Ann Killion
Tuesday February 9th, 2010

A few months ago, just after Jerry Rice's name had been released on the list of candidates for the 2010 Hall of Fame class, I ran into Rice at a function.

"What do you think?" he asked me, lobbying for support.

I rolled my eyes at the greatest football player I've ever seen play.

It would seem like false humility -- gosh do you really think I'm worthy of the Hall of Fame?

But Rice -- who was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame last weekend in his first nano-second of eligibility -- has always been driven by not only greatness but also a nagging insecurity.

It's that insecurity that made him upset about his number of catches when he was playing, as though he was fearful that J.J. Stokes or Mike Sherrard might render him obsolete. It was that insecurity that lay behind his obsessive offseason training, his assertion of control over every aspect of his uniform that had to be absolutely perfect. It's that insecurity that drove him to return from a serious knee injury in the same season in 1997. That drove him to help the Raiders get back to a Super Bowl.

Some form of that anxiety was surely behind Rice's post-retirement appearance on Dancing with the Stars as though he was worried that the name Jerry Rice might be forgotten as soon as he stopped playing the game.

And even getting him away from the game was hard. He spent the tail end of his career with Seattle and then Denver. He joked on Saturday that in a recent conversation with 49ers coach Mike Singletary Rice was describing his passion for the game and he could tell that Singletary was concerned that Rice might start lobbying to make a comeback.

Anyone who watched Rice agonize through his final days of football knows there's a grain of truth in that. Rice left the game as though he still had something yet to prove.

Rice has always needed the outside world to validate him. In his early days, he was upset that -- though he was the MVP of Super Bowl XXIII -- Joe Montana received the Disneyland commercial. He had contract disputes in which his feelings seemed seriously hurt.

He came from a different place than many NFL stars -- certainly different than football stars of today. He wasn't getting recruiting letters when he was in eighth grade, he wasn't on a watch list by the time he as 15. Only one coach came to see him in high school -- Archie Cooley from Division 1-AA Mississippi Valley State.

Though his record-breaking collegiate career in Itta Bena, Mississippi put him on the NFL's radar, the word was that he wasn't fast enough to play in the NFL. Bill Walsh traded up to get him, but Rice still lasted until the 16th pick of the draft in 1985.

Rice held onto all those little humblings and slights and it drove him to be the best receiver he could be.

Of course, he knew he would make the Hall of Fame. According to reports, he asked former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo several years ago if he would present him in Canton. That was long before he had retired with a trunk full of NFL records, some of which will never be broken.

Sometimes the "greatest of all time" label is awarded prematurely. We saw that in recent days with Peyton Manning, and the hindsight question being asked on Monday morning was, "How can you call someone the greatest of all time before he's done playing?"

Usually you can't. But in Rice's case you could -- by about midway through his long career his place in history became clear. But he kept striving to get better.

When I ran into Rice back in September, of course he knew he would be elected to the Hall of Fame. But despite all he had accomplished there was a nagging voice of doubt in his head. And that's the voice that drove him to become a legend.

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