In the National Football League, there are stars, there are superstars, there are all-time greats and then there is Jerry Rice.
For 20 seasons, he made his mark on pro football while rewriting the record books and making them look like his own personal resume.
If there were a Mount Rushmore of the NFL, Rice’s head would surely be on it.
Childhood In The Deep South
Jerry Lee Rice was born on Oct. 13, 1962 in Starkville, Miss., a small town located towards the east-central portion of the state.
Rice was one of eight children, and his father, Joe Nathan, was a blue-collar bricklayer. During the summer, the elder Rice would have his sons assist him at work while withstanding the hot and humid climate of the Deep South.
The younger Rice may not have loved spending his summers doing manual labor rather than relaxing, but he would become grateful that he did it, as he would admit that it taught him the meaning of hard work.
As a young child, Rice was pretty fast as a runner. There was a long dirt road in front of his childhood home, and he would often dash back and forth on it.
Most pro athletes fall in love with their sport when they were really young because they found out they were gifted at it. However, the story of Rice finding football was a strange and serendipitous one.
Even when he matriculated to B. L. Moor High School, he had not played the sport. His mother would not let him, and he would later admit that he had no intention of playing football.
Young Rice wasn’t the best student, and ironically it was his lack of commitment to academics that led to him discovering his otherworldly talent and skill in America’s most popular sport.
One day, Rice tried to ditch class by sneaking off the campus. The vice-principal of B. L. Moor spotted him, and Rice tried to run away, forcing the vice-principal to chase him.
Rice was very elusive, but he was caught and disciplined. The vice-principal was so impressed with Rice’s speed that he told the school’s football coach about him, and he was punished by being required to take part in practice with the football squad.
“He made me go out for the team, and that’s how I started playing the game,” Rice told the Los Angeles Times.
Rice also played basketball and ran track and field, but football would become his main love and priority.
After dabbling in playing a few different positions, Rice and his coach settled on the wide receiver position, and he did well enough to attract the attention of a few select college scouts.
The Birth Of A Megastar
Rice went on to play for Mississippi Valley State University, a historically Black university and a relatively small school that played in the second-rate Southwestern Athletic Conference. At first, there was nothing to suggest that he would become anything special.
Head coach Archie Cooley ran what was considered at the time to be an unorthodox offense. He loved to overload one side of the formation with as many as four wideouts, while placing Rice on the opposite side where he would face single coverage.
Cooley’s peers may have snickered at his attempts to up-tempo the game and inflate his team’s scoring opportunities, but it helped Rice hone his craft.
In 1982, his sophomore year, he made his debut for the Mississippi Valley Delta Devils, and he failed to disappoint, catching 66 passes for 1,133 yards and seven touchdowns that year.
Rice truly started to emerge in 1983, and he was as powerful as a springtime Mississippi tornado. He set new NCAA single-season records with 102 receptions and 1,450 receiving yards while scoring 14 touchdowns.
If he was a tornado in ’83, he would strengthen into EF5 status in 1984. Rice broke his own records that year with 112 catches and 1,845 yards, and he would set an additional NCAA record with 27 touchdowns.
The Delta Devils were a squall line, and Rice was the main storm. The team would score 628 points through 11 games for an unreal average of 57.1 per game.
One factor was that coach Cooley, who was nicknamed “Gunslinger,” told quarterback Willie Totten to call all plays at the line of scrimmage, and this no-huddle offense was too much for opponents to handle. It especially benefitted Rice, who had multiple games with over 200 yards and one contest where he managed to score five touchdowns.
The wideout gained the nickname “World” because of “his ability to catch anything near him.” He found his way onto every Division I-AA All-America team and was named the MVP of the Blue-Gray Classic, an annual all-star game that took place in Alabama.
By now, pro scouts couldn’t help but take notice, as Rice was on his way to the NFL draft.
Looking Good In The Red And Gold
Although scouts had real interest in Rice leading up to the 1985 NFL Draft, they also weren’t sure if he was the real deal. They cited Cooley’s offense, which was sneered at in those days, and the lesser competition Rice faced as reasons why he wasn’t the best receiver in his draft class.
Still, there were two teams that were very interested in taking him: the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers.
Dallas had the 17th overall pick, and rumor had it they were pretty much locked in on taking Rice. The Niners had the last pick of the first round, but head coach Bill Walsh wanted Rice badly.
Therefore, he sent three draft picks to the New England Patriots for the No. 16 pick, which he then used to take Rice.
There’s an old saying that it’s better to be lucky than good, but Rice had both in spades. The Niners had just won the Super Bowl, and it is exceedingly rare for a team that had just claimed the world championship to draft a Hall of Famer, even in the NFL.
As he did in college, Rice would play in an offense that was ahead of its time. Walsh employed a scheme known as the “West Coast Offense” that spread the field, employed several wideouts at once and prioritized throwing over running the football.
Rice struggled at times during his rookie season. He started just four of 16 games, and his numbers were fairly pedestrian, especially for someone with elite speed and quickness in a 6-foot-2, 200-pound frame.
“I was thinking through every step of a complicated offense, instead of using natural reactions,” Rice admitted.
But in Week 14 against the Los Angeles Rams, he began to show the NFL what it would have to deal with for many years to come. He put up 241 yards and a touchdown, and he continued to play well in the final two games to end the campaign with a solid 927 yards, winning the NFC Offensive Rookie of the Year award.
Contrary to appearances and the tricks time can play with one’s mind, Rice’s trip to the top would not be extremely easy.
In the opening week of the 1986 season, Niners QB Joe Montana, widely considered the best in the game, injured a spinal disc in his lower back and needed surgery. The injury was so severe that Montana was advised by his doctors to retire.
Backup Jeff Kemp, a certifiable mediocre signal-caller, took over at QB. Mercifully, Montana returned in early November, but he was shaky the rest of the season.
The instability under center had no effect whatsoever on Rice. He walloped opposing defenses with 1,570 yards and 15 touchdowns on the season, both of which led the NFL, and earned Pro Bowl and All-Pro First-Team honors.
Although the Niners got rolled in the wild card playoff round by the New York Giants, Rice had effectively announced to opponents that he would be their worst nightmare for years to come.
Looking for some insurance, San Francisco acquired Steve Young, an up-and-coming QB, prior to the 1987 season. Even with a quarterback controversy brewing, Rice still made 1987 his personal showcase.
— Steven (@steviebreech) November 30, 2021
He finished the season with 1,078 yards and set a new league record with 22 receiving touchdowns. The runner-up in that category that season? The Philadelphia Eagles’ Mike Quick, who had a mere 11 touchdowns.
Everyone in the football world had drenched shirts and pants from profusely drooling over Rice’s exploits. He won the Offensive Player of the Year award, as well as the MVP by the Professional Football Writers of America.
The Niners went 13-2 in the regular season, but once again they lost in the opening round of the postseason, as Rice was held to just 28 yards by the Minnesota Vikings.
The wideout continued to feast in 1988, putting up 1,306 yards and nine touchdowns and again making the Pro Bowl and All-Pro First-Team. Still, the Niners underperformed, starting the season 6-5, putting them in danger of missing the playoffs.
But they won their next four games to finish the year with a 10-6 record, sending them to the playoffs where they routed the Vikings and Minnesota Bears in order to advance to Super Bowl XXIII against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Some consider this championship game to be the greatest in league history. The score was tied at just 3-3 at halftime, but the Bengals took a 13-6 lead into the fourth quarter, and the Niners were in trouble.
Rice scored a touchdown to tie the score early in the final frame, but it seemed in vain when a field goal by Jim Breech put Cincinnati up by three with just 3:20 left.
Montana calmly led the greatest clutch drive in Super Bowl history, which included three receptions by Rice. A touchdown by fellow wideout John Taylor provided the final margin of victory and the Niners’ third world championship since 1981.
Rice was named Super Bowl MVP with 215 yards on 11 catches. No one in their right mind could doubt that he was elite.
When a sports team wins multiple championships, it wins each in a different way. If the 49ers’ title in ’88 was about getting off the mat and showing perseverance, the 1989 season would be about pure dominance.
Rice had 1,483 yards and 17 touchdowns, leading everyone in both categories, and his team looked invincible, posting a 14-2 record. Montana looked as good as ever, and the squad finished first in points scored and third in points allowed.
Even the retirement of Walsh (he was replaced by defensive coordinator George Seifert) did nothing to slow the Niners.
No one had a chance in the playoffs. San Fran routed Minnesota in the divisional round, then embarrassed the Rams to advance to the Super Bowl, where they slaughtered John Elway’s Denver Broncos 55-10, thanks to Rice’s 148 yards and three touchdowns, the latter of which was a Super Bowl record.
January 28, 1990: Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, and the 49ers rout John Elway and the Broncos in Super Bowl XXIV. pic.twitter.com/0BVC5yoJgS
— This Day In Sports Clips (@TDISportsClips) January 28, 2022
By winning their fourth ring in nine seasons, the Niners had firmly established themselves as the team of the 1980s in the NFL. The 1989 iteration of the team is considered by many to be the greatest in league history.
Early on, it looked like the ’90s would also be a 49ers decade. They went 14-2 again, as Rice had 1,502 yards and 13 touchdowns on the season, and when they advanced to the NFC Championship Game against the New York Giants, fans were expecting them to take the next step towards a threepeat.
But Rice only had 54 yards, and Montana got knocked out in the fourth quarter with multiple injuries due to a brutal hit by Giants defensive end Leonard Marshall. San Fran lost a defensive struggle, 15-13.
New QB, No Problem
Montana suffered an elbow injury in the 1991 preseason, which shelved him for the entire season, making Young the new starting QB. Although the team as a whole went through an adjustment period, Rice did not.
He still managed to put up 1,206 yards and 14 touchdowns in ’91. Although he wasn’t named to the All-Pro First-Team for the first time since his rookie year, he still made it to the Pro Bowl.
The next year, Young shook off the cobwebs and became a premier QB, while Rice regained his rightful spot on the All-Pro First-Team squad. San Fran went 14-2, and with Montana returning near the end of the season, it seemed the team had regained its championship hopes.
In the NFC Championship Game, the Niners faced the Dallas Cowboys, a young, ascendant team featuring future Hall of Famers in QB Troy Aikman, running back Emmitt Smith and wideout Michael Irvin. Rice had a nice game with 123 yards and a touchdown, but it wasn’t enough, as Dallas prevailed, 30-20, and an old rivalry had been resurrected between the two teams.
With a major QB controversy in full-swing, Montana asked to be traded prior to the 1993 season and was dealt to the Kansas City Chiefs. It was now Young’s team, but the team’s main weapon remained Rice.
Although he turned 31 that season, he was very much in his prime, putting up a league-leading 1,503 yards and 15 touchdowns. At this point, it seemed that even if Gary Coleman were under center for the Niners, Rice would still be dominant.
He was now the NFL’s all-time leader in receiving touchdowns, having broken the previous record held by Steve Largent.
Rice took full advantage of his physical gifts, and he used his speed and quickness to get past opposing defensive backs, both before and after catches, while using his leaping ability to beat taller players to make catches.
He was also an effective blocker, which made him a team player and opened things up for his teammates.
But the real key to Rice’s greatness was his obsessive work ethic. He was a stickler about staying on top of his conditioning, and he would regularly sprint across a long and steep hill in the Edgewood County Park & Natural Preserve, which amounted to about 2.5 miles of hard running each day.
“The main thing for me was conditioning, and it started with this hill,” Rice once said. “We did this, and it’s what made us capable of outdoing everybody else during the football season. It was about being able to put your body through pain.”
In fact, early in his career, he even hired a speech coach because he was unsatisfied with his oratorical skills during media press conferences.
With a 10-6 record, the 49ers again made it to the NFC Championship, where they again played the Cowboys, and again they lost, this time by a score of 38-21.
Displeased with the team’s inability to get back to the big game, management upgraded the roster heading into the 1994 campaign, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. Meanwhile, Young was plagued by the incessant comparisons to Montana and his perceived inability to win big playoff games.
Rice again shined bright in 1994. In Week 1 against the Los Angeles Raiders on Monday Night Football, he passed Jim Brown to become the NFL leader in overall touchdowns.
— #Random49ers (@Random49ers) September 5, 2021
For the season, Rice had 1,499 yards, which again led the NFL, and 13 receiving touchdowns. The Niners went 13-3 and looked as robust as they had in several years.
This time, when they faced the Cowboys for the NFC title, they prevailed 38-28, sending them to the Super Bowl, where they blew out the San Diego Chargers for their fifth world championship, Rice’s third.
Although Young was named Super Bowl MVP, Rice was magnificent with 149 yards and three touchdowns, which was all the more impressive considering he suffered a separated shoulder during the game but kept playing.
Even as he grew older, he kept on coming strong. Rice had a career-high 122 receptions in 1996, leading to 1,848 receiving yards, which was a new NFL record.
For the fifth-straight year, and 10th overall, Rice not only was selected to the Pro Bowl but also the All-Pro First-Team.
In the playoffs, the Niners ran into a new rival: the Green Bay Packers. Brett Favre and company would defeat San Fran in both the ’95 and ’96 playoffs, despite Rice’s best efforts.
Injured And Declining, But Not Out
Despite approaching his 35th birthday, Rice was still a premier wideout, even if he had lost a step. But he would be challenged in a new way in 1997.
In the first game of the year, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Warren Sapp grabbed Rice by the facemask while tackling him, and the wideout tore both two ligaments in his knee, breaking his ironman-like streak of playing in 189 consecutive games.
It was expected he would miss the rest of the season, but against the advice of his doctors, he returned in Week 16, only to injure the patella in his left kneecap. Without him, the Niners lost yet again in the playoffs to Green Bay.
As the 1998 season unfolded, there was a changing of the guard underway in the Bay. Although Rice was still the lynchpin of the team, hotshot wideout Terrell Owens was emerging fast, and head coach Steve Mariucci wanted to shart shifting some of the burden to him.
Rice’s numbers went down a bit to 1,157 yards and nine touchdowns, but he still made the Pro Bowl. In the playoffs, the Niners finally got past the Packers (on a last-second touchdown by Owens) before falling to the Atlanta Falcons.
In 1999, the Niners’ dynasty finally came apart at the seams. Young suffered a concussion that led to his retirement, and Rice had less than 1,000 yards in both ’99 and 2000, making it clear that he was in decline.
The Niners missed the playoffs both years, and with the team rebuilding, Rice felt it was time to move on, as he joined the Oakland Raiders for the 2001 campaign.
The Raiders were coming off a trip to the AFC Championship Game, and they were perhaps hoping Rice’s skills and experience would put them over the top.
Playing with QB Rich Gannon and for head coach Jon Gruden, Rice perked up a bit, posting 1,139 yards and nine touchdowns in ’01 and 1,211 yards and seven touchdowns in 2002.
In a game against the Denver Broncos, he not only scored his 200th career touchdown, but he also overtook Walter Payton to become the all-time leader in both yards from scrimmage and all-purpose yards.
Rice returned to the Pro Bowl in ’02, and with an 11-5 record, the Raiders had their way with the New York Jets and Tennessee Titans to advance to Super Bowl XXXVII.
Although he had 77 yards and a touchdown in the big game, the Raiders were no match for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, losing 48-21.
The following season, Rice’s numbers declined again below the 1,000-yard mark, and after the Raiders won just four games, Rice asked to be traded in 2004, and he got his wish, getting sent to the Seattle Seahawks.
After playing out the balance of the year in the Emerald City, Rice announced his retirement in September 2005. Almost a year later, he signed a one-day contract with the Niners so he could officially end his career with them.
Many years after his retirement, Rice still holds numerous NFL records, including most career receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns.
His induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2010 was the biggest no-brainer in its history.
Away from the gridiron, Rice is known as an avid golfer. Dating back to his playing days, he could often be found on the links early in the morning, and he has even competed in multiple golf tournaments.
He married Jacqueline Bernice Mitchell in 1987, and they had three children together. One of them, Jerry Rice Jr., played college football for both the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
In the 2005-06 television season, the elder Rice also competed on the popular reality show Dancing With The Stars while paired with dancer Anna Trebunskaya. He made it to the final competition, only to lose to singer Drew Lachey.
Years later, quarterback Tom Brady emerged, and throughout his long career, he won seven Super Bowls, establishing himself as the consensus greatest player in NFL history.
But other than Brady, many agree that Rice was the GOAT. At the very least, he was by far the greatest wide receiver ever, and it will be a very long time before anyone even comes close to equaling both his personal and team accomplishments.