In the wee hours of Sept. 17, a tall, lanky Martian sneaked
through the darkened hallways of a house in Atherton, Calif.,
searching for something sharp. Detection would've been
disastrous, so the Martian moved slowly, using his extraordinary
night vision to descend a staircase and enter the garage. When
it comes to Earth tools, this Martian is all thumbs, but this
was a desperate situation: The alien's left leg was encased in a
plaster cast that stretched from ankle to thigh. He found a saw
and spent the next 20 minutes hacking his way to freedom.
Three months later, there's still no logical explanation for the
behavior of this Martian--a.k.a. Jerry Lee Rice, a man believed
to be the greatest wide receiver on Earth. In 12 seasons with
the San Francisco 49ers, from 1985 to '96, Rice caught 1,050
passes for 16,377 yards and 154 touchdowns, all NFL records. He
starred in three Super Bowl victories and earned 11 Pro Bowl
invitations. Now, with Rice on the verge of setting perhaps his
most amazing record of all, we have discovered that he's truly
out of this world. His doctor, 49ers team physician Michael
Dillingham, who repaired Rice's mangled left knee after it was
injured in San Francisco's season-opening defeat at Tampa Bay on
Aug. 31, said so while watching Rice race through pass patterns
in late November. "There he is," Dillingham said as Rice reached
up to snag a ball thrown well over his shoulder. "Take a good
look at him: the man from Mars."
Dillingham's conclusion was based on the premise that no human
could possibly do what Rice, 35, says he will do next Monday
night when the 49ers host the Denver Broncos: line up at
receiver a mere 3 1/2 months after major reconstructive knee
"I can't even look at my scar," Rice says as he lifts his nylon
sweat pants and reveals the five-inch boomerang-shaped blemish
on the inside of his left knee. Nor can Rice bear to watch a
replay of the reverse on which he was injured. He was met in the
backfield by Buccaneers defensive tackle Warren Sapp, who
grabbed him by the face mask and twisted him sideways while
Rice's left foot was caught in the grass.
December 15, 1997
That Rice had never missed a game in 19 seasons of football
before this one was no coincidence. Beginning on the muddy roads
of Crawford, Miss., and continuing in the dry hills of northern
California, Rice has pushed himself beyond the limits of mere
mortals. He is so well-conditioned he makes Jamie Lee Curtis
look like James Earl Jones.
Standing in the ballroom of a hotel near the San Francisco
airport on the night of Dec. 3, where he spent two hours signing
helmets and jerseys, Rice became grumpy when discussing the play
on which his knee gave out. Rice says Sapp, who was assessed a
personal foul for the face-mask takedown, hasn't even contacted
him to wish him well--not that Rice is waiting by the phone. "If
it had been a legal tackle, I wouldn't have had a problem with
it," he said. "You always get yours in return, and somewhere
down the road he'll get his. Let's just say this: If I had an
opportunity to hit him, I would hit him." A long pause. "But I
would do it in a legal way."
For all of the fight in Rice now, he was practically lifeless
immediately after the injury. As soon as the Niners landed in
San Francisco late on the night of Aug. 31, Rice and Dillingham
drove to a clinic in nearby Redwood City, where they were met by
Jerry's wife, Jackie. An MRI confirmed what Dillingham had
feared and then some: In addition to a torn anterior cruciate
ligament, Rice's medial collateral ligament was strained,
essentially rendering the knee useless, and the posterior medial
capsule was completely torn.
Jerry was despondent as he lay in the MRI tube. "He told me,
'Well, you know, it's over. I think this is it,'" Jackie says.
"I couldn't believe I was hearing those words from him. I told
him, 'Listen to you. You're the person who spent a year telling
me I could make it through, and now you're giving up?'"
Jackie had a right to protest, given what she had gone through.
In May 1996, after giving birth to their third child, a healthy
girl named Jada, Jackie began hemorrhaging and was rushed into
emergency surgery. She barely survived, going through 250 units
of blood, and spent 3 1/2 weeks unconscious and hooked up to a
respirator. Because of nerve damage sustained during the
life-saving surgery, Jackie was confined to a wheelchair for
four months, and it took her 14 months to recover completely.
Now Jerry was the one facing a rigorous rehabilitation. First,
there was a choice to be made among several surgical options,
one of which the Rices rejected immediately: allowing the medial
collateral ligament to heal on its own and then, about eight
weeks later, operate to repair the ACL. Jerry was too impatient
for that, although he didn't choose what would have been the
quickest cure for an average guy, using a patellar tendon from
the knee of a cadaver to replace the ACL. Instead Rice elected
to have part of his own patellar tendon removed and used to
repair the ACL, a technique that usually leads to a stronger
There was also the matter of who would perform the surgery.
Though Dillingham, an orthopedist and rehabilitation medicine
specialist, had done numerous delicate operations on Niners
stars such as Joe Montana (elbow), Steve Young (shoulder) and
William Floyd (knee), Rice would have been justified in seeking
additional opinions from renowned specialists. But Dillingham
told him, "Look, this is the Super Bowl to me." According to Jim
Steiner, Rice's agent, "Jerry was moved by his sincerity." Rice
agreed to undergo surgery the next morning.
The Niners didn't place Rice on the injured-reserve list, which
would have rendered him ineligible for the season. After all,
San Francisco cornerback Rod Woodson, who tore his ACL while
playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers in their 1995 opener, had
returned for spot duty in the Super Bowl 4 1/2 months later--the
only time an NFL player had come back from that injury in the
same season. However, Woodson experienced subsequent knee
problems that may have been caused by his rushed return. Steve
Mariucci, San Francisco's first-year coach, says he figured Rice
had a 5% chance of making it back before the Super Bowl.
Even if he doesn't suit up for the game against the Broncos or
in the season finale against the Seattle Seahawks on Dec. 21,
Rice is a lock to play in the Niners' first playoff game the
weekend after New Year's Day. "They tell me coming back this
fast is unheard of," Rice says. "Every time I see Dr.
Dillingham, he gives me this little look like, You don't know
what you're doing. This could change the entire philosophy about
medicine and recovery from this type of injury, but I'm not
looking at it like that. I just want to get back out on the
field and make things happen."
How did this athlete, albeit one of the more gifted of his
generation, make mincemeat out of conventional medical wisdom?
Dillingham credits the extensive rehabilitation program
initiated by the 49ers, which included the input of team trainer
Lindsy McLean and physical development coordinator Jerry Attaway
as well as a San Francisco physical therapist named Lisa
Giannone. It was Giannone's approach, one in which muscles are
subjected to measured dosages of stress in a specific order,
that is credited with allowing Rice to push through his
rehabilitation without experiencing the most common pitfall,
patellar tendinitis. In Giannone's words, "Many people think
rehabilitation is all about enduring pain, but I say it's all
about relentless, calculated, progressive physical breakdown and
then rebuilding the body as if it's a machine."
Technique alone can't explain the speed of Rice's recovery. Rice
augments his physical gifts with an indefatigable work ethic and
a desperation born of fear of failure. "I think we have to
realize that he's a superbeing," says former 49ers tight end
Jamie Williams, a close friend of Rice's. "He's not like other
people--not from a physical standpoint or from mental or
emotional ones. They say that when people are in life-or-death
situations, sometimes their will to live is what saves them. He
has that same will when it comes to his football life."
There were trying moments, to be sure. One night shortly after
the injury Jerry and Jackie lay in bed, both of them sobbing,
asking God for strength. On Sept. 14, Rice stood on the sideline
before the Niners' home opener and wept during the national
anthem. There were two months worth of sleepless nights. Says
Jackie, "He'd go from the bed to the floor to the couch
downstairs and back to the floor upstairs." When Jerry made the
impulsive decision to remove his cast at 3 a.m. on that
mid-September night, it was without Jackie's blessing. "Without
a doubt she would have tried to stop me, so I had to be quiet,"
Jerry says. "I have great vision in the dark, and I made it to
the garage without turning on a light. I'm terrible with
tools--I hadn't used a saw since I left Mississippi--but I just
had to get it off."
A couple of days later Rice paid his first visit to Giannone's
clinic, ActiveCare. "This young lady pushed me to a new level,"
Rice says. "It's brutal up there."
Giannone's size (she's 5'4") and relaxed style make her the
unlikeliest of tyrants. She had been Jackie's therapist
throughout much of her recovery, paying regular visits to the
Rices' house. "Jackie cried every time Lisa was about to arrive
and again after she left," Jerry says. "I never understood why
until I started working with her."
Giannone knew all about Rice's reputation as a workout king with
a high tolerance for pain. She knew he had played through part
of his rookie season with a partially torn knee ligament, had
shaken off a badly sprained ankle to become the MVP in Super
Bowl XXIII and had played much of Super Bowl XXIX with a
separated shoulder. Yet the first time Giannone began to work on
Jerry's knee, she says, "it was like an alarm went off. He and
Jackie immediately freaked out, like, 'Whoa, this is precious.'"
After one of Rice's early visits, Giannone heard some of her
staff members call him an uncooperative sissy. "They didn't
understand his psychology," she says. "He was used to being
pushed, but he viewed his body as something that needed to be
cared for. I remember he was doing a stretching exercise in
which he bent his knee upward. It was the first time he could
get it close to his face, and he lifted his head up and kissed
The turning point came when Giannone tapped into Rice's
ultracompetitive psyche. A preponderance of scar tissue had
built up in the knee, and Dillingham advised Rice that he might
have to be manipulated--a procedure during which the patient is
anesthetized and the knee is bent upward and then fully
straightened in order to break down the scar tissue. Rice didn't
want to undergo the procedure, which could have set back his
recovery, but the only way to avoid it was to push through the
scar tissue on his own. On Oct. 10, Dillingham and Giannone gave
Rice an ultimatum: His range of motion was 110 degrees, and if
he couldn't increase it to 130 by Oct. 13, he would have to be
manipulated. Rice stretched his leg constantly over the weekend
and barely avoided the procedure. Says Young, "He was in a bad
way for a little while, but as soon as he beat that deadline,
you could see the light in his eyes."
In the last month Rice supplemented his daily three- to
four-hour regimen with Giannone with one-on-one conditioning
sessions of two to three hours at the Niners' facility with
Attaway. Rice spent another hour working on the knee at home.
Since his injury there has been only one day--Sept. 20, if
you're scoring at home--when he has allowed his knee to rest. In
the past month, as the knee has become stronger, Rice has
practiced cutting and stopping through the hallways of his
three-story home, often startling Jackie in the process.
Is Rice worried? Damn straight. The knee has passed almost every
test, but there's no test that approximates the impact of a
300-pound defensive lineman. Rice will wear a brace but isn't
thrilled about it. "It messes up my sweetness," he says. "I'd
look like RoboCop out there."
Team officials, especially Mariucci, are concerned that Rice
might be coming back too soon. On Dec. 3, Rice returned to
practice, working mostly on the scout team and participating in
selected drills. Contact was out of the question, as Rice
learned when he lined up to run a go route against a rookie
defensive back, Zack Bronson. "The offensive coordinator [Marty
Mornhinweg] told the guy to back off," Rice said, "and the guy
backed off like 15 yards. I couldn't get anyone within 10 yards
of me. I'm thinking of paying some of the guys to hit me." Rice
made it through the rest of the week without any setbacks and
planned to practice without restrictions this week. On Monday he
planned to go for a brisk run up the infamous Portola Valley
hill that has been a staple of his off-season training regimen
throughout the '90s. "Just another thing I have to conquer,"
Rice explained, "another sign to let me know I'm ready."
Privately some San Francisco players wonder whether Rice is
pressing to return because he's concerned about the emergence of
young wideouts Terrell Owens and J.J. Stokes. "Jerry needs to
relax," says one veteran. "It's not about being on the field;
it's about helping this team. He should wait until he's right
and get back next year. You can see that he's pressing, and he's
putting his career in jeopardy. Any defensive back he faces is
going to try to take him out."
The doubters are out in full force. It has been suggested that
Rice, even as a backup, would disrupt the Niners' offensive
flow. This is like saying that the return of the Bay Area's
other legendary Jerry--Garcia--would foul up the Grateful Dead's
timing. "How can I respond to that?" Rice asks, laughing. "I've
been a part of this team for 12 years, and I don't feel like
I've messed up things too badly."
Rice says he has been energized by the presence of Owens and
Stokes and praises both of them for their willingness to accept
his input. Just as the veteran Freddie Solomon helped Rice in
his rookie season, Rice has no qualms about tutoring the men who
are aiming to displace him. "Hey, I could stick around as the
third receiver," he says. "That might prolong my career another
Two weeks ago the Rices' six-year-old son, Jerry Jr., told
Jackie, "I want to play football this year, and I want to be
like J.J. Stokes." Jackie was incredulous. "J.J. Stokes?" she
asked. "Don't you want to be like your dad?"
"J.J. Stokes is catching the long ball," he answered, "and Dad
There's one more assumption Rice would like to disprove, the
tendency of observers to attribute his recovery to an
otherworldly force. "Everyone tells me, 'This is not human,
man,'" Rice says. "Everyone says it's a miracle, that I'm a
freak. It's not about that. It's about hard work. Most people
with an injury like this go to therapy two or three times a
week. I went every day, including weekends, and worked out twice
a day. There were days I felt like hell, but I found a way to
grind it out. People have their opinions, but I don't think
they've gone through what I've gone through. They haven't
endured the pain and torture that I have every single day."
The evidence is in, and now it's time for a verdict. Would you
determine that Rice is a man from Mars or simply a man from
Mississippi who once chased down wild horses and rode them
bareback? Is he really an anatomical freak, or is his mutation
somewhere deep within his soul, a twisted self-assessment gene
in which his very being is defined by an ability to overcome
apparently insurmountable challenges?
Both arguments are compelling. Perhaps you'll conclude that it
doesn't really matter. That when all is said and done, Jerry
Rice is just exceptional.
"He told me, 'Well, you know, it's over. I think this is it,'"
After an early therapy session, some Giannone staffers called
Rice a sissy.
"I'm thinking of paying some of the guys to hit me," says Rice.