49ers era was Rice era
By Bob Carter
Special to ESPN.com
Gaudy statistics drew pro scouts to Jerry Rice when he played for obscure Mississippi Valley State. His pass-catching skills sold them on his potential. His MVP performance in an all-star game sealed the analysis: Rice was worth a first-round draft pick.
But National Football League teams, renowned for attention to detail, played Rice short. Most didn't have him at the top of their draft lists, didn't even rate him as the best wide receiver.
Rice had come from a predominantly African-American college in the lowly regarded Southwestern Athletic Conference, a product of a gimmicky, spread-the-field passing offense that often ran up the score. Rice's competition was suspect, the thinking went, as was his college coaching.
The San Francisco 49ers thought differently. They thought enough of Archie Cooley, Rice's coach, to pick his brain on his unorthodox offense. They thought enough of Rice to trade up and take him with the 16th selection in the 1985 draft.
The 49ers merely latched on to the most prolific pass receiver in pro football history. Rice is the NFL's career leader in receptions, yards receiving, touchdowns, touchdown receptions and consecutive games with at least one catch.
When he passed Art Monk's consecutive-game reception streak of 183 in October 1998, the man known as "World" in college held 12 NFL records and 10 Super Bowl marks. A Super Bowl MVP, he has been selected for the Pro Bowl 11 times. It has been enough to send the cover experts for cover.
"We're all measured by how we do against Rice," Robert Massey, a New Orleans Saints cornerback, said in 1990. "I remember the first time an NFL scout talked to me right before the draft. The only thing he asked me was if I thought I could cover Jerry Rice."
Rice was born Oct. 13, 1962, in Starkville, Miss., one of eight children, and grew up in rural Crawford, about 40 miles away. His father, Joe Nathan, was a bricklayer whose sons helped him with his job in the summer by tossing and catching bricks on a scaffold.
"It taught me the meaning of hard work," Rice said.
As a child, Rice ran endlessly on the dirt road in front of his house, soaking himself in the oppressive Mississippi heat, years before he discovered football. He found football by running, too.
One day at B.L. Moor High School in Crawford, Rice was trying to dodge a class when he ran into an assistant principal and sprinted away down the hall. The principal may not have liked Rice's class cut, but he noticed his speed and recommended him to the school's football coach.
The youngster developed into a capable receiver for Moor and a standout one for "Gunslinger" Cooley at Mississippi Valley in Itta Bena.
In Cooley's no-huddle offense, led by quarterback Willie "Satellite" Totten, Rice developed into a Division I-AA All-American. He caught 24 passes in a game, an NCAA all-division record. He had 4,693 yards receiving in four seasons and finished with 18 Division I-AA records.
Cooley loaded one side of the field with as many as four receivers and often put Rice on the other against one defender. As he'd re-affirm during his pro career, one man could rarely handle Rice. Though he didn't possess incredible speed, he was agile, ran precise routes and his huge hands seemed to pull in everything.
"He can catch a BB on a dead run at night," Cooley said.
Rice caught 112 passes for 1,845 yards as a senior and scored 28 touchdowns. Then he played in the Freedom Bowl All-Star game and was the MVP of the Blue-Gray Game. He was ready for the next step.
In 1985, breaking in as an NFL rookie, Rice admitted he was scared and dropped the ball more than usual. "I was thinking through every step of a complicated offense," he said, "instead of using natural reactions."
San Francisco coach Bill Walsh stuck with him, and a 10-catch, 241-yard game against the Los Angeles Rams in December put him on course. The next year Rice led the league with 1,570 yards and 15 touchdown receptions and had 86 catches.
In 1987, he scored a league-high 23 touchdowns, including at least one in all 12 non-strike games. The following season he was MVP of Super Bowl XXIII with 11 catches and 215 yards as the 49ers beat the Cincinnati Bengals 20-16. The record beat was on.
Talent and obsession: Rice blended them into a feared package. His 4.5-second speed for 40 yards, moderate for the pros, proved to be misleading. Rice, 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds, had brilliant game speed, breakaway speed, which made him the deep threat the 49ers wanted. But he also made the important third-down receptions, often turning short routes into big gains.
"He has the knack of knowing when to break, when to use his speed," said former 49ers quarterback Joe Montana, who threw 55 touchdown passes to Rice.
Rice could cut like no other receiver, explosively at full blast, which put cornerbacks on their heels. He could outjump defenders to balls. And his hands -- big and toughened by his early bricklaying days and yet sensitive -- were incomparable.
"Just beautiful," said Gloster Richardson, a former NFL wideout and Rice's receiving coach in college. "Real soft, real quiet, always right on time. He doesn't need to use his body to catch the ball. His hands are just a gift."
Rice wouldn't rely on physical gifts alone, a characteristic that went back to his hard-working childhood. Meticulous almost to the point of fixation, he catalogued the tendencies of defensive backs, played practice drills as if they were games, and built a strict health-food diet and conditioning regimen.
Until sitting out 14 games in 1997 because of two serious knee injuries, Rice had never missed a game at any level, a span of 19 seasons. He played 189 consecutive non-strike NFL games, some of them hurt. He played the 1995 Super Bowl against the San Diego Chargers with a strained shoulder, a first-quarter injury, and caught 10 passes, three for touchdowns. Displeased with his ability to talk before audiences and handle the media, he hired a speech coach in 1987. "I needed somebody to smooth out my speech," he said.
As the years went on, little about his game needed smoothing. But Rice wouldn't stop working, wouldn't stop trying to prove himself. One year, he read a magazine article that rated him the third-best receiver at the time, behind Michael Irvin and Sterling Sharpe.
"Guys like that," Rice said, "they're prolonging my career."
He's played in three Super Bowls, all victories, and has run down records at every turn.
In 1992, he broke Steve Largent's touchdown reception record with his 101st. In 1994, he passed Jim Brown to become the league's all-time touchdown leader with 127. The following season, he broke Charlie Hennigan's 34-year-old record for single-season receiving yards (1,746) with 1,848. He also set the career receiving yardage record that year, going to 14,040 yards with a 108-yard day against the Saints.
And in 1998, the year after his knee injuries, Rice combined with quarterback Steve Young to become the NFL's all-time top scoring duo with 80 touchdown passes as well as breaking Monk's record for consecutive games catching a pass.
"That means he gets himself open, even against triple teams," Young said. "Think about it, through generations of defenses, he's still getting open."
That's why he's the best wide receiver there ever was.