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Covering Jerry Rice was like watching near perfection


It's not a claim many people can make. For years, when I came to work, I could expect to witness near perfection.

Because I was covering Jerry Rice.

Catches? Always (274 consecutive games with one) Touchdowns? Absolutely (208 total) Records? By the bucket full. Yards after catch? Unbelievable. Blocks thrown? Highly underrated. Contributing to a winning a team? No one better.

And it wasn't just the games. Watching Rice in practice -- running to the end zone after every routine catch, working at a level that sent a message to his entire team -- was a daily tutorial in discipline and desire.

But the slide show that runs through my mind of all those years of watching Rice includes other signs of perfection. Rice's reflection in the mirror as he made sure the knot in his tie was perfect, while a crowd of reporters on deadline huddled nervously nearby. The lengthy time spent on his hair (this was in the pre-shaved head days). The perfectly shined shoes. The impeccably folded towel.

I don't know what Rice will say on Saturday when he's inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. But I do know this. He'll make sure he looks good -- even in that day-old mustard yellow jacket.

Rice's obsession with his the details of his appearance became easy shorthand for his fixation on the specifics of his game. He tried every time he took the field to be the perfect NFL receiver.

And he came as close as anyone ever has to succeeding.

It's been a foregone conclusion for virtually as long as I've known him that he would be inducted into Pro Football's Hall of Fame. He was considered the best receiver in the game by his third season. By the time of Super Bowl XXIV on Jan. 28, 1990, his bronze bust was already on the way.

Rice still owns so many key NFL records, many of which will likely never be broken. The men closest to him in several categories are themselves already retired or getting close.

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Last January, Terrell Owens, the player who was supposed to be the next Jerry Rice for the 49ers until he imploded and began his team-to-team journey around the league, put his sizable foot into his sizable mouth once more.

He said, "Hands down I'd be close to Jerry Rice's records if I had been with quality quarterbacks like he had. He had Joe Montana and finished with Steve Young. That wasn't a drop-off."

Let me know when you stop laughing. Rice did play with two Hall of Fame quarterbacks and another excellent one in Rich Gannon during his time at the Raiders. But all three men, when asked, will defer much of the credit for their success to playing with Rice -- not vice-a-versa.

And Owens' comment -- as so many of his comments through his career -- was about who was throwing the ball. In Rice's case, it was about who was catching the ball. The determination. The obsession with details. There's never been another receiver like him -- certainly not Owens.

It's amusing to remember -- in a Mad Men, "Wow did they really drink that much at lunch?" kind of way -- that Rice was considered a bit of a prima donna in his day.

He could be prickly with reporters. He wanted the ball. He wanted his money -- he once came to training camp during a contract dispute with a helmet tattooed on his biceps. The helmet was deliberately left blank to send the message to the 49ers that he was willing to don another uniform if need be. He wanted the credit -- early in his career he became famous for publicly pouting that Montana had received the "I'm Going to Disneyland" spot even though Rice had been named the Super Bowl MVP.

But compared to the receivers that have come since -- many of whom have attempted an assault on his place in the record books, like Owens and Randy Moss -- Rice didn't exactly qualify as a problem. It's inconceivable to imagine him quitting on his team, the way Moss did on the Raiders. Or attempting to rip a team apart, the way Owens has done on various occasions.

Rice went through his share of struggles. He almost lost his wife Jackie (they split up last year) during the birth of their third child in 1996. In 1997, he blew out his knee in the first game of the season, attempted to rehab in a Rice-ian obsessive way, returned for a Monday night game in December and hurt the knee again.

Along the way, he lost his status as the best receiver in the game. He watched his once great team dissolve around him and it was finally made clear there was no place for him with the 49ers anymore. He went across the bay to the Raiders, where he proved he still had worth and made it to another Super Bowl. But in his final years he suffered the ignominy of a 4-12 season. An unsuccessful trade to Seattle. And finally a humbling retirement in a Denver training camp.

But, by then, the slide show of his career was complete. Image after image of perfection: from the catch, to the run, to the score to the perfectly knotted tie.

All pointing toward that day-old-mustard jacket he'll don Saturday.