Bill Walsh rarely got it wrong. But, a decade ago when he released Jerry Rice after 16 mostly glorious seasons with the 49ers, the Genius did something Flash 80 rarely did. He dropped the ball.
Walsh thought his star receiver, then 38, was fading. So he turned the 2000 season into Jerry’s farewell tour. Too bad Rice wanted no part of the show. While many NFL insiders and Jerry’s so-called second father supposedly knew best, Jerry fumed.
So did his wife, Jackie, who became the first and only spouse to call the 49ers postgame talk show I hosted for 17 years on KGO Radio (810 AM) to complain about how poorly her husband was being treated by the team and me.
“Rich, you’re wrong. Jerry hasn’t slowed down at all. It’s just that Jeff Garcia doesn’t put the ball where Jerry can catch it as well as Joe Montana and Steve Young did,” she said.
After praising Mrs. Rice for standing by her man, I took issue with her contention that Rice was as good as ever. A point Jerry angrily reminded me of during his last home game with the 49ers. Frustrated at being double-teamed and rendered a non-factor in San Francisco’s 17-0 shutout of the Chicago Bears while Terrell Owens was catching a then NFL record 20 passes on Jerry Rice Day, no less, Jerry exploded. When he spotted me on the sidelines during the game, Rice barked, “You smile at me to my face, and then rip me behind my back.”
Like many great athletes, Rice was as sensitive and proud as he was gifted and committed to his craft. His hillside workouts left other star players eating dust. Nobody else seemed to have that extra gear when chasing down passes. Did Jerry have a nitrous switch hidden in his jersey? How else could a guy with average speed become the league’s all-time touchdown leader?
Telling him to quit was like asking him to proofread his obit. The following two seasons with the Raiders he proved his worthiness, catching 83 passes in 2001 and hauling in 92 receptions in ’02 while earning a 13th Pro Bowl appearance and fourth trip to the Super Bowl at the age of 40.
Remember too, had it not been for Warren Sapp’s face-mask tackle in the 1997 season opener that tore up Rice’s knee ending his streak of playing in 189 consecutive games, Jerry might have also become the NFL’s all-time Ironman.
Adding to his legacy, Rice returned to action less than four months after ACL surgery, appropriately enough on Joe Montana Day for the retirement of his No. 16 jersey. About 2½ hours before kickoff, Jerry came onto the Candlestick Park field to warm up. Spotting me while I walked to the press box, he asked me to watch him run routes. Cutting and moving as quickly as ever, Jerry was beaming.
Unfortunately, Rice paid a dear price for his speedy comeback. He broke the patella bone of his surgically repaired left knee while catching a touchdown pass that night in the 49ers’ playoff-clinching victory over the Denver Broncos. Hard to believe, it’s taken the 49ers 10 years to properly acknowledge Jerry.
On “Monday Night Football,” Sept. 20, at halftime of the home opener against the Super Bowl champion Saints, Rice’s No. 80 jersey is finally expected to be retired. First though, comes the bronze bust.
Saturday in Canton, Ohio, when Jerry is inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, they will be honoring a man who for two decades played the toughest of sports with unparalleled passion, grace and grit.
You won’t be hearing any of Jerry’s fiery temper at his acceptance speech. Instead, you will see a champion in all his glory wearing a smile that glows like his game ... from end zone to end zone.
KGO (810 AM) Sports Director Rich Walcoff can be heard weekdays from 5 to 9 a.m. on the KGO morning news. He can be reached at RichWalcoff@gmail.com.