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Rice Is a Breed Apart (cont.)

Posted: Tuesday September 11, 2007 3:11PM; Updated: Tuesday September 11, 2007 3:11PM
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By Ralph Wiley

2) Attitude

But we all know that fancy-pants wide receivers who think getting open is the whole show can get their comeuppance. Last January against the Giants, Rice was behind the defense, preparing to take in a Montana pass and score the first touchdown of the NFC semifinal game, when he dropped the ball. "It just came out," says Rice. New York went on to win 42-3. If Rice had held on to that pass, the score probably would've been 42-10. Safety Kenny Hill of the Giants was later fined $ 5,000 by the NFL for two flagrant hits against Rice. Throughout the game, usually when Rice had his head turned toward a play unfolding on the other side of the field, Hill leveled him with a succession of forearms. Niner coach Bill Walsh demanded punitive action. Rice never uttered a word. "You won't hear me say anything about that, ever, because football is a physical game," says Rice.

The day after San Francisco's loss to the Giants, he began working out. If anything, Rice practices harder than he plays. "He's always at top speed," says Lott. "Young defensive backs want to avoid him in coverage line. Covering Jerry in practice is the closest I'll ever come to covering a Paul Warfield, a Charley Taylor."


"When we went to the Hall of Fame Game, I went in the Hall," says Rice. "It sent chills through me. That's where I want to go. That means this year I'd like to get 90 catches, 18 touchdowns, 1,800 yards [after the 49ers' first two games, a 30-17 loss to Pittsburgh and a 27-26 beating of Cincinnati, in which he grabbed the game-winning TD pass with no time remaining, he was on pace with 12, 3 and 192]. I want to be in there with guys who didn't play for the money as much as for the challenge."

Obviously, we can't wait for Rice to rest on his laurels. We can't count on intimidation. We interrogated Montana further, asking if Rice could still improve. He half smiled, looked away and said, "I don't know if there's anything that he can't already do." So, we've found no physical or attitudinal weakness in Rice. We must probe deeper. Open you red files, gentlemen.

3) Deep Background

Forget those big-school reputations, gentlemen. How many times did Texas or Oklahoma or Alabama throw the ball at you out of a double-split, triple-right, no-huddle offense? Rice helped put Mississippi Valley State in Itta Bena on the map. In one game he caught 24 passes -- and 4 more were called back by penalties. He went to Valley State because it was the only school that sent a coach to see him.

Before Rice caught the Greyhound to Itta Bena, the Delta Devils ran a standard pro-set offense. The coach at that time, Archie Cooley, took one look at Rice and began devising all manner of bizarre formations designed to spring Rice loose. Rice caught more than 100 passes in each of his last two seasons. As a senior he had 28 TD receptions. He has faced constant double-teaming since he was an 18-year-old freshman. That's another reason he came so far so fast.

That leaves us with the matter of the dropped passes. It's not a question of hands. Rice's father, Joe, built their house near Crawford with his bare hands. He's a bricklayer whose handiwork can be admired all over Oktibbeha County. Jerry helped his father with his work. He stacked bricks, shoveled and slapped mortar and banged his knuckles raw. So Jerry's hands are tough. "And he could stand more sun than I could," says Joe. "He handled bricks better than any worker I ever had. I was sorry to see him go."

When Rice chose to play football, his mother, Eddie B., had her doubts. He started out as a skinny boy. "I didn't love it," she says, "but the more I fought it, the more determined he was, so I gave it up." She alludes to Malachi: "You just never know what God has in the storehouse for you."

"It was just fun to them," says Joe. "Tom, Jimmy and Jerry, they were always after that football. I saw Jerry dive in a thorn bush after a ball one day. He got stuck bad, but he caught it. When I saw that, I felt something." Now Joe will sometimes excuse himself early from church to head back to the house that Jerry bought his parents in Starkville. "I have to come home, just to see my boy on television, and get that feeling."

"To tell the truth, I don't know much about it," says Eddie B. "But I have to admit that I like those 49ers now. Before Jerry bought us this house, he said, 'Pick a place.' So we did. Every year, we go to Atlanta to see him play. But Crawford -- I liked that little town." Says Jerry, "You know, that's what made me, running those back dirt roads and country fields."

That was then. Nobody can remember Rice ever dropping a pass as a kid. But he dropped two in exhibition games this August. He dropped at least nine last years; if he'd kept that number down, he probably would have broken Hennigan's receiving-yardage record. "I have to clean that up," says Rice.

He's pretty clean, otherwise. Jerry drives a Porsche, and Jackie tools around in a Jag. Jerry owns a Rottweiler named Max, and Jackie has a poodle named Casio. And Jerry is well dressed. Very GQ. Armani, Ungaro, "whatever looks good," says Jackie. "He's got some clothes; I don't even know what they are," says his father.

So this is all we can give you, gentlemen. Perhaps the dropped balls reflect a tendency to be distracted, to lose his concentration. Maybe the way to cover Rice is to get to now him, be his friend -- if you can find the real Rice under the Fifi cut, behind the dark glasses, inside the designer clothes. Turn his head. Tell him how great he is. Maybe he'll believe you. Maybe he'll forget to catch the ball. We know it isn't much, gentlemen, but it's all we have. You're on your own now. Consider yourselves briefed.

This story originally appeared in the Sept. 28, 1987 issue of Sports Illustrated

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