Published August 04, 2010
SAN FRANCISCO – The stories about Jerry Rice's unparalleled work ethic are as much a part of his legend as numbers that made him the NFL's greatest receiver.
The young boy who gained his speed by chasing after horses. The dedicated son who learned about determination from his father while catching bricks during sweltering Mississippi summers.
The teenager sent to the football coach because of the speed he showed running away from a principal while playing hooky. And the frequent 2½-mile uphill sprints that kept him in tiptop shape as an NFL star.
For former teammate Steve Young, the story that best describes Rice's drive comes a few weeks after the San Francisco 49ers won the Super Bowl in January 1995.
Young arrived one day at the team's practice facility to clean out his locker and saw Rice out on the field running sprints and catching passes from the groundskeeper nearly seven months before the start of the next season.
"When people talk about Jerry's work ethic and say, 'Oh it's really extreme, they do it a disservice," Young said. "There's an iron will to it. It's over his dead body. Jerry to the core was driven. You belittle that drive by saying he had just a great work ethic. Most people have an off switch and they choose when to go all out. Jerry didn't have an off switch."
Rice kept that switch on since he started playing high school in Mississippi, through his record-setting college career at Mississippi Valley State, to a 20-year career in the NFL that landed him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Rice was elected on his first try and will be inducted into the Hall on Saturday, along with Emmitt Smith, John Randle, Russ Grimm, Rickey Jackson, Floyd Little and Dick LeBeau.
"There was no way I was going to be denied," Rice said. "I kept working hard and my dream came true. I tell kids do not let any obstacles stand in your way. If you want to achieve something go for it. I'm living proof with my background and where I came from. I didn't give up and I wanted to be the best football player I could possibly be in the NFL and I was able to accomplish that."
Rice holds virtually every significant receiving mark, including most career receptions (1,549); yards receiving (22,895); total touchdowns (208); and combined net yards (23,546) in his career with San Francisco, Oakland and Seattle.
Numbers are only one way to measure Rice's greatness. But consider this: Rice has 447 more catches than Marvin Harrison in second place and 7,687 more yards receiving than Isaac Bruce in second place. The difference between Rice and second place eclipses the career production of Hall of Famer Lynn Swann, who finished with 336 catches and 5,462 yards receiving.
"Jerry expanded the position of wide receiver so much that there may never be another guy who comes around and expands on the position," Young said. "I don't know if you can say that about any other position. Peyton Manning has come around and done things that we didn't do. It happens at every position. But I can't imagine another receiver coming around who expands on what he did."
Rice's journey started far away from the bright lights under which he excelled so much while winning three Super Bowls and so many other accolades in the NFL.
It is in Mississippi where the self-described high school "nerd" turned into a football player almost by coincidence. Skipping class one day, Rice was confronted by the principal and ran away. Rice received a whipping for his misbehavior and a referral to the football coach because his speed was so impressive.
Rice credits his speed to his chasing down a beautiful black stallion named Pete. Rice had to run after the horse in order to ride it each day and did what it took to get that reward.
His hands and focus were honed working for his brick mason father on scorching hot days. Rice would stand on the scaffolding and catch bricks from his brothers to hand to his dad — with any dropped brick being deducted from his pay check.
"Even though I was not playing football, I was preparing myself for it," he said.
Rice took to the game quickly but was only visited by one college. It just happened to be one that fit his game perfectly so he went to Mississippi Valley State to play in the run-and-shoot under coach Archie Cooley.
Despite catching 112 passes for 1,845 yards and 28 touchdowns his senior year, Rice lasted until 16th in the 1985 draft when 49ers coach Bill Walsh traded three draft picks to New England in one of his shrewdest moves ever.
He was the third receiver taken in the draft, following Al Toon to the New York Jets and Eddie Brown to the Cincinnati Bengals. He lacked game-breaking speed that many teams covet, running the 40-yard dash in 4.6 seconds, but was almost never caught from behind on the field.
His transition to the NFL wasn't seamless as he admits to some serious jitters when he walked into the locker room of the Super Bowl champion 49ers.
"When I first stepped into that locker room I looked across and there was Joe Montana and Ronnie Lott, all of these Hall of Famers and I'm in the room with these guys," Rice said. "At first it was like a deer in the headlights."
Rice struggled with some drops early in his career, leading some to question why he was a first-round pick. But Lott saw something right away in Rice, who beat the future Hall of Famer with a sly double move on one of the first days of practice.
Then Lott saw Rice's reaction to the drops and knew he would become a star.
"You didn't see many rookies with the ability to perform precision routes like that. It just seemed natural to Jerry," Lott said. "After he had a rough game with a couple of drops, I saw him sitting at his locker crying. For a lot of people when they lose, it's not personal. For him it was always personal. It showed how much he wanted to be great."
Rice's breakthrough came on a Monday night late in his rookie season when he had 10 catches for 241 yards in a win over the Los Angeles Rams.
"I knew into that game and I did not have to think about anything," he said. "I knew the system. Now I could just go out there and just play. That was the start for me. But I never gave in the situation of, 'OK, I have arrived now.' I always wanted to come back the next year and have a better season. That was the extra incentive to stay focused and continue to work hard."
That game started his record streak of 274 consecutive games with a catch as the records started to fall. He had 11 straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons starting the next year; had a then-record 22 touchdown catches in 12 games of the strike-shortened 1987 season; won the Super Bowl MVP following the 1988 season with 11 catches for 215 yards against Cincinnati and had a record 1,848 receiving yards in 1995.
Rice never let up. Not after a devastating knee injury in the opener of the 1997 season and not after being released by San Francisco in 2001 and reviving his career in Oakland for one last Super Bowl run.
"He was so meticulous about making sure he never compromised the integrity of being a great receiver," Lott said. "It can happen when you get older. He could have done it after his knee surgery or when he went to the Raiders. But he never compromised the integrity about being meticulous with his effort."