Afield, as in life, Rice is evasive. He almost never takes a direct, crushing blow after catching a pass. He controls his body like a master puppeteer working a marionette. A one-handed grab here, a tiptoe up the sideline there, an unscathed sprint through two closing safeties when it seems decapitation is imminent.
"I don't think I've ever seen him all stretched out," says 49er quarterback Steve Young of Rice's ability to avoid big hits. Rice jumps only when he has to, and unlike almost all other receivers, he catches passes in mid-stride and effortlessly continues running, the ball like a sprinter's baton in his hand. It's almost certain that no one has run for more yardage after catching the ball than Rice. Though he's not particularly fast, Rice has a fluid stride and a sudden burst that, as Young says, "is a speed you can't clock."
And the hands. Clad in gloves, the hands are so supple and sure that last year they snared a touchdown pass by latching onto the tail end of a fading ball. "That was not giving up on the ball," explains Rice. Sounds simple. In reality it's like grabbing the back end of a greased pig.
Rice's hands and agility allow him to catch the ball comfortably no matter where it's thrown. "He makes a lot of catches around his ankles," says Young. At a practice before the 1992 Pro Bowl, Cowboy quarterback Troy Aikman saw from a different perspective just what he and his teammates are up against when they play the 49ers. "We were running a quick out," says Aikman, "and I guess at San Francisco they run it different than we do, which is I drop back five steps and fire it. My arm was strong because I hadn't thrown in a while, and the ball was in the air, and I was sure I was going to kill him. He was still making moves, and the ball was almost at his head, and it wasn't so much that he just reached up and caught it. It was that he didn't even flinch."
Rice's dad, Joe Nathan, was a bricklayer, and much has been made of the fact that as a teenager Jerry worked eight-hour shifts with his dad and his brothers on scorching summer days back in Starkville, Miss., hoisting mortar and catching the bricks tossed up to him on the scaffold. This repetitive action, it has been written, is what forged Rice into the greatest pass catcher ever. The story is nice but probably not true. At least not in the way people would believe. After all, catching bricks is to catching footballs as sawing logs is to slicing sushi. "Catching bricks," says Rice, "taught me the meaning of hard work."
His dad was "very strict and demanding," Rice explains in a way that leaves one with the sense that his father was considerably more than that. Still, after work Rice would jog to the high school football field and exercise for two hours, then jog home—in his work clothes. "I didn't know anything about workout gear," he says.
After he got to the NFL, Rice had difficulty turning down his competitive flame when it wasn't needed. "My first five years I had a hard time turning it off," he says. "If things didn't go right for me in football, I'd find myself not turning it off at home." His wife, Jackie, is a strong woman, but even she had had enough of his intensity. Rice forced himself to let up as best he could. "You hear about stereotypes, about football players being very abusive off the field," he says. "I'd seen things when I was growing up, and I decided I wouldn't be like that."
What had he seen?
"I really don't want to go into that."
Now it is the rainy season in San Francisco, and Rice has limited opportunity to hit golf balls or ride his Harley—the two things he does to keep from coming apart at the seams. It's pouring on this Wednesday, adding to the pressure of the buildup to Saturday's game. He'll watch TV at home and play with his two children, seven-year-old Jaqui and three-year-old Jerry Jr., but he won't be at ease.