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Let's Hand It To Him
Rick Telander
December 26, 1994
Jerry Rice's dedication to his craft has made him the finest receiver in the game's history
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December 26, 1994

Let's Hand It To Him

Jerry Rice's dedication to his craft has made him the finest receiver in the game's history

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Well, not really good. Not the way you or I might feel good if we knew that not only were we certifiably the best receiver in the history of football but, perhaps, the greatest, offensive player ever. That argument can be made. Rice already has more receiving touchdowns (130) and more total touchdowns (138) than anyone in NFL history. He has more 1,000-yard seasons (nine) than any other receiver, more touchdown catches in a Super Bowl (three) than anyone and more consecutive games with a touchdown reception (13) than anyone.

Was he this good in college? Imagine, for a moment, that it's September 1984, and you are in sweltering Itta Bena, Miss., watching Mississippi Valley State coach Archie (Gunslinger) Cooley direct his Satellite Express offense, with quarterback Willie Totten flinging passes to a senior wideout named Rice, who races out of a stacked receiver formation that looks something like a Motown chorus line. In the first four games of that season Rice caught 64 passes for 917 yards and 12 touchdowns. As a junior he caught 24 passes in one game, an all-division record. He left school with 18 NCAA I-AA records. Yes, he was good.

Rice never missed a game in college, nor has he missed one as a pro. Since he joined the 49ers the team has gone 126-45-1 (the best record in the NFL during that period) and won two Super Bowls. And at the seemingly advanced age of 32, he is still in his prime. On Nov. 20, in a 31-27 win over the Los Angeles Rams, Rice snagged 16 passes for 165 yards and three touchdowns. Three weeks later he caught 12 passes for 144 yards in a 38-15 win against the San Diego Chargers. Heading into the final game of the regular season, Monday night against the Minnesota Vikings, he has 108 catches for 1,446 yards and 12 touchdowns, plus 93 yards and two more touchdowns on seven rushing attempts. "He's in his 10th year," says 49er player personnel director Dwight Clark, a former star receiver himself, "and he's better than he was in his first."

On a Wednesday one might expect Rice to be civil, but in this case he's already badly game-faced. Usually that doesn't happen until Thursday, but here's the reason: The 49ers are playing the Denver Broncos on Saturday. Rice's schedule has been moved ahead 24 hours.

The gold earring sparkles in his left ear; the gold-flecked tattoo of a 49er helmet on his right deltoid flashes. Rice is miserable. "I'm so grouchy," he says with a tight grin, "my wife is going to move out."

He showers. Earlier in the season he had talked about his compulsion to prove himself, to never let up even for an instant out of fear that everything might come apart. He had started at the bottom, and he could be back there in a heartbeat; people would forget him, and if that happened...would he even exist?

"There's always doubt about me," he says. "I was disappointed coming out of college that Al Toon and Eddie Brown were drafted ahead of me, but they went to major colleges. You would think that in my 10th season there wouldn't be any doubt, but it's still out there." It is? Both Toon, who played with the New York Jets, and Brown, who played with the Cincinnati Bengals, are long gone.

There was an article last year, he explains, in a magazine, that ranked him as the third-best receiver in the league at the time, behind Michael Irvin of the Dallas Cowboys and Sterling Sharpe of the Green Bay Packers. "I read that," he says. "You have to have confidence, and guys like that, they're prolonging my career."

Rodney Knox, the 49er publicist, remembers the article, too. "After that," Knox says, "Jerry just exploded."

Rice felt he had stumbled into Oz when he arrived in San Francisco. "I stepped off the plane, and I wanted to turn right around and go home," he says. "I'm still trying to deal with it. There were guys who felt like they were gods at Mississippi Valley State, but it never went to my head. I've never put myself above anyone else. I can get the job done, but I don't see myself as a natural. I'm shy. The pressure is every second. I have to perform."

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