Inspirational Athletes

Jerry Rice

“Desire is the key to motivation, but it’s determination and commitment to an unrelenting pursuit of your goal—a commitment to excellence—that will enable you to attain the success you seek.” Mario Andretti

In his lengthy and storied pro football career, Jerry Rice established himself as the undisputed greatest wide receiver of all time—a perennial superstar for twenty seasons, a three-time Super Bowl winner, and the owner of virtually every career receiving record in existence.

But what is most remarkable about Jerry is the fact that from his rookie season in 1985 all the way to his retirement , he has always been among the most diligent, prepared, professional athletes in all of sports. In fact, even after having solidified himself as an NFL legend midway into his career in the mid 1990s, he remained committed to fine tuning his game, having fun, and maintaining his skill while adding new ones.

To put it in one phrase, Jerry Rice is committed to excellence.

For years, Jerry has epitomized effectiveness and efficiency both on the football field and off it in off-season and preseason training sessions. The enthusiasm of an eager child, the hunger of an unproven rookie, and the professionalism of a seasoned veteran—Jerry has combined these attributes in himself throughout his career, and has exemplified a commitment to excellence that has stayed with him even after achieving more than virtually any other athlete in football history.

More than just a hard worker, and more than just a great player, Jerry Rice is someone who has always truly taken delight in what he does, and has done it right. Whenever it was game time, one thing you could always be sure of was that Jerry Rice would be ready to play at an amazing level of focus and intensity.

Even more incredible is the fact that Jerry came back from two major left knee injuries he suffered in 1997 to return to Pro Bowl form, even when many people thought the injuries would end his career.

Jerry’s incredible story began during his years growing up in Crawford, Mississippi, a tiny countryside town with a population of about 500. One of eight brothers and sisters, he had a very active lifestyle as a youth that included plenty of sports and running. He also helped his family earn money by picking corn and cotton, and by helping his father in his bricklaying business. Since the bricklaying work involved him catching a countless numbers of bricks his father threw to him in the scorching hot temperatures, it is often accredited with helping lay a foundation for Jerry’s outstanding pass catching throughout his football career.

Jerry joined his high school’s football team in his sophomore year. During one particular practice, he and the rest of the team was in the middle of running a series of twenty sprints up and down a hill in their pads and helmets, as part of their routine end of practice conditioning program. A tired and out of breath Jerry decided to stop at number eleven, convinced that he could get away with skipping the last nine sprints without punishment. But then Jerry decided that this was not the time to quit, that there was no reason to quit, and that quitting at that point would put him in a mode of making quitting seem acceptable in the future. He decided that quitting was unacceptable to himself, regardless of what others would think or do, and he finished off the last nine sprints.

That experience became an important part in Jerry’s development, as it contributed much to his tough resoluteness and commitment to excellence, and it also helped build Jerry’s fine tuned training habits, which seemed to continuously improve from that point on.

Jerry’s solid high school football career captured the recruiting interest of many local colleges, and he decided to join the nearby Mississippi Valley State Delta Devils. In his freshman year, he quickly established himself as a dominating receiver who would catch almost every pass thrown to him. His professionalism, preparation, and amazing skills quickly turned him into a superstar at Mississippi Valley State.

By his senior year, Jerry was considered among the nation’s best collegiate receivers, with senior season receiving stats of 112 receptions, 1846 yards, and 28 touchdowns. And although he was a Division I-AA player, he highlighted his play in a Blue-Grey college football game that included many prestigious Division I-A players—a game in which Jerry took MVP honors, and dramatically captured the attention of NFL scouts.

The San Francisco 49ers selected Jerry Rice with the 16th overall pick in the 1985 NFL draft, and hoped that he would elevate their already dominant offense. But the initial transition to the NFL proved to be a difficult one for Jerry. His rookie season began at a poor pace, and, uncharacteristic of his football career up to then, he dropped catches at an unacceptable rate. His early season performances drew boos from 49er fans, and caused many to feel as if the former small town star was on his way to becoming a big time NFL bust.

The poor rookie season start was very difficult for Jerry, and made worse by his trouble adjusting to San Francisco’s big city environment, which was worlds away from the small town life he was so accustomed to.

Despite Jerry’s poor start, the 49er coaching staff was certain their new receiver would turn things around. But still, perhaps no one expected him to turn the tide the way he did in the latter part of the season, when he established himself as one of the league’s elite receivers, and highlighted his late season surge with a ten-catch 241 yard performance in a week 14 Monday night game against the Rams.

By the end of his rookie year, Jerry had racked up an impressive 927 yards, and went from potential bust to potential future MVP candidate. In fact, even despite his lackluster start, his season was good enough to win him Rookie of the Year honors from the United Press International.

Jerry continued his success right into his second NFL season, and from then remained a fixture among the NFL elite. His precision route running and pass catching coupled with his impeccable preparation and training habits allowed him to consistently finish atop the receiver leader boards almost every year.

In 1987—Jerry’s third year in the league—he broke the NFL single season receiving touchdown record with a whopping 22 trips to the end zone, in a season shortened to twelve games due to a player strike. That postseason, however, also marked the third consecutive first round playoff loss for Jerry and the 49ers.

But the following year, he and the team rocketed through the playoffs and right to Super Bowl XXIII, where in his first career Super Bowl appearance, Jerry accumulated 215 receiving yards in an MVP winning performance, and paved the way for a close 49er win over the Cincinnati Bengals.

Jerry and the 49ers took their dominance to an even higher level the next season, compiling a 14-2 regular season record, and breezing through the postseason with three straight blowout wins: a 41-13 victory over the Minnesota Vikings in the Divisional Playoff game, a 30-3 domination of the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC Championship, and a 55-10 routing of the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXIV, in a game where Jerry reached the end zone a Super Bowl record three times.

Season after season, Jerry played like a living legend. With his intense, effective, and efficient training habits and mindset, and his consistently outstanding play, Jerry was a regular atop the individual leader boards, and being a key player on a team that was always a Super Bowl contender. And remarkably, he did not miss a single game for his first twelve seasons.

In 1992, Jerry broke the NFL career receiving touchdowns record, and was by all estimations considered one of the game’s all-time greatest players. But little did anyone know at that time that Jerry Rice was not even halfway done with his NFL career. Going into the 1994 season, the 49ers were a perennial powerhouse, but had disappointingly failed to make it to the Super Bowl for the last four seasons. Hungry for yet another championship, Jerry attended early preseason practices that were not mandatory for team veterans, and even gave up some of his incentive clauses in order to free salary cap space so that the team could sign quality free agents.

Jerry’s preseason actions set a strong example for his teammates to follow. The 49ers put together a strong regular and postseason performance that culminated in a 49-26 win over the San Diego Chargers in Super Bowl XXIX—Jerry’s third Super Bowl victory. Amazingly enough, although Jerry had to leave the game early after suffering a severely strained shoulder, he returned later to add two more touchdowns to the first one he scored in the game’s early minutes. (Note: Don’t try this at home!)

Jerry Rice (Illustrator: Thomas Mesenbring Field)

The next year, Jerry set a single season record with 1848 receiving yards, and also broke the all-time records for both receiving yards and receptions. By then, the eleven-year veteran was by all means considered the greatest receiver of all time, and among the greatest athletes in team sports history.

But in that off-season, Jerry had to endure the most painful moment of his life, when his wife Jackie almost died from complications after giving birth to the couple’s third child. Jackie spent nearly two weeks in critical condition, and then endured a long and tough recovery.

Jerry followed Jackie’s frightening near death episode with another outstanding season in 1996, earning his eleventh consecutive Pro Bowl invitation.

Then in 1997, Jerry’s 189 consecutive games streak ended when he suffered torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his left knee in the season opener. After surgery and rehabilitation, he surprised doctors by returning just 14 weeks later against the Broncos; but unfortunately, he cracked the patella in his left knee while coming down with a crucial touchdown catch in that game.

The injury made many fans fear that his career would be over. Jerry underwent another left knee surgery, but remained determined to resume his football career.

And incredibly, Jerry was back in action that that following season in 1998, and performed so well that he was named to yet another Pro Bowl team.

Nevertheless, his 49ers team, anticipating that Jerry’s career was winding down, gave him a diminished role in the offense in the following two seasons, in order to make way for the development of the team’s younger receivers. After those two solid but uneventful seasons—both of which saw Jerry finish under the 1000-yard receiving benchmark—it seemed as if Jerry’s legendary career was reaching its end, and that it was time for to the 38-year old receiver to hang up his cleats and call it a career.

But Jerry Rice had other plans. Unsatisfied with his reduced role, he wanted out of San Francisco. And although the team offered him a $1 million bonus that offseason to retire as a 49er, Jerry instead opted to sign with the Oakland Raiders.

Although Oakland Raider fans do not take kindly to the nearby and hated 49ers team—or any other NFL team, for that matter—they embraced Jerry Rice with great enthusiasm.

And Jerry’s move to the silver & black turned out to be a huge success for both him and the team. In his first season there, he topped the 1000-yard receiving mark once again, and the Raiders seemed headed to the Super Bowl before losing a playoff game to the eventual champion Patriots, largely due to a controversial call in the Patriot’s favor late in the game.

Despite the loss, football fans enjoyed Jerry’s tremendous season, where he and two other longtime veterans—quarterback Rich Gannon and wide receiver Tim Brown—helped form the nucleus of one of the most successful offenses in the league.

Jerry’s 2002 season was even more successful, as he finished with 1211 receiving yards and made yet another Pro Bowl, and formed an integral part of a high-powered Raiders offense that took the league by storm. This time, the team advanced all the way to the Super Bowl XXXVII, but fell short of a Super Bowl win against their Tampa Bay Buccaneers opponents. But although Jerry did not win his fourth Super Bowl championship, he did manage to score a touchdown on an exciting 48-yard reception during the game.

Jerry followed up with another solid season with the Raiders in 2003, gaining 869 receiving yards, and remaining on of the team’s featured offensive weapons.

Then, at the start of the 2004 season, the Raiders began reducing Jerry’s playing time, diminishing his role and pass-catching opportunities, and for the most part sending him the message that it was time for him to step aside.

Like he did with the 49ers a few seasons ago, Jerry took matters into his own hands, and did not accept the diminished role. Convinced that he still had much to offer an NFL team, he asked to be traded to a team that would better utilize him; and on October 18, he was traded to the Seattle Seahawks. Soon after joining the Seahawks, Jerry once again became a featured receiver on an NFL team. And then in the ensuing offseason, Jerry briefly joined the Denver Broncos in training camp in hopes of playing in his 21st NFL season, but decided to retire from pro football after the Broncos decided not to make him a feature receiver.

Jerry’s latter career moves to the Raiders, Seahawks, and Broncos are the latest in a long line of actions that illustrate his passion for the sport—a passion so strong that even as an active all-time great in his late 30s and early 40s, he continued to remain intent on being out there on the field.

In the rough game of pro football—a game where injuries and declining performances are quite common—most careers do not last past ten years. Even more rare—regardless of sport—is an athlete who maintains outstanding and diligent training habits even after being at the top for so long and experiencing the fame and fortune of being a superstar.

In the world of pro football and sports in general, Jerry Rice truly stands as the mark of a player always conducts himself and plays like a champion.

Current Seahawks head coach and former 49ers offensive coordinator Mike Holmgren put it succinctly when assessing Jerry: “I can’t think of another player that more exemplifies the drive, work habits and commitment it takes to reach the top.”

Inspirational Athletes