Greatness is often subjective. We know it when we see an example that speaks to us, but it's rare when someone or something hits the world with undeniable dominance. Jerry Rice is a rare example inside the rare example. The receiving records he owns ... well, it would be easier to list the ones he doesn't have. And his unmatched passion for the game took him from his early days at Mississippi Valley State through a 21-year NFL career that saw him rack up 1,549 catches for 22,895 yards and 197 touchdowns. The numbers are unreal, but Rice – who will enter the Hall of Fame on a seemingly pre-destined course this Saturday – is as real as they come. In an exclusive interview, he told me how he got there, and who helped him along the way.
Shutdown Corner: It's not exactly a shock that you're a first-ballot lock for the Hall of Fame, but what does this honor mean to you?
Jerry Rice: I'm really looking forward to the Hall of Fame ceremonies. It's going to be unbelievable – just crazy. I'm looking forward to thanking all the fans for inspiring me to go out there and play my best football each and every game.
[The honor means] that I get to say ‘Thank you' and give all the guys their just due who put me in this position. Because football is not an individual sport – it's a team sport. We're going to have a big celebration – a lot of my former teammates are coming in, and I'm sure there are going to be a lot of 49ers fans there. And the city of Canton, they pretty much welcome you with open arms – they shut everything down for the Hall of Fame, and you get to go in with a very elite group of guys.
SC: There's a lot of talk about the difficulties on transitioning from the college spread to the NFL offenses – as someone who made that transition pretty well, what were the biggest differences for you from a schematic standpoint?
JR: Just the speed of the game – it goes up a notch or two. And being around so many great players, I was a little bit intimidated when I first came in. I was just trying to find myself, but I was able to jell with those guys, and we were able to win three Super Bowls. The franchise had already won two, and we won three more. It was just making those adjustments and getting comfortable out there on the field.
SC: This time for you must have you thinking a lot about Bill Walsh. What did your relationship with Bill mean to you?
JR: Bill was like a father to me. You could talk to him about anything - any kind of business or whatever. It was how he inspired me to play my best; you really wanted to win for him. I think [Walsh] was the reason that so many players wanted to come to San Francisco. Because of the legend and how he could inspire.
SC: As the guy who caught more passes from each of them than anyone else, what kept Joe Montana and Steve Young so in tune with you, and how would you describe each of them as quarterbacks?
JR: I think we had great chemistry. You do that with repetition in practice, over and over again. You develop a relationship, and I was able to do that with Joe - he knew my body language, as did Steve. Steve used to tell people, "I know when Jerry's about to break down and come out of that route," and he would always put the ball in the air early. Like I said, repetition in practice and hard work. It paid off on Sunday.
With Joe, it was his coolness on the field; he never got rattled by anything. He never pointed anyone out [in a negative sense], and it was that way with Steve, as well. I think that your quarterback had to be just like your head coach - his reaction on the field and his composure means everything. I think I had two of the best guys that knew what it took to win games.
SC: You saw the West Coast Offense develop through your career - of course, a great deal of its development had to do with your efforts. How do you think it changed from your first year in San Francisco, through the time with Jon Gruden in Oakland, to your final season in Seattle?
JR: With all of the coaches - when you look at the [Bill Walsh] tree, and all the [assistant] coaches who went on to become head coaches, you see a lot of the West Coast Offense. You don't see it as much now. But you have to have very unique players to have the chemistry and the timing. To be able to get off bump-and-run coverage, and the awareness that there's a clock ticking, and still being able to keep that timing. I think that's why teams don't use the West Coast as much now.
SC: I'd be interested to know your opinion on this - what was the best team with Jerry Rice on it that didn't make a Super Bowl? My first thought was either the 1987 49ers, or the 2001 Raiders. Maybe the 2002 Raiders team that lost to Gruden's Tampa Bay Bucs in Super Bowl XXXVII?
JR: Oh, my gosh ... that's a tough one! Of course, we had some great teams with the 49ers. But when I went with the Raiders, I really felt that we were the better team (in the Super Bowl), we just didn't show it on that given day. [The success] had a lot to do with Jon Gruden, his knowing the system and certain tendencies of people like Rich Gannon. He was all over it, and I think that's why Tampa Bay ended up winning that game.
SC: Was Deion Sanders the best cornerback you ever faced? Were there any other defenders that gave you trouble consistently?
JR: Defensive backs are the best players on the field. But when you get an exceptional player like a Deion Sanders or a Darrell Green – these guys are fast and they have very good technique. You have to work a little harder. And that's why Bill always talked about winning at the line of scrimmage. You have to double- or triple-move those guys and get them off their base. They're so fast, and you can't outrun them. You release and try to outrun them, you just play into their hands.
SC: Your offseason workouts were legendary. What was your basic program, and how do you work out these days?
JR: I still work out the same – this week, I've put in about 25 miles [running]. Five miles a day, so I'm still constantly working. Right after the season, I would take some time off, and then I would get right into the hill. I would do the hill three times a week, and I was at the track Tuesday and Thursday. I was pretty aggressive during the offseason, and that got me ready for the season. I was in perfect shape, and ready for the long haul.
JR: Well, he can't even pass the test (laughs)! It's different now – it's just a lot different. We always had that test when we first came in [to training camp], and I was always in shape to pass it. I was always getting ready for a great season. With Haynesworth, and what's going on in Washington, I'm sure Mike's going to address the situation. He'll have to pass that test before he gets on the football field.
JR: DeSean was part of the DeBartolo agency (run by former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo). I like DeSean – I like his work ethic, and what he's been able to accomplish in Philly. He's not a big guy, but he has a big heart, and he's fast. He's not afraid to go across the middle. He has confidence in his hands – that he can catch anything. I think that's why he had so much success last year, and why he'll come back this year and have a good season.
SC: Is there a receiver today that reminds you of you?
SC: Let's finish off by talking about the Take It to the House program – what's it about, and how did you get involved?
JR: Every pass that I caught, and with all the touchdowns that I scored, my thinking behind that was that I always wanted to take it to the house. So, I teamed up with Procter and Gamble to launch the "Take it to the House" program as part of the company's official NFL sponsorship. You can go here to get all the info. I'm glad to be a part of it.