There was also the matter of who would perform the surgery. Though Dillingham, an orthopedist and rehabilitation medicine specialist, had done numerous delicate operations on Niners stars such as Joe Montana (elbow), Steve Young (shoulder) and William Floyd (knee), Rice would have been justified in seeking additional opinions from renowned specialists. But Dillingham told him, "Look, this is the Super Bowl to me." According to Jim Steiner, Rice's agent, "Jerry was moved by his sincerity." Rice agreed to undergo surgery the next morning.
The Niners didn't place Rice on the injured-reserve list, which would have rendered him ineligible for the season. After all, San Francisco cornerback Rod Woodson, who tore his ACL while playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers in their 1995 opener, had returned for spot duty in the Super Bowl 4½ months later—the only time an NFL player had come back from that injury in the same season. However, Woodson experienced subsequent knee problems that may have been caused by his rushed return. Steve Mariucci, San Francisco's first-year coach, says he figured Rice had a 5% chance of making it back before the Super Bowl.
Even if he doesn't suit up for the game against the Broncos or in the season finale against the Seattle Seahawks on Dec. 21, Rice is a lock to play in the Niners' first playoff game the weekend after New Year's Day. "They tell me coming back this fast is unheard of," Rice says. "Every time I see Dr. Dillingham, he gives me this little look like, You don't know what you're doing. This could change the entire philosophy about medicine and recovery from this type of injury, but I'm not looking at it like that. I just want to get back out on the field and make things happen."
How did this athlete, albeit one of the more gifted of his generation, make mincemeat out of conventional medical wisdom? Dillingham credits the extensive rehabilitation program initiated by the 49ers, which included the input of team trainer Lindsy McLean and physical development coordinator Jerry Attaway as well as a San Francisco physical therapist named Lisa Giannone. It was Giannone's approach, one in which muscles are subjected to measured dosages of stress in a specific order, that is credited with allowing Rice to push through his rehabilitation without experiencing the most common pitfall, patellar tendinitis. In Giannone's words, "Many people think rehabilitation is all about enduring pain, but I say it's all about relentless, calculated, progressive physical breakdown and then rebuilding the body as if it's a machine."
Technique alone can't explain the speed of Rice's recovery. Rice augments his physical gifts with an indefatigable work ethic and a desperation born of fear of failure. "I think we have to realize that he's a superbeing," says former 49ers tight end Jamie Williams, a close friend of Rice's. "He's not like other people—not from a physical standpoint or from mental or emotional ones. They say that when people are in life-or-death situations, sometimes their will to live is what saves them. He has that same will when it comes to his football life."
There were trying moments, to be sure. One night shortly after the injury Jerry and Jackie lay in bed, both of them sobbing, asking God for strength. On Sept. 14, Rice stood on the sideline before the Niners' home opener and wept during the national anthem. There were two months worth of sleepless nights. Says Jackie, "He'd go from the bed to the floor to the couch downstairs and back to the floor upstairs." When Jerry made the impulsive decision to remove his cast at 3 a.m. on that mid-September night, it was without Jackie's blessing. "Without a doubt she would have tried to stop me, so I had to be quiet," Jerry says. "I have great vision in the dark, and I made it to the garage without turning on a light. I'm terrible with tools—I hadn't used a saw since I left Mississippi—but I just had to get it off."
A couple of days later Rice paid his first visit to Giannone's clinic, ActiveCare. "This young lady pushed me to a new level," Rice says. "It's brutal up there."
Giannone's size (she's 5'4") and relaxed style make her the unlikeliest of tyrants. She had been Jackie's therapist throughout much of her recovery, paying regular visits to the Rices' house. "Jackie cried every time Lisa was about to arrive and again after she left," Jerry says. "I never understood why until I started working with her."
Giannone knew all about Rice's reputation as a workout king with a high tolerance for pain. She knew he had played through part of his rookie season with a partially torn knee ligament, had shaken off a badly sprained ankle to become the MVP in Super Bowl XXIII and had played much of Super Bowl XXIX with a separated shoulder. Yet the first time Giannone began to work on Jerry's knee, she says, "it was like an alarm went off. He and Jackie immediately freaked out, like, 'Whoa, this is precious.' "
After one of Rice's early visits, Giannone heard some of her staff members call him an uncooperative sissy. "They didn't understand his psychology," she says. "He was used to being pushed, but he viewed his body as something that needed to be cared for. I remember he was doing a stretching exercise in which he bent his knee upward. It was the first time he could get it close to his face, and he lifted his head up and kissed the knee."