Jerry Rice arrived on the 49ers doorstep in 1985, the son of a bricklayer with an appreciation for hard work.
Rice says it was that hard work and the way he went about it during the thankless hours of practice and preparation that made his Sundays so productive. Rice’s induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday was as much a tribute to those hours as it was to accolades and achievements he achieved during football games.
“I never gave in to the concept that ‘I’ve arrived,’” Rice said prior to his induction. “I always went into a season trying to figure out how to be better than I was the year before.”
From Rice’s first day as a rookie, stepping into the 49ers’ locker room with the likes of Joe Montana, Dwight Clark, Roger Craig and Freddie Solomon already setting the tone for the team, his work ethic would be pushed to its limit under the watchful eye of coach Bill Walsh.
Every week of his 20-year NFL career, Rice practiced at game tempo, every practice formation, every practice play. And after setting NFL records for catches (1,549), receiving yards (22,895), receiving touchdowns (197) and total touchdowns (208), he could not think of a game that did not receive the Rice treatment.
“I started working that Wednesday, making every catch, making every play,” Rice said. “It almost becomes instilled in you. You don’t have to think about it during the game when it happens. It came more of just reaction.”
Opponents would tell reporters that the slant play the 49ers ran for Rice was indefensible because of the speed at which they ran the play. First Montana, then Steve Young and a few others, would put the ball in Rice’s hands before the defender could react. Rice was impossible to stop.
While Rice will remind you that the 49ers had set the practice bar long before he got there, he seemed to thrive on the competitions during practices — whether it was the 60-yard runs down the practice field after every catch, or the battles he and Craig would have running over a hillside trail.
“I go back to that trail, and there are so many great memories,” Rice said. “I think of what I put my body through: the pain, the torture. I think it prepared me to play football for a long time.”
And for the 47-year-old man who as a boy helped his father lay bricks, for him to think where all that hard work has taken him ...
“I’d have to pinch myself,” Rice said, “this small boy from B.L. Moor High School, goes off to the Mississippi Valley State University, getting a chance to play in San Francisco for the greatest owner, Eddie Debartolo, the greatest coach, Bill Walsh, for the greatest team, the San Francisco 49ers.”
Maybe it’s finally time for Jerry Rice to say he’s arrived.
Tim Liotta is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to The Examiner. E-mail him at email@example.com.