HOW DISCONCERTING was it to watch Jerry Rice playing his heart out in the Broncos' preseason finale last Friday against Arizona while the team's starters sat? Imagine a graying Olivier showing up for an open casting call. The 42-year-old Rice was fourth on Denver's receiving depth chart, behind Rod Smith, Ashley Lelie and the unproven Darius Watts. While they rested, Rice busily went about trying to nail down a roster spot for his 21st professional season.
Afterward coach Mike Shanahan said he'd keep Rice on as a fourth or fifth receiver, but on Monday the league's alltime leader in catches (1,549), receiving yards (22,895) and touchdown receptions (197) decided he'd rather retire than be a bit player. "This is a happy day," an emotional Rice said. "The tears that you see [are because] I have really enjoyed this ride."
Rice's plan all along was for this to be his final season; he even said that he would gladly accept a supporting role in the Broncos' offense. He attacked his last camp with his usual vigor--arriving at Denver's training complex at 7 a.m. and leaving at 9:30 p.m. most days--but as the preseason dragged on, he had trouble getting open and keeping up with much younger competition. (He had just four catches for 24 yards in four preseason games.) As Shanahan was announcing his final roster cuts last weekend, the game's greatest receiver was already back home in San Francisco with his wife, Jackie, contemplating his future. "I never played for a legacy," Rice says. "I played because I love football."
For more coverage of Jerry Rice's career and retirement, go to SI.com/football.