Posted: Wednesday September 7, 2005 3:51PM; Updated: Wednesday September 7, 2005 9:17PM
By S.L. Price, SI.com
But then, neither stopwatch nor scale had been subtle enough to measure Rice's speed and toughness. He has always been a slender 200 pounds, with average time in the 40-yard dash, yet, says Shanahan, "before his knee surgery he never got caught from behind. I was there when he ran the 40; Jerry ran a 4.53. I've seen a lot of 4.3 guys get caught from behind, but not him. That doesn't make sense, does it?"
No, but then Rice was able to run that same 4.5 in full pads, in the fourth quarter, when speed kings often start lagging. And he had an uncanny knack for reading the angle of the man attacking him, for making the subtlest of shifts and then producing the burst needed to escape. "The ability to change angles in sports makes you faster," Lott says. "I'm sure Jerry didn't take much geometry, but he was a master of it."
Too, perhaps no modern football player more eagerly sacrificed his body. In the off-season, Rice punished himself with five-mile runs up that infamous Portola Valley hill, spent as many as seven hours a day working out. Despite the 49ers' success before his arrival, Walsh calls Rice "the catalyst for everything," because once he arrived, every Niners skill player began sprinting for the end zone. He was football's Impeccable Man, the creases in his pants as sharp as his pass patterns. Rice had washed his college jersey every day after practice, and as a pro he took 30 minutes to dress for a game. Socks pulled up just so, jersey tucked tighter than a Marine recruit's bed: By the time he took the field, Rice looked as if he'd been shrink-wrapped.
Yet in his first years, he felt overwhelmed by the media attention. He'll tell you now that he made big mistakes, said some dumb things. Rice was country-raw, and forever on guard; for all his toughness, there was something fragile about him. He wore a poodle haircut popular then; his teammates called him Fifi, and his emotions bubbled just under the skin. "Guys were teasing him," says Lott. "With that competitive spirit, you can tease guys and not realize you're hurting them."
In 1988 Rice averaged 20.4 yards a catch and didn't miss a beat in the playoffs: 21 catches for 409 yards and six touchdowns, not to mention the clutch, 27-yard catch to set up Montana's heroics in the 20-16 Super Bowl win over the Cincinnati Bengals. Rice was named the game's MVP, and the world, which had just seen him at his best, soon saw him at his worst. First he gagged upon accepting the keys to his MVP prize. "I've got so many cars," he lamented at a press conference the day after the Super Bowl, "I don't know what I'll do with a Subaru." Then, a day later, Rice ripped the media because Montana had gotten the Disney commercial that usually went to the MVP, and he implied race was the reason. He didn't know that, since the recipient was chosen before the game, he was usually the winning team's quarterback. Nor did he have it in him to be a corporate star. Next to Michael Jordan, who could hide his obsessions behind charm, and Montana, Rice seemed only more skittish, and had no shtick to make up for it.
"Jerry's very tough to know," says his agent, Jim Steiner. "He's a football purist. He's not going to market himself as a character. He's not going to pretend to be someone else."
Mom got the Subaru. Rice dedicated himself, through the mid-'90s, to his quest for The Perfect Game: every block executed, every ball caught, every decoy successful, score after score after score. When Rice would talk about his quest, Lott would ask silently, Why are you trying to do all this? and pretend he understood. Rice couldn't see that he didn't need to raise the bar any higher. He caught seven of Montana's passes for 148 yards and three touchdowns in San Francisco's demolition of Denver in Super Bowl XXIV, but he focused on the slightest sign of slippage.
In Hawaii for his first Pro Bowl, after the 1991 season, Irvin was reveling in his rise to the elite when he heard a voice: "Hey Irv!"
He had been in the NFL four years, but Rice had never spoken to him before. Irv? Friends called him Playmaker, and Irvin had lived up to that name at last, catching for more yards in '91 than anyone else. Some felt he had replaced Rice as the NFL's best. Maybe this was his welcome to the club.
"Thank you, Irv," Rice said. "For the extra work."
"What do you mean?" Irvin asked.
"I've been chasing you all year, and I couldn't catch you. But I'm already putting in the extra work. I'll get you next year."
Irvin didn't know what to think. Who talks about work at the Pro Bowl? But the strangest part wasn't the message: Irvin had gone to the University of Miami, where guys trash-talked as well as they played. But he had never heard smack delivered in quite this tone. "It was fact," Irvin recalls. "Just stating the facts: He's going to be the best."
The next season, Rice caught six more passes and scored three more touchdowns than Irvin. Those who had known him in Itta Bena could only chuckle; Rice always loved having someone to stalk. "Every day, he would challenge the fastest guys on the team: 'Let's run. Let's race to the cafeteria. Let's race from the cafeteria,'" says Willie (Satellite) Totten, Rice's quarterback at Mississippi Valley State and now the school's football coach. "Those guys used to beat him by four and five yards. But then Jerry got to the point where those guys were barely beating him. Then he got to the point where he won some."
While Rice went through his quiet paces in Denver this summer, his former teammate Terrell Owens worked out topless and ripped his Philadelphia Eagles coaches and quarterback during a week-long exile from the team, and Raiders bad boy Randy Moss copped to smoking marijuana. "Football is totally different now," Rice says. "Terrell and Randy are great football players, but they're entertainers. It's just a money thing -- setting yourself up to make the big bucks: be flamboyant, do crazy stuff in the end zone. I wouldn't change anything about my career. I'm a worker, man. A worker."
The Rice family was close but poor when Jerry was growing up outside the town of Crawford, Miss. Heat in the house came from the fireplace and the woodstove. Jerry was the fifth of eight kids, six of them boys. For fun, the boys would run down the neighbor's horses and hop on them bareback. Their father, Joe Nathan Rice, worked as a bricklayer, and all his sons helped come summer, but the bulk of the work fell on Tom (who went on to play center at Jackson State), James and Jerry. Every day a truck would dump a load of bricks at the job site, and from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., says Jerry, "it was a living hell." Much would be said later about Jerry catching four-brick stacks lofted to him by his brothers, his hands growing strong in the sun. But what he remembers is that he had to keep the bricks coming -- pushing wheelbarrows, stacking, keeping the men supplied so they'd have no excuse to slow down. Joe Nathan was exacting, sometimes fiercely so, and there was only one way to do a job. "You had to do it right to suit him," says Eddie B. Rice, Jerry's mother. "If it's not right, you got to tear it down." When Jerry signed his first contract, he built his parents a house in Starkville, Miss. Joe Nathan insisted on doing the brickwork himself.
Jerry didn't care about football until his sophomore year, when, after juking away from a teacher while playing hooky, he got directed to the football coach at B.L. Moor High. After his first day of summer practice, he thought, Wow, this is O.K. Better than what happened before and after, anyway: Joe Nathan would drop him at practice directly from work, and Jerry had no way to get home except by running five miles through the dark. But here's the odd thing: Rice kind of liked it. "I think I just found myself," he says.
In college Rice was an undisputed star, a senior with scouts circling, but any setback devastated him, as if one mistake meant a lifetime of hauling bricks. Do it right, or tear it down. "He was a crybaby," Totten says. "Even when we were winning and blowing teams out, if he felt he didn't have a good game, he would just cry like a baby. But you see a guy give all he has, and after the game he shows that emotion? You know he's not putting it on. You just say, 'That's Jerry. Just leave him alone.'"
That year, too, he met Jackie, a high school senior visiting the campus. She asked for his autograph, and he wrote something on it that she won't repeat. "I can't take this home," she told him. They started talking and Jerry got her number and said he'd call her the next day, at noon. She drove the hour home, and the next day he called exactly on time. Three hours later, he called back and said, "I'm in town. Where do you live?"