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Legendary desire earns Jerry Rice spot in Hall of Fame

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Since retiring with virtually every record a wide receiver could set during an NFL career, Jerry Rice has tried virtually everything to keep his competitive fires stoked.

The man who made himself into a Bay Area legend on and off the field has been on two reality television shows — “Dancing with the Stars” and “Pros vs. Joes” — to help keep his adrenaline pumping.

Still, there is a sports fix he needs to satisfy — this after being voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday.

The 49ers great is determined to cut his teeth on the Nationwide Tour, a minor-league golf circuit of the PGA Tour.

“I look at it like this,” Rice told The Examiner. “I’ve always taken risks and I’ve always said that hard work is the key to success. I’m taking the same philosophy that I used for football and applying it to the next challenge that comes my way. It’s exciting.”

Exciting was just one of the terms to describe Rice’s career, which saw him win three Super Bowls, garner 13 All-Pro accolades and capture two NFL Offensive Player of the Year awards.

But for him, the most significant and telling accomplishment may have occurred when he suited up for an otherwise nondescript December game against the Denver Broncos in 1997.

Less than four months earlier, Rice’s knee had been shredded by an illegal tackle from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Warren Sapp, and the injury was projected to sideline him for the rest of the season, potentially ending his career.

Undaunted by the grim prognosis, Rice, 34 at the time, rehabbed his knee and amazingly returned to the field for the 49ers’ regular-season finale against the Denver Broncos. Although that game too ended in unfortunate circumstances — Rice broke his kneecap while catching a 14-yard touchdown — it underscored the legendary desire and unparalleled commitment that the one-time small-college player employed throughout his career to become the greatest wide receiver of all time.

“I told the doctors I was going to come back for the Broncos [game] because Joe Montana was getting his number retired that game,” Rice said. “Unfortunately, I was back in the operating room the next day, but to me it was worth it.”

To many, Saturday’s Hall of Fame announcement was little more than a mere formality.

Although he excelled most when the spotlight shone the brightest, Rice’s football career began far off the beaten path, in the small Mississippi town of Crawford, where he honed his famous pass-catching mitts by grabbing bricks thrown to him from his father, a mason.

“I think that myth has grown a little bit over the years, but I did help my dad out by catching the bricks he threw down to me,” Rice said. “It really improved my hand-eye coordination and taught me the importance of hard work, but if you tried catching one of those things with your body, you’d go tumbling down pretty quick.”

While that unconventional practice may have perfected his ability to snag seemingly everything thrown his way, it wasn’t enough to attract offers from the major college football powers, so Rice opted to attend Mississippi Valley State, a small, traditionally black college. Far removed from the huge crowds and media spotlight associated with high-profile programs, Rice graduated from Mississippi Valley State as the NCAA Division I-AA’s all-time leader in touchdown catches.

Despite being a first-round draft pick — a risky choice by coach Bill Walsh — Rice lacked the confidence normally ingrained from a big-name college pedigree and he struggled in his first season, particularly with his normally trustworthy hands.

“That was a very tough season,” Rice said. “I was coming from a real small, traditionally black college where I never really had to deal with the media, and all of a sudden I was surrounded by these legendary players such as Joe Montana, Dwight Clark, Roger Craig and Ronnie Lott. It was like a deer-in-the-headlights thing for me, but thankfully those guys stuck with me and supported me when I was down.”

But with the backing of his famous teammates and aided by his legendary workout regimen, Rice quickly improved during his rookie year. In his second season, Rice led the NFL with 1,570 yards receiving and 15 touchdowns, making it clear that spending a first-round draft choice on the small-town kid was well worth the gamble.

Over the next decade, Rice dominated the NFL like no other wide receiver before him, highlighted by his Super Bowl XXIII Most Valuable Player performance, when he grabbed 11 passes for 215 yards in the 49ers’ 20-16 triumph over the Cincinnati Bengals.

As Rice excelled, his record-breaking performances piled up. In 1992, he passed Steve Largent as the league’s all-time leader in receiving touchdowns. Two years later, he overtook Jim Brown to become the NFL all-time touchdown leader, regardless of category.

While his athleticism, precision route-running and hands still wowed opponents late in his career, it was his tireless work ethic that truly drew praise. Embarking on a grueling offseason fitness program that often left his younger peers gasping for air, Rice entered each season looking like a player untainted by years of punishing hits.

“I was always afraid of failure,” Rice said. “There were always guys who wanted to be exactly where I was at, and I was determined to hold onto my spot. I’d spent a week, maybe two, relaxing in the offseason. But after that, I went back to work.”

Although he said he has tried not to think about it, Rice acknowledged that he’s “scared to death and a little nervous,” for his induction day at the Hall of Fame in August.

“It’s one of those scenarios, where once you get inducted, it’s over,” Rice said. “The game that I played for so long, and loved for so long, is completely over for me. It will be nice to thank everyone who’s helped me, but it also means that I have to move on to a new chapter in my life.”


Jerry Rice

Age:
47
Date of birth: Oct. 13, 1962
Birthplace: Starkville, Miss.
Height: 6-foot-2  Weight: 200 pounds

Notable statistics
22,895:
Career receiving yards, NFL record
1,549: Career receptions, NFL record
208: Career touchdowns, NFL record


Off the field

In 2006, competed in the second season of the ABC reality television series “Dancing with the Stars.” He and his partner, Anna Trebunskaya, finished second.
Also in 2006, took part in the first season of the “Pros vs. Joes” reality television show. The competition pitted average citizens against former pro athletes.
Is currently trying to break in on the Nationwide Tour, a developmental tour for aspiring professional golfers. In April, Rice will make his professional golfing debut when he helps host a Nationwide Tour stop in Hayward.
His son, Jerry Rice Jr., was a multisport star at Menlo School in Atherton and is a nonscholarship football player at UCLA.

Memory lane

On his favorite team:
“It’s a composite of all those great 49er teams from the ’80s. Our approach to the game was that it was not OK just to make the playoffs — we wanted to win every single game. Some teams are happy just to get to the postseason, but we were devastated with any loss. We wouldn’t accept anything less than a Super Bowl, and I think that desire really fueled our success.”

On 49ers fans:
“I think there is this perception that 49er fans are a bit of a wine-and-caviar crowd. But they have a real love for the game, and if you put out a good product, they’re going to appreciate it. There is a very loyal fan base in San Francisco.”

On Bill Walsh:
“People thought he was crazy when he picked me in the first round. He took a chance on me and I will never forget that. I planned on having him speak at my Hall of Fame induction, but unfortunately he passed on. He was a great coach and a good friend.”

On his most memorable teammates:
“I really think it was the guys who hung in with me and supported me through my early struggles. Guys like Joe Montana, Dwight Clark, Ronnie Lott, Freddie Solomon. They were unbelievable in their support for me.”

On his myriad NFL records:
“I think records are made to be broken, but a guy has to be willing to sacrifice like I did, and, most importantly, he has to have the right guys around him. Football is not an individual support; it’s a team game.”


Timeline of a Hall of Famer

April 30, 1985: In a selection acquired from New England, the 49ers draft Rice with the 16th pick of the first round.

Sept. 8, 1985: Makes his NFL debut as a 22-year-old rookie. Catches four passes for 67 yards.

1986: Leads NFL with 1,570 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns.

Jan. 22, 1989: Captures Super Bowl MVP honors after catching 11 passes for 215 yards in 49ers’ 20-16 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals.

Dec. 19, 1992: Catches two TD passes against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, passing Steve Largent to become the all-time NFL leader in TD receptions with 101.

Sept. 5, 1994: Hauls in two touchdown catches against the Raiders, breaking Jim Brown’s career touchdown record of 125.

Jan. 29, 1995: Grabs 10 passes for 169 yards and three touchdowns in his third Super Bowl victory, a 49-26 win over the San Diego Chargers.

1995: Sets career high with 122 catches for an NFL-record 1,848 receiving yards.

Oct. 25, 1995: With 108 yards against the New Orleans Saints, Rice becomes the NFL’s all-time leader in receiving yards.

Dec. 15, 1997: After sustaining a serious knee injury three months earlier, Rice returns for a regular-season finale against the Denver Broncos. Catches a TD pass, but breaks his kneecap.

Dec. 23, 2000: Plays his last game for the 49ers.

March 4, 2001: Signs a six-year, $30 million contract with the Oakland Raiders.

Jan. 26, 2003: At age 40, Rice catches five passes for 77 yards and a touchdown in his fourth Super Bowl appearance, this time as a Raider. Oakland loses 48-21, Rice’s only Super Bowl loss.

Oct. 18, 2004: Raiders trade Rice to the Seattle Seahawks for a conditional seventh-round draft pick.

Jan. 8, 2005: Suits up for the final time, as a member of the Seahawks. Finishes his career with 1,549 catches, 22,895 receiving yards and 208 touchdowns, all NFL records.