming "mother f-----" at me as he left the field. I came into the locker room and sat down next to Tim McDonald, but Rice kept up his verbal barrage, walking up and down in the middle of the room while yelling at me. Finally, the 49ers' P.R. chief convinced me to come up to his office to conduct an interview I had scheduled with Ken Norton Jr. (Norton had been in a linebackers meeting and had no knowledge of the locker-room scene.)
A week later, I was sitting in the lobby of the 49ers' facility, waiting to go up to talk to coach Steve Mariucci, when Rice came out of the dressing room. He saw me and came over to apologize for his earlier behavior. "That wasn't me," he said, and, truthfully, it wasn't. Except for that one occasion, he'd been unfailingly cooperative and candid with me.
About that time, Rice realized the truth: He was now a possession-type receiver, not a breakaway threat. Typically, he then started working to become the best of that type of receiver. He left the 49ers after two more seasons and played four years for the Raiders, averaging nearly 80 receptions over the first three seasons. His career ended with the 2004 season, which he finished in Seattle.
I always hesitate to say one football player is the best who ever played his position because the game has changed so much. But, Rice worked harder to perfect his game than anybody I ever saw, he played on three Super Bowl champions, he has all the career receiving records ... well, what else can you say?
Glenn Dickey is a columnist for the San Francisco Examiner.
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