Posted: Wednesday September 7, 2005 3:51PM; Updated: Wednesday September 7, 2005 9:17PM
By S.L. Price, SI.com
A cop told Jackie to move it along. She stole one last look at the terminal doors. But her husband was gone, off and running for his final play.
"There's something I don't know about Jerry and, believe me, I've tried figuring it out for 21 years," Jackie said. "Whatever pushed him -- fear of failing? That's out the window -- I don't think I'll ever know. I've stopped trying."
It's appropriate that Jerry Rice wept after announcing his retirement on Monday. After all, he began his career in tears.
Jerry Rice was limited by injuries in the preseason, which hurt his chances of moving up the Broncos' depth chart.
Peter Read Miller/SI
It was 1985, and he stood on the sideline at the Metrodome in Minneapolis, hearing the 57,375 fans, taking in the TV cameras, the avalanche of sensation, that relentless hum of an NFL game just minutes from kickoff. He was a 22-year-old rookie from a tiny school in a place called Itta Bena, Miss., wearing the uniform of the powerhouse San Francisco 49ers. His chest began to tighten. "My God," he whispered. Then Rice started to cry.
It was overwhelming, but then again, so was he. Forty-Niners head coach Bill Walsh had never gotten over the TV highlights he'd seen the year before: Rice making catch after too-easy catch for Mississippi Valley State's four- or five-wide, damn-the-torpedos offense, scoring so much that it seemed almost cruel. "Just amazing," Walsh recalls; he traded three draft picks for the right to take the kid they called World. Not long after Rice showed up for his first training camp, in dry-roasted Rocklin, Calif., everyone knew he had been worth it. Forty-Niners assistant George Seifert threw All-Pro cornerback Ronnie Lott at Rice the first day, Lott at the height of his bone-rattling, zen-warrior power. "Jerry spun me like a top," he says.
Seifert looked at Lott and said, "I thought you were going to cover this guy." Rice's routes were so precise, his hands and legs so strong, his speed so deceptive, covering him was like trying to contain an 18-point buck. You couldn't get purchase. You weren't sure you wanted to.
Worse (or better, depending on your perspective), Rice made the most intense of the 49ers -- then the NFL's premier franchise, two-time Super Bowl champions -- look almost lackadaisical. During two-a-days he would pace the sideline between plays while veterans heaved under the 100-degree heat. Star receivers Dwight Clark and Freddie Solomon would run 10 yards after a catch, then return to the huddle, but Rice would gather in the most routine five-and-out and sprint whatever distance it took to reach the end zone. Every time. "A lot of people come into professional sports and some have ability, and some have desire," Lott says. "But some have that 'want-to' -- what Michael Jordan and Joe Montana had and Tiger Woods have: that wanting to be greater. Those guys play in another league. Jerry has always tried to play in another league."
But that first year, his want-to nearly paralyzed him. Rice dropped easy passes, 11 balls in the first 11 games. Against the Kansas City Chiefs he dropped two in the first half, and the Candlestick Park crowd let him have it: boos, curses, the first time he'd ever felt such hate. He ran into the locker room and broke down. Rice fumbled his last catch that day, and two weeks later against the Redskins he caught nothing. The pressure was immense, scarring; Walsh kept telling him, "You have to make plays for this team to win," and he wasn't making them.
Rice's struggle ended the following week. Montana hit him with 10 passes for 241 yards against the Rams, igniting a record that streaked across two decades -- 274 games with at least one catch. But ask Rice about his early years as a pro, and he doesn't mention that game, or winning the NFC Offensive Rookie of the Year award. In the first quarter of a playoff game against the New York Giants in January 1987, with no score, Rice made a catch off a slant and began running, sure he would score. No one touched him, but the ball popped out of his hands on the Giants' 26-yard line and rolled away as he groped helplessly, the game (an eventual 49-3 New York victory) lost right there. "That taught me a lot," Rice says. "You can't relax. You've always got to finish. That molded me into the player I am."
It would be more than 10 years before he seemed even vaguely human again. He had 1,570 yards and 15 touchdowns in 1986, and an astonishing 22 touchdowns in the strike-shortened '87 season. Dallas Cowboys All-Pro receiver Michael Irvin, a religious man these days, calls Rice "Jesus in cleats." Blasphemous or not, Irvin has a point. There has always been something utterly different about Rice, a subset of one within the high-strung sect of NFL wide receivers, the male divas' diva. Fastidious and merciless, soft-spoken yet commanding, Rice offered himself up as his team's first, best route to the promised land. Defenders rarely got enough of a bead on him to deliver a full hit, and why was a bit of a mystery. Week after week teams dedicated themselves to bottling up Rice close to the line, and "constantly he'd get behind them," Montana says. "Unbelievable to me, to this day."