SI Vault
 
A STEP ABOVE 'EM ALL
Ralph Wiley
January 30, 1989
Jerry rice wanted to be alone. So he separated himself from the crowd and slipped smoothly off the field and into the locker room. Then he walked over to a row of lockers and started crying with such deep-felt emotion he had to bend over to control his tears. Finally, after a few moments, he lifted his head, smiled and joined his teammates in the postgame revelry.
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
January 30, 1989

A Step Above 'em All

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

Jerry rice wanted to be alone. So he separated himself from the crowd and slipped smoothly off the field and into the locker room. Then he walked over to a row of lockers and started crying with such deep-felt emotion he had to bend over to control his tears. Finally, after a few moments, he lifted his head, smiled and joined his teammates in the postgame revelry.

Rice, the San Francisco 49ers' extraordinary wide receiver, had reason to be emotional. He had just caught 11 passes from Joe Montana, including one 14-yard touchdown grab, and would soon be named MVP of Super Bowl XXIII. But what set him apart was the manner in which he caught those passes and the vistas he opened for others to catch what he couldn't. "We didn't do a bad job on him," said Cincinnati Bengal strong safety David Fulcher. "He only got one touchdown." When you gain a record 215 yards receiving in the Super Bowl and the defense doesn't think it has done a bad job, you must be a different breed of cat.

Early in the week it appeared as if Rice might not get to show off his special breeding because he turned his right ankle during a workout, aggravating an injury he had been nursing for three months. In response, Bengal cornerback Eric Thomas said, "That's bull——. Jerry Rice ain't hurt. I heard he went dancing." Rice did go dancing after his spill, and before the game he admitted his ankle wasn't swollen. But his coach, Bill Walsh, seemed to take the injury seriously, perhaps to ease the pressure on Rice, who was playing in his first Super Bowl. Walsh needn't have worried. "I did O.K.," said Rice, summing up his performance. "If it was up to me, I would have given the MVP to Joe."

At the MVP award ceremony Rice was joined on the podium by, among others, his mother, Eddie B., and his father, Joe. They had driven to Miami from Starkville, Miss., along with Rice's seven brothers and sisters. "If he had asked me, I would have suggested Epsom salts and vinegar and water for his ankle," said Eddie B. "He never asked." Joe, a mason with whom Jerry used to work, said, "No, I don't think he'll be coming back to bricklaying. I think he's doing what God intended for him to do."

Rice is fulfilling that destiny admirably. "The first time I saw him, he was the best I ever saw, and I learned how to turn on the television set at an early age," said former 49er receiver Dwight Clark. "Jerry's like a Mike Tyson, a Michael Jordan, a Joe Montana. He's a step above the field."

There's only one man in NFL history who can match Rice's numbers: Don Hutson of the Green Bay Packers. Hutson, who is now 76 and living in Rancho Mirage, Calif., performed in the NFL for 11 seasons, from 1935 through '45. Playing in 10- to 12-game seasons, he scored 105 regular-season touchdowns, 99 of them on passes. He also led the NFL in receptions eight times, including five seasons in a row. In his four years in the NFL, which is now on a 16-game schedule, Rice has scored 53 touchdowns, 49 of them on receptions, and that doesn't include his six postseason TD catches this year.

Numbers are not all Hutson and Rice have in common. Both come from the Deep South: Hutson from Pine Bluff, Ark., and Rice from Starkville. And both were spirited away from other teams. Hutson, an All-America at Alabama, had signed an additional contract with the football Brooklyn Dodgers, but the Packers won rights to him because their contract arrived at the league office with an earlier postmark. Similarly, Rice, an All-America from Mississippi Valley State, was set to be taken by the Dallas Cowboys as the 17th pick in 1985 when San Francisco traded for the No. 16 spot and grabbed him. Hutson is generally credited with having invented pass patterns, and Rice has reinvented them. "I like for the defender to think the opposite from what I'm going to do," he says. "I know how to influence that."

Each of Rice's catches Sunday had its own signature, but the most impressive may have been one that didn't set up a score. On a first-and-10 from the San Francisco 18 with 11:05 left in the game, Rice ran a streak and Montana put the ball up high and deep. Sensing that cornerback Lewis Billups had him covered, Rice slowed, felt Billups with his arm and then leapt to another level to snare the ball. A 44-yard play. Lynn Swann revisited. Lynn Swann squared.

That drive died, but the Niners came back. And on the decisive touchdown pass, Rice left a black hole behind him in the secondary, luring defenders away from the ultimate target, John Taylor. Throughout the game, Rice fooled the Bengal secondary despite being hampered in his ability to run multiple-cut patterns because of the impaired ankle. Instead he had to rely on fades, diagonals, quick ins or outs, and the occasional streak—what Rice calls a "burn."

Make that a Mississippi burn. And give it four stars.

1