The 42-year-old receiver, a first-round draft pick out of tiny Mississippi Valley State in 1985, leaves the field with 38 NFL records, including the most career receptions (1,549), yards receiving (22,895) and touchdowns receiving (197)…. Revered by fans and his peers, Rice told the players he was retiring during a short meeting held after his public announcement. The Broncos gave him a standing ovation.
Being a die-hard fan of the Minnesota Vikings, who often ran into the 49ers in the first or second round of the NFC playoffs during their glory years, (and were usually run over), I hated Jerry Rice. But it was a hatred born of fear, of the certain knowledge that sometime during the game, probably on third-and-six when a defensive stop would swing the game in the Purple’s favor, Jerry Rice was going to cut across the middle on a slant and what would normally end in a five-yard gain and a punt would go for fifty yards and a first down instead. It was maddening!
Sure, we Vikings fans told ourselves that we had our great receivers too – John Gilliam, Ahmad Rashad, Sammy White and Anthony Carter – that Cris Carter with his superglue hands was every bit as good as Rice and that Randy Moss was one day going to eclipse both Rice’s legend and his records, but we didn’t believe that even as we were saying it.
It became a little easier to appreciate his greatness when Bill Walsh left San Francisco and the 49ers seemed to become a little more vulnerable. I was surprised at my own disappointment upon hearing that he’d been hurt playing against the Pack, and then when he broke his kneecap – while catching a touchdown, of course – during that MNF game that was his first game back from injury, it seemed like he’d be done. But Jerry Rice was as tough as he was talented, and he played well for years after that double whammy.
Unlike most stars who travel the free agent circuit in the last act of their careers, embarassing themselves and their fans by horrible performances in strange uniforms, Rice remained an effective player to the end. In his last year, he caught only two fewer touchdowns than high-priced free agent Plaxico Burress and would have caught more had the Seahawks considered starting him and Bobby Engram instead of two speedy wideouts who couldn’t hang onto the ball without having it stapled to their hands. He fought a good fight in Denver, and in the end, retired in the knowledge that he’d given Father Time his best shot.
Jerry Rice doesn’t need our sympathy. He has a great life ahead of him. Even so, it would be churlish for NFL fans, even those who have always cheered against him, to fail to note the last bow of a great one as he finally steps offstage.