Jerry Rice's hands are big, thick, rough, the kind that convey power even in a gentle introductory clasp. And when people describe one of Rice's catches, they usually finish the simulation with a kind of space age schhoooop that cuts off as the imaginary pigskin is sucked neatly into form-fitting fingers.
Gloster Richardson, Rice's receiving coach at Mississippi Valley State, lived by his hands for 10 years in the AFL and NFL. Today they are adorned with two Super Bowl rings from victories in 1970 and '72 with Kansas City and Dallas, respectively. Richardson's admiration for the dexterity in Rice's battle-scarred mitts is almost loving. "They're just beautiful." says Richardson, playing a Rice highlight film in his head. "Real soft, real quiet. Always right on time, He doesn't need to use his body to catch the ball. His hands are just a gift."
By being a dedicated worker and a main cog in a passing attack known as the Satellite Express, Rice, a junior, is making the most of his gift. He's leading all NCAA receivers, with 91 catches, 12 more than anyone else. His next catch will break the NCAA Division I-AA record. Rice had a statistically subpar four-reception, one-touchdown performance in a 42-14 trouncing of Alcorn State on Saturday, but after it he still owned four Division I-AA marks: most career catches, 187; most yards in a season, 1,304 (this year); most yards in a game, 279 against Tennessee State in 1982; and most catches in a game, 24 on Oct. 1 in a 31-28 loss to Southern U. In that game, several more Rice receptions were nullified because of penalties.
Rice and his quarterback, Willie Totten, who leads Division I-AA in passing efficiency, have paced the Delta Devils to a 6-2-1 record. A win this week over Tennessee State would mean that Mississippi Valley would finish with its best mark since 1956 and move the Delta Devils a step closer to their first Division I-AA playoff berth
Rice has been called World by teammates ever since Coach Archie (Gun-slinger) Cooley suggested last year that Rice could "catch a BB in the dark." Rice's average reception is good for more than 14 yards and typically comes after a smooth series of intricate cuts that free him from double and even triple coverage. "You've got to get rid of the first man, run the pattern on the second man and take the ball away from the third man," Rice says.
The 6'3", 205-pound Rice, who's blessed with 4.45 40-yard speed and unusual jumping ability, strength and toughness, already ranks as one of the best receivers ever to play in the SWAC—no small accomplishment considering that the conference alumni include Otis Taylor. Charlie Joiner, Harold Jackson, Harold Carmichael, Sammy White and Trumaine Johnson, to name a few. Some pro scouts think Rice has the ability to be better than all of them.
"He has developed such concentration and field sense, and his routes are so precise," says Richardson, who favorably compares Rice to Taylor, Richardson's old Kansas City Chiefs teammate. "Plus, he comes across the field with so much intensity, guys seem like they are getting out of his way."
As did Taylor, Rice does some of his best work after he catches the ball. "I like to deliver a blow," he says of fighting fire with fire in a conference—SWAC!—known for its fierce hitting. "I'm always looking to turn it upfield and run over some people."
Rice, a self-contained 21-year-old, is slightly uncomfortable with his growing fame. But although he's reticent in public, as one of the Delta Devils' captains he speaks up and commands respect. On the rollicking 120-mile bus ride home after the win over Alcorn, Rice's wish to express an opinion caused some teammates to silence a group of revelers with shouts of "World talking! Listen up!"
This fall, inspired by the University of Houston's basketball team, which called itself Phi Slamma Jamma, Rice named Mississippi Valley's wide receiver corps Phi Lookum Jukum. Cooley builds his offense around this fraternity. His motto is "The fastest way between two points is to fly," and he knows a wide-open attack is a recruiting plus. At a school with only 2,580 students in a state that provides meager funds for education, he needs all the help he can get. So, Cooley carries 17 pass receivers on his team.