Jerry Rice became a Hall of Fame receiver because of determination, mind-set and vision more than because of pure athletic ability.
I covered Rice throughout his 49ers career (and Raiders coda), and his determination showed up early. He joined Roger Craig in offseason workouts so rigorous that no other teammate could stay with them. He worked endlessly on perfecting his route running.
He was the consummate professional. When he scored a touchdown, he simply gave the ball to the official, not going into any kind of routine. “Act like you’ve been there before,” he told teammates. He had been there before, more times than any other player in history.
His work habits carried into retirement. Former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo now owns a sports representative agency and he hired Rice a couple of years ago to work with former Cal receiver DeSean Jackson. He taught Jackson to be disciplined on the field and off, which Jackson had not been at Cal. The Philadelphia Eagles got a bargain when they drafted Jackson in the second round, and he has started what should be a productive career, instead of washing out early.
Rice had a vision of himself that went far beyond his rural Mississippi background. When he was passed over early for commercials, he decided to live year-round in the Bay Area and hired a voice coach to improve his diction.
Jerry Rice didn’t want to be one of the best. He wanted to be the very best. In the early ’90s, Ira Miller and I were interviewing Rice in training camp when he told us he checked the statistics for other top receivers — especially Michael Irvin — to see what he needed to be at the top of the list.
He was always trying to improve himself. One training camp, he came in 10 pounds lighter than the year before, which astounded me because he was already lean. But, he explained, he thought losing that weight could make him slightly quicker in his cuts and more likely to make the catch.
Rice was very aware of his status. It was an open secret that the 49ers always tried to get the ball to him early — but that was never a bad idea. Even when he was double-covered, he found a way to get open. When Steve Young replaced Joe Montana as the 49ers’ quarterback, Rice didn’t skip a beat. In the 49ers’ fifth Super Bowl, against the San Diego Chargers, Rice caught a 44-yard touchdown pass from Young on the third play of the game and, despite suffering a separated shoulder in the second quarter, caught three touchdowns in the game.
Even the end of his career showed Rice’s determination. In 1997, he suffered a season-ending ACL injury against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He could have called it a career at that point but he worked hard to come back.
His last three seasons with the Niners were not happy ones. The injury had cost him some speed and he was replaced as the team’s top receiver by Terrell Owens.
But that’s not the way to remember him. Remember Jerry Rice as the athlete determined to be the very best — and proving it.