- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 6, 2005

Jerry Rice looked about as right in a No.19 Broncos uniform as Johnny Unitas did in a No.19 Chargers uniform. Of course, Rice did more club-hopping than Johnny U. did at the end of his career, so we got to see him in colors (and numbers) other than the ones he wore for the 49ers — the Raiders’ for a spell, the Seahawks’ briefly, the Broncos even more fleetingly. Jerry did everything he could to keep running pass routes, even hitting up Mike Holmgren and Mike Shanahan, men who had coached him in his glory days in San Francisco, for jobs the past two years.

Holmgren squeezed 25 final catches out of him last season after acquiring him in a trading deadline deal, giving Rice one last taste of the playoffs. But in Denver, Jerry’s presence on the roster seemed increasingly ceremonial. When it became clear, as training camp progressed, that he would be the team’s No.4 or No.5 wideout — and might not even dress for some games — he saw the situation for what it was and wisely called it quits yesterday. So it ends for the greatest receiver of all time.

It’s not often you can affix the honorific “greatest” to a modern athlete without qualification. Rule changes, expansion, longer seasons, performance-enhancing drugs, better medicine — all these things can make contemporary players appear better than they actually are. With Rice, though, there are no ifs; he’s the best the game has ever seen. Even the old-timers, the guys who saw Don Hutson twirl around the goal post and haul in a touchdown pass, will tell you that.

There are a million statistics that make Rice seem like the Wideout from Another Planet. He’s like Wilt Chamberlain in that regard, like Wayne Gretzky, like the Babe once upon a time. In honor of his retirement, I’ve decided to add another stat to the list, one I just conjured up: Remember how Redskins legend Charley Taylor once held the all-time NFL record with 649 receptions? Well, Jerry, believe it or not, had more receptions than that after his 33rd birthday (688 to be exact).

That’s what his professional life has been, really — a living “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” cartoon. Especially his 197 receiving TDs. When he came into the league, the record was basically half that many (99, by Hutson).

Rice has been avoiding yesterday’s announcement as if it were a rabid free safety. When his 274-game receiving streak was snapped last September, underscoring his insignificance in Raidersland, he forced the trade to the Seahawks. Then, late last month, he took three days off from the Broncos’ camp, ostensibly to see his daughter off to college; speculation persisted, however, that he was also reassessing his status as a 42-year-old afterthought, despite his claim that he was “totally committed” to playing this season.

At that point, many thought Rice should be “totally committed” to an asylum. How, they wondered, could he hang on like this? What could he possibly be getting out of it, other than the occasional cheer and the once-every-other-month touchdown? They forgot, though, that part of what makes any athlete great is the utter refusal to take no for an answer. You think you can shut me down by double-teaming me? Let’s see you do it. You’re convinced I’m over the hill at 38? Heck, I’m just catching my second wind.

If Rice hadn’t been this way, he might have packed it in five years ago, after averaging barely 10 yards a catch in his San Francisco farewell. But then we would have been deprived of his two sensational sunset seasons in Oakland — 175 catches, 2,350 yards, 16 TDs, a Pro Bowl berth, a nostalgic 48-yard score in the Super Bowl. More stuff right out of “Ripley’s.”

You can even make a case for Rice being the greatest football player period, but that’s a bit of a stretch to me. Quarterbacks are so much more central to the game, have so much more of an effect on winning and losing. It might be more accurate to say that nobody — no QB, no running back, no lineman, no defender — ever played his position better than Jerry did. I’d definitely go along with that.

Unitas began to suspect he had stayed too long when, near the end, he asked a young Colts quarterback what he wanted out of pro football. “A Corvette and a German shepherd dog,” the kid replied. Such material things are never what matters most to the all-timers. Indeed, all that ever seemed to matter to Jerry Rice, right to his last preseason game, was having one more pass, just one more, thrown in his direction. Anything he could get a few fingers on.

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