- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 23, 2003

SAN DIEGO Rich Gannon knew all he needed to know about Jerry Rice 30 minutes before the Oakland Raiders' first training camp practice in 2001.

As the quarterback recalls it, the workout wasn't scheduled until 2:30 p.m. But Rice, already history's No.1 receiver when he signed as a free agent a month earlier, was out there at 2 p.m., catching passes from the equipment manager.

"And the unusual thing was that we had five or six rookie receivers trying to make the team, and they were just sitting in the weight room," Gannon said with a laugh yesterday. "If it was me, I would have at least gone out there and said, 'Jerry, can I just stand by you?'"

Standing still seems to be the only move not in the repertoire of Rice, whose NFL records include career receptions (1,456), receiving yards (21,597), touchdowns (202), 100-catch seasons (four) and 1,000-yard seasons (14).

Now 40, Rice is still a 90-catch, 1,200-yard receiver and Pro Bowl performer on the game's No.1 offense. Even as the braids recede on his forehead, his hard work allows him to dazzle each week at an age when most receivers have long since traded in the "9" route for a 9-iron.

"It's amazing," Raiders cornerback Charles Woodson said. "It's incredible to see him out there, still giving DBs everything they want."

The glory years for Rice obviously were the late 1980s and early 1990s, when he won a trio of Super Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers, two Most Valuable Player awards and posted a 1995 season (122 catches for an NFL-record 1,848 yards and 15 touchdowns) that remains the gold standard for NFL receivers.

But these days aren't too bad, either, with Rice, Tim Brown and Jerry Porter perhaps the league's most dangerous trio and the Raiders one step from their fourth championship. And in at least one way this run stands out in Rice's career: Asked this week whether it's more fun at 20, 30 or 40, he quickly replied, "More fun at 40."

"You know what? I can really enjoy it now because I know what to expect," Rice explained with a broad grin. "For so many years, I didn't hear the crowd chanting my name."

The cheers show no signs of subsiding, not with Rice still turning quick slants into big gains and completing those dangerous crossing routes in his trademark fashion. What he has lost in pure speed he has gained in knowledge, and to boot he beefed up his 6-foot-2, 192-pound frame this year to get more physical on the field.

The bulging muscles and statistics all can be traced back to Rice's training regimen, which dates to his early days in the NFL. Back then he learned of an endurance course that teammate Roger Craig and trainer Raymond Farris would run during the offseason. Years later, Rice has ably continued the legacy of Craig, then known as one of the NFL's supremely conditioned athletes.

"I thought I always trained pretty well, but I couldn't keep up with them," Rice said. "I said, 'I'm not going to let them do that to me anymore.'"

Thus it's no wonder Rice is out on the field a half-hour before practices begin, working on routes individually when it's not his turn in the rotation, and running through training camp two-a-days like so many secondaries over the years.

"Some players hate two-a-days, but I think it's all about preparation," Rice said.

Now comes the season's biggest test. Tampa Bay's defense ranks No.1, and its secondary is outstanding. Cornerback Ronde Barber concedes that Rice "is going to catch balls," thanks to the three-step drops that allow Gannon to get passes off quickly and the unit's incredible precision. The key, Barber said, is to "get him on the ground" afterward.

"The quick-hitting passing game is probably one of the most difficult things to defend, unless you're playing man-to-man, bump-and-run coverage all day," Barber said. "But you can't do that because they run so many crossing routes. This team presents some things that other offenses don't present."

That, in large part, is because Rice and Brown individually were No.1 targets for so long in the league. Five times from 1993 to 1998, each posted a 1,000-yard season for his respective Bay area franchise, and Rice's slightly declining numbers (he fell short of 1,000 yards in 1999 and 2000) were revived with his defection to Oakland in 2001.

Perhaps the best illustration of their individual talents: One might think Brown would gush over Rice's influence in interviews this week, but he was blunt in reminding that his star was set long before Rice arrived.

"In Year 14, I don't know if I could have taken anything from Jerry Rice," Brown said. "He has made me respect the game more. But I couldn't take anything from Jerry's game and apply it to my game."

Their union wasn't so much a question of whether one would boost the other but whether they could coexist. In retrospect, it makes sense that they were too professional to let this experiment fail. Rice, after all, demonstrated his motivation before his first Raiders practice even started.

"It's not about the records," history's most decorated wideout said. "It's about playing the game the way it's meant to be played."


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