In Mid-October, Andre Rison of the Atlanta Falcons—at the time the NFL's leading receiver, with 38 catches—was a guest on teammate Deion Sanders's radio show. The WQXI switchboard was being Hooded with telephone calls from fans who wanted to debate who was the better receiver: Rison, a second-year pro, or Jerry Rice of the San Francisco 49ers, a four-time All-Pro and the 1989 Super Bowl MVP, who was closing in on Rison for the season's lead in receptions.
To settle the argument, Rison decided to make a phone call of his own. While on the air, he put someone on the spot, the person who should know—his mother. Well, Mama?
"I said, 'Rice is great, so is Andre. But Jerry has more experience,' " recalls Merdice Brown. "Andre called me back later, off the air, and said, 'Mama, why didn't you tell them what the real deal is? Who's the best? Me or Jerry?' And I said, 'You know you are.' "
Publicly, Rison stops short of saying he's as good as Rice, but privately it's a different story. In fact, he would like nothing better than to beat out Rice for the season's receiving honors. "Going into this year, I read in a magazine that I was the 28th-rated receiver in the NFL," says Rison. "That hurt. No receiver that came out in my draft can touch me. Look, I'm not going to compare myself to Jerry Rice. He's a Hall of Famer, but I want to do what he's done—and more."
Those who have watched Rison's quick development have learned not to scoff at his boastful talk or to underestimate his determination. As the seam man in Atlanta's four-receiver Red Gun offensive set, his job is to race along the hash marks, sprint across no-man's-land—the middle of the field—catch the ball in heavy traffic and then run like mad.
"It's a myth that it hurts more when you're hit catching a pass over the middle," says the 5'11", 185-pound Rison. "The defensive back may think he has a dream shot—that he can knock me out—but I'll be damned if I can't do the same to him. I've put some licks on people. I will head-butt a defensive back if I have to."
Rison has caught a pass in every one of his 29 games; it took him only 24 games to reach 100 receptions. Just one wide receiver who began his career in the NFL has done it quicker, the New York Jets' Al Toon, who reached the milestone in 23.
Rice passed Rison for the league lead in catches in Week 9, three weeks after the radio show, but they remain one-two in all the major categories. Rice has 82 catches for 1,238 yards and 11 touchdowns, while Rison has 71 grabs for 1,059 yards and 10 TDs. "What I like is his concentration," says Rice. "He can be stuck in a crowd over the middle, with people all around him, and he still puts his hand on the ball."
And, sometimes, his foot in his mouth. Last season, after New England Patriots linebacker Johnny Rembert smashed his helmet into Rison's jaw, Andre peeled himself off the carpet, walked up to Rembert, thrust his chest forward and said, "A real linebacker would have put me out of the game." According to Rison, he taunts opponents—he calls it "trappin' " or "talkin' smack"—only after being provoked. "Andre's not talking about the guy's mother," says Merdice, who has encouraged her son to speak his mind. "He's saying, 'You're a chump.' This is football. I'm not for shots to the head, but tough talk isn't wrong. The kids used to say, 'I'm not going to let him punk me out.' Nobody wanted to look like a sissy. I always told Andre, if the guy's in your face, you say, I'm tougher! Stand up for yourself. If you don't, they'll kill you. Don't let them turn you out. You'll look weak.' "
"Andre's mouth goes 120 miles per hour," says Atlanta tackle Chris Hinton. "In the huddle it's a wonder any quarterback can get a word in edgewise. Andre says, I want the ball. Throw it to me. I can score.' Then, after the snap, I've got to hurry downfield to protect him from the other guys [opponents] he talks to."
Rison's most publicized trappin' to date came in the days leading up to Atlanta's game with the Chicago Bears on Nov. 11. Bears cornerback Lemuel Stinson, who was among the NFC interception leaders at the time, started the war of words by proclaiming Sanders "a nobody" when it came to playing corner-back. "You never see [Sanders] putting his headgear down in there," Stinson said. "He is not a cover guy, either. He can't cover our receivers man-to-man."
When Rison read that Stinson had ripped Sanders, his closest friend on the Falcons (while Sanders is known as Prime Time, Rison is known as Showtime), he laid some serious smack on Stinson: "If it's just me and him, we'll call 38 pass plays, I'll score 38 touchdowns.... If he plays me man-to-man the whole game, I'll be in the Hall of Fame by Monday. I've got my [induction] speech ready."
As it turned out, Stinson intercepted two passes, and the Bears defeated the Falcons 30-24. Rison, who had six catches, was at fault on one of the interceptions, because he ran an outside pattern rather than an inside route. Still, he refuses to retract his pregame smack. "It's like you've got a 'no trespassing' sign in your yard, and somebody walks up anyway," Rison says. "You have to speak up when everybody is against you. We went into Soldier Field, and everybody was yelling, 'Deion sucks! Rison sucks!' What am I going to do, get down on my knee?
"Ask my friends. They'll tell you I'm a comedian. I don't throw my achievements in anybody's face. The comments I make are always funny. When I'm doing my job, I'm doing what gets Andre over. I can't think of what somebody else thinks about me. I have to worry about what's up under my helmet. A wide receiver is supposed to be skinny, not very strong, fluid and timid. I'm totally the opposite. Nobody can intimidate me."
After scoring a touchdown, Showtime breaks into a celebratory dance known as The Highlight Zone. That's the name Rison selected in September from more than 8,000 suggestions in a contest run by The Atlanta Journal and Constitution. Fans have asked him to perform the duck walk in parking lots, grocery stores, shopping malls and public restrooms.
Even in his spare time Rison puts his showmanship and vocal cords to work. He and a friend, Ray (Stingray) Potter, from Lansing, Mich., are collaborating on an album they plan to release in January under the name Embrace. They work out of a bedroom in the condominium Rison rents in suburban Atlanta. Three computerized keyboards, which sit on cardboard boxes covered with beach towels, serve as their "orchestra." Rison and Potter have written lyrics for 10 ballads and 15 up-tempo songs, taped layers of melodic lines on a four-track recorder and "stacked" their voices, beginning with tenor leads and filling in baritone, alto and soprano backups.
Neither reads or writes music, but Stingray has a rich, full voice, developed through years of gospel singing. Rison's voice, on the other hand, sounds strained and flat. His previous musical experience consisted of solos in the shower. "A few months ago, he sounded like James Brown, shrieking and screaming into the microphone," says Potter. "What Andre has going for him is a passion for music. He's not Luther Vandross, but who is?"
Polished or not, Rison envisions music videos, concert tours, gold albums and shelves full of Grammys. "You just wait," he says. "When we go into the studio, I'll blow everybody away. I'm determined to make it. I'll be a star someday. M.C. Hammer—you can't touch me."
Instant success as a pro football player. Toast of the town. Aspiring recording star. Not so long ago such notions never crossed the mind of a kid who grew up wanting to be an NBA star.
Rison was the point guard on a Flint (Mich.) Northwestern High basketball team that went 55-1 and won state titles in his junior and senior seasons. He was a two-time all-state selection, and his 636 career assists remain a school record. Except for Rison, all the seniors from both championship teams accepted basketball scholarships to major colleges, and two-Jeff Grayer (Milwaukee Bucks) and Glen Rice (Miami Heat)—are in the NBA. Rison also played eight positions on the football team: tailback, quarterback, wide receiver, tight end, safety, cornerback, punter and placekicker. He became an all-state punter as a junior and an All-America defensive back as a senior.
Merdice says she persuaded Andre to pursue football in college, and then encouraged him to play wide receiver instead of defensive back. "Basketball was Andre's first love," says Merdice, "but he needed to look at the odds of where he could have the best career. He's not tall enough for the NBA, and he wouldn't be happy playing defensive back. Andre likes the glory. He needs to hear the crowd cheer, 'Rah, rah, rah.' He thrives on touching the ball."
Rison accepted a football scholarship to Michigan State because the Spartans promised him he could play basketball as well. As a freshman, Rison was a reserve on the football and basketball squads, and then quit the basketball team for no particular reason and joined the track team. He placed second in the long jump, with a leap of 24'½", at the Big Ten indoor championships.
As a sophomore, Rison set single-season school records for receptions (54) and receiving yards (966), averaging 17.9 yards per catch with five touchdowns. For the next two seasons, however, Rison's life was filled with turmoil and uncertainty, and he admits that at times a pro football career seemed unattainable. In some games during his junior season Rison had no passes thrown to him because Michigan State was winning with All-America tailback Lorenzo White carrying 40 times a game behind the blocking of celebrated tackle Tony Mandarich.
"I didn't know what the coaches expected from me," Rison says. "When I was recruited, they said they'd throw to me. All I wanted was a chance to express myself on the field. The experience was something I had to grow through, a time for me to grow up."
He had some quick growing up to do off the field, too. Before his junior year, he eloped with his high school sweetheart, Tonja Harden, who was pregnant. When Merdice heard the news from a friend, she confronted Andre. He initially denied the wedding had taken place. "I didn't want him to get married," she says. "He was too young."
Andre Jr. was born while the Spartans were in Pasadena preparing for the 1988 Rose Bowl, and Rison waited almost a month before bringing the baby to Merdice. "Later that night Andre phoned and said, 'I just had to be a man about it,' " Merdice recalls. "I said, I want you to be a man. I raised you to be strong.' "
As a junior and senior Rison considered transferring or quitting the team to join the Canadian Football League, but he didn't want to leave East Lansing, which is 45 miles from Flint, where Merdice, Tonja and Andre Jr. were living. He finished his collegiate career with a terrific performance in the 1989 Gator Bowl, catching nine passes for 252 yards and three touchdowns in Michigan State's 34-27 loss to Georgia. However, NFL scouts were hearing that he was spoiled, moody and immature. What most of them didn't realize was that Rison was going through a stressful time, trying to cope with a rapidly disintegrating marriage.
"Few people at Michigan State ever knew I was married," he says. "For two years, I'd go to school, practice and then drive home to Flint to be with my wife and son. I was physically and mentally tired. When I didn't get home as much to see them my senior year, my family life went into turmoil."
On April 23, 1989, when the Indianapolis Colts made Rison the 22nd pick in the NFL draft, he was stunned. "I was the best athlete in that entire draft," he says. "How the hell could Tony Mandarich [chosen second by the Packers] have been a better athlete?"
Rison started 13 games as a rookie with the Colts, catching 52 passes for 820 yards and four touchdowns. Tonja and Andre Jr. joined him in Indianapolis, but the friction between husband and wife intensified. "The prestige of being an NFL player put pressure on the marriage," says Rison, who's now in the midst of divorce proceedings. "Lots of money. Attention. I didn't tend to my values. The Lord has life patterns for us, I guess."
Then last spring, about a week before the 1990 draft, Rison was startled when he received a phone call from a cousin, Caderal Jones, who lives in Atlanta. "The Colts are talking about trading you to the Falcons," Jones said. "It's in the papers down here."
"No way, man," Rison replied. "I was a first-round pick. I'll be here the rest of my career."
On April 20, the Colts traded Hinton (a six-time Pro Bowl player), Rison, a fifth-round draft pick in 1990 and a first-round pick in '91 to the Falcons for their first-and fourth-round picks in '90. The plum in the deal was Atlanta's first-rounder in '90, the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, which Indianapolis used to select Illinois quarterback and former Indiana schoolboy sensation Jeff George. The Falcons insisted that Hinton and Rison be part of the package. "I really don't think the Colts wanted to trade Rison," says Falcon coach Jerry Glanville. "You don't trade sirloin steak for hamburger."
Nevertheless, the trade left Rison confused and feeling unappreciated. "Everywhere I've gone, I feel like I've disappointed people," he says. "I feel like I have so much to prove. I want to show Michigan State I should have caught more passes. I want to show the NFL I should have been drafted higher. I need to show the Colts they made a big mistake trading me."
Rison has felt shortchanged as long as he can remember. Merdice was a 20-year-old single parent, a secretary who lived with her mother and father in Flint, when Andre was born. "I didn't have any material things," says Rison. "I used to spend my time rippin', runnin' and havin' fun."
Andre immersed himself in sports, and more than once he told Merdice that, "The Lord put me on earth to go pro." He told her that when her applications for credit were turned down. He told her that when she couldn't afford to buy him new clothes for high school and he would switch clothing each morning with his best friend, Troy Woody. He never forgot those words when he was castigated by kids who were jealous of his athletic skills.
Growing up poor in Flint made Rison tough. Being Merdice's son taught him to be his own man. And as a gifted athlete, he learned never to give up. "My arrogance and cockiness have always been a cover-up for the disappointments in my life," says Rison. "I talked big to hide my insecurities. When I was growing up, people were always jealous of me. I used to think, What are they jealous of? They're the ones with clothes, a nice house, a mother and a father, a car.
"I realized at a young age if I didn't stick up for myself, then I'd fall through the cracks with everybody else. I wouldn't get noticed. I had to talk myself up to believe I could achieve something in life. Somebody had to believe in me. Somebody had to say it out loud."
FRANK NIEMEIR/ATLANTA JOURNAL AND CONSTITUTION
Rison's 71 catches include this diving TD grab against New Orleans.
Rison steps into The Highlight Zone after every touchdown.
Prime Time (left) and Showtime are one up on most players in the art of self-promotion.
Rison and Potter (right) have converted one of Andre's spare rooms into a recording studio.