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In Mid-October, Andre Rison of the Atlanta Falcons—at the time the NFL's leading receiver, with 38 catches—was a guest on teammate Deion Sanders's radio show. The WQXI switchboard was being Hooded with telephone calls from fans who wanted to debate who was the better receiver: Rison, a second-year pro, or Jerry Rice of the San Francisco 49ers, a four-time All-Pro and the 1989 Super Bowl MVP, who was closing in on Rison for the season's lead in receptions.
To settle the argument, Rison decided to make a phone call of his own. While on the air, he put someone on the spot, the person who should know—his mother. Well, Mama?
"I said, 'Rice is great, so is Andre. But Jerry has more experience,' " recalls Merdice Brown. "Andre called me back later, off the air, and said, 'Mama, why didn't you tell them what the real deal is? Who's the best? Me or Jerry?' And I said, 'You know you are.' "
Publicly, Rison stops short of saying he's as good as Rice, but privately it's a different story. In fact, he would like nothing better than to beat out Rice for the season's receiving honors. "Going into this year, I read in a magazine that I was the 28th-rated receiver in the NFL," says Rison. "That hurt. No receiver that came out in my draft can touch me. Look, I'm not going to compare myself to Jerry Rice. He's a Hall of Famer, but I want to do what he's done—and more."
Those who have watched Rison's quick development have learned not to scoff at his boastful talk or to underestimate his determination. As the seam man in Atlanta's four-receiver Red Gun offensive set, his job is to race along the hash marks, sprint across no-man's-land—the middle of the field—catch the ball in heavy traffic and then run like mad.
"It's a myth that it hurts more when you're hit catching a pass over the middle," says the 5'11", 185-pound Rison. "The defensive back may think he has a dream shot—that he can knock me out—but I'll be damned if I can't do the same to him. I've put some licks on people. I will head-butt a defensive back if I have to."
Rison has caught a pass in every one of his 29 games; it took him only 24 games to reach 100 receptions. Just one wide receiver who began his career in the NFL has done it quicker, the New York Jets' Al Toon, who reached the milestone in 23.
Rice passed Rison for the league lead in catches in Week 9, three weeks after the radio show, but they remain one-two in all the major categories. Rice has 82 catches for 1,238 yards and 11 touchdowns, while Rison has 71 grabs for 1,059 yards and 10 TDs. "What I like is his concentration," says Rice. "He can be stuck in a crowd over the middle, with people all around him, and he still puts his hand on the ball."
And, sometimes, his foot in his mouth. Last season, after New England Patriots linebacker Johnny Rembert smashed his helmet into Rison's jaw, Andre peeled himself off the carpet, walked up to Rembert, thrust his chest forward and said, "A real linebacker would have put me out of the game." According to Rison, he taunts opponents—he calls it "trappin' " or "talkin' smack"—only after being provoked. "Andre's not talking about the guy's mother," says Merdice, who has encouraged her son to speak his mind. "He's saying, 'You're a chump.' This is football. I'm not for shots to the head, but tough talk isn't wrong. The kids used to say, 'I'm not going to let him punk me out.' Nobody wanted to look like a sissy. I always told Andre, if the guy's in your face, you say, I'm tougher! Stand up for yourself. If you don't, they'll kill you. Don't let them turn you out. You'll look weak.' "
"Andre's mouth goes 120 miles per hour," says Atlanta tackle Chris Hinton. "In the huddle it's a wonder any quarterback can get a word in edgewise. Andre says, I want the ball. Throw it to me. I can score.' Then, after the snap, I've got to hurry downfield to protect him from the other guys [opponents] he talks to."