The turning point came when Giannone tapped into Rice's ultracompetitive psyche. A preponderance of scar tissue had built up in the knee, and Dillingham advised Rice that he might have to be manipulated—a procedure during which the patient is anesthetized and the knee is bent upward and then fully straightened in order to break down the scar tissue. Rice didn't want to undergo the procedure, which could have set back his recovery, but the only way to avoid it was to push through the scar tissue on his own. On Oct. 10, Dillingham and Giannone gave Rice an ultimatum: His range of motion was 110 degrees, and if he couldn't increase it to 130 by Oct. 13, he would have to be manipulated. Rice stretched his leg constantly over the weekend and barely avoided the procedure. Says Young, "He was in a bad way for a little while, but as soon as he beat that deadline, you could see the light in his eyes."
In the last month Rice supplemented his daily three-to four-hour regimen with Giannone with one-on-one conditioning sessions of two to three hours at the Niners' facility with Attaway. Rice spent another hour working on the knee at home. Since his injury there has been only one day—Sept. 20, if you're scoring at home—when he has allowed his knee to rest. In the past month, as the knee has become stronger, Rice has practiced cutting and stopping through the hallways of his three-story home, often startling Jackie in the process.
Is Rice worried? Damn straight. The knee has passed almost every test, but there's no test that approximates the impact of a 300-pound defensive lineman. Rice will wear a brace but isn't thrilled about it. "It messes up my sweetness," he says. "I'd look like RoboCop out there."
Team officials, especially Mariucci, are concerned that Rice might be coming back too soon. On Dec. 3, Rice returned to practice, working mostly on the scout team and participating in selected drills. Contact was out of the question, as Rice learned when he lined up to run a go route against a rookie defensive back, Zack Bronson. "The offensive coordinator [Marty Mornhinweg] told the guy to back off," Rice said, "and the guy backed off like 15 yards. I couldn't get anyone within 10 yards of me. I'm thinking of paying some of the guys to hit me." Rice made it through the rest of the week without any setbacks and planned to practice without restrictions this week. On Monday he planned to go for a brisk run up the infamous Portola Valley hill that has been a staple of his off-season training regimen throughout the '90s. "Just another thing I have to conquer," Rice explained, "another sign to let me know I'm ready."
Privately some San Francisco players wonder whether Rice is pressing to return because he's concerned about the emergence of young wideouts Terrell Owens and J.J. Stokes. "Jerry needs to relax," says one veteran. "It's not about being on the field; it's about helping this team. He should wait until he's right and get back next year. You can see that he's pressing, and he's putting his career in jeopardy. Any defensive back he faces is going to try to take him out."
The doubters are out in full force. It has been suggested that Rice, even as a backup, would disrupt the Niners' offensive flow. This is like saying that the return of the Bay Area's other legendary Jerry—Garcia—would foul up the Grateful Dead's timing. "How can I respond to that?" Rice asks, laughing. "I've been a part of this team for 12 years, and I don't feel like I've messed up things too badly."
Rice says he has been energized by the presence of Owens and Stokes and praises both of them for their willingness to accept his input. Just as the veteran Freddie Solomon helped Rice in his rookie season, Rice has no qualms about tutoring the men who are aiming to displace him. "Hey, I could stick around as the third receiver," he says. "That might prolong my career another 10 years."
Two weeks ago the Rices' six-year-old son, Jerry Jr., told Jackie, "I want to play football this year, and I want to be like J.J. Stokes." Jackie was incredulous. "J.J. Stokes?" she asked. "Don't you want to be like your dad?"
"J.J. Stokes is catching the long ball," he answered, "and Dad isn't."
There's one more assumption Rice would like to disprove, the tendency of observers to attribute his recovery to an otherworldly force. "Everyone tells me, 'This is not human, man,' " Rice says. "Everyone says it's a miracle, that I'm a freak. It's not about that. It's about hard work. Most people with an injury like this go to therapy two or three times a week. I went every day, including weekends, and worked out twice a day. There were days I felt like hell, but I found a way to grind it out. People have their opinions, but I don't think they've gone through what I've gone through. They haven't endured the pain and torture that I have every single day."