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NOTHING SHORT OF PERFECTION Jerry Rice has proved to everyone -- including himself -- that he is the finest receiver ever

The best?
He's here, in blue tights and a red windbreaker, as bitchy as a
diva with a headache. The best ever?
He's right here, sitting at his locker, taking off his rain gear
after practice, edgy as a cat in a sawmill.
Around him swirls the clamor of big men winding down, messing
around. Two bare-chested linemen start to grapple, rasslin' each
other and snorting like trash-talking sumo wrestlers. Other players
laugh, but not the best ever.
''Guys,'' he says irritably. ''Hey, guys!'' Someone could get hurt.
The two wrestlers slowly come apart, his voice bringing them to
their senses. They've heard the voice before; it's their fourth-grade
teacher scolding them for rolling spitballs. It's the voice of San
Francisco 49er Jerry Rice, the best wide receiver ever to play
football. The 6 ft. 2", tightly braided coil of nerves, fast-twitch
fibers, delicate grasping skills and unadulterated want-to is setting
such high standards for the position that they will probably never be
approached again, and he can't stand distractions while he works.
Rice does not fool around. Ever. He works so hard at his
conditioning that during the off-season, he virtually exits his body
and studies his physical package the way a potter studies clay. ''I
mess with it,'' he says. ''I like to do different things to motivate
myself. I set goals and go after them.''
As a rookie in 1985 he came to the 49ers at a muscular 208 pounds,
but now he weighs 196. He is so lean that you wonder if he's sick. He
likes to mess with his body fat, wants it to know that he is its
master. For Rice, fat is a cornerback in man coverage with no safety
in sight, a minor and ultimately irrelevant nuisance. Eschewing
dietary fat, he got down to 189 a year or so ago, but the weight loss
was too much. His starved body was literally eating up his muscles.
His trainer ordered him to start eating things like ice cream.
''Under four percent body fat and I don't feel good,'' Rice says.
''I'm a health-food fanatic, but getting that low hurt my
performance. I'm at 4.8 percent now, and I feel good.''
Well, not really good. Not the way you or I might feel good if we
knew that not only were we certifiably the best receiver in the
history of football but also, perhaps, the greatest offensive player
ever. That argument can be made. Rice already has more receiving
touchdowns (131) and more total touchdowns (139) than anyone else in
NFL history. He has more 1,000-yard seasons (nine) than any other
receiver and more consecutive games with a touchdown reception (13)
than anyone.
Was he this good in college? Imagine, for a moment, that it's
September 1984, and you are in sweltering Itta Bena, Miss., watching
Mississippi Valley State coach Archie (Gunslinger) Cooley direct his
Satellite Express offense, with quarterback Willie Totten flinging
passes to a senior wideout named Rice, who races out of a stacked
receiver formation that looks something like a Motown chorus line. In
the first four games of that season, Rice caught 64 passes for 917
yards and 12 touchdowns. As a junior, he caught 24 passes in one
game, an all-division record. He left school with 18 NCAA I-AA
records. Yes, he was good.
Rice never missed a game in college, nor has he missed one as a
pro. Since he joined the 49ers, the team has gone 130-46-1 (the best
record in the NFL during that period) and won three Super Bowls. And
at the seemingly advanced age of 32, he is still in his prime. On
Nov. 20, in a 31-27 win over the Los Angeles Rams, Rice snagged 16
passes for 165 yards and three touchdowns. Three weeks later, he
caught 12 passes for 144 yards in a 38-15 win against the San Diego
Chargers. Rice finished the regular season with 112 catches for 1,499
| yards and 13 touchdowns.
In a typical week, Rice remains civil until Thursday. But on the
Wednesday before the Niners' game against the Denver Broncos on Dec.
17, Rice was already badly game-faced. The game was on a Saturday.
Rice's schedule had been moved ahead 24 hours. A gold earring
sparkled in his left ear; a gold-flecked tattoo of a 49er helmet on
his right deltoid flashed. Rice was miserable. ''I'm so grouchy,'' he
said with a tight grin, ''my wife is going to move out.''
He showered. Earlier in the season, he had talked about his
compulsion to prove himself, to never let up even for an instant out
of fear that everything might come apart. He had started at the
bottom, and he could be back there in a heartbeat; people would
forget him, and if that happened . . . would he even exist?
''There's always doubt about me,'' he said. ''I was disappointed
coming out of college that Al Toon and Eddie Brown were drafted ahead
of me, but they went to major colleges. You would think that in my
10th season there wouldn't be any doubt, but it's still out there.''
It is? Both Toon, who played with the New York Jets, and Brown, who
played with the Cincinnati Bengals, are long gone.
There was an article last year in a magazine, he explained, that
ranked him as the third-best receiver in the league at the time,
behind Michael Irvin of the Dallas Cowboys and Sterling Sharpe of the
Green Bay Packers. ''I read that,'' he said. ''You have to have
confidence, and guys like that, they're prolonging my career.''
Rodney Knox, the 49er publicist, remembered the article too.
''After that,'' Knox said, ''Jerry just exploded.''
Afield, as in life, Rice is evasive. He almost never takes a
direct, crushing blow after catching a pass. He controls his body
like a master puppeteer working a marionette. A one-handed grab here,
a tiptoe up the sideline there, an unscathed sprint through two
closing safeties when it seems decapitation is imminent.
''I don't think I've ever seen him all stretched out,'' says 49er
quarterback Steve Young of Rice's ability to avoid big hits. Rice
jumps only when he has to, and unlike almost all other receivers, he
catches passes in mid-stride and effortlessly continues running, the
ball like a sprinter's baton in his hand. It's almost certain that no
one has run for more yardage after catching the ball than Rice.
Though he's not particularly fast, he has a fluid stride and a sudden
burst that, as Young says, ''is a speed you can't clock.''
; And the hands. Clad in gloves, the hands are so supple and
sure that last year they snared a touchdown pass by latching onto the
tail end of a fading ball. ''That was not giving up on the ball,''
explained Rice. Sounds simple. In reality it's like grabbing the back
end of a greased pig.
Rice's hands and agility allow him to catch the ball comfortably
no matter where it's thrown. ''He makes a lot of catches around his
ankles,'' says Young. At a practice before the 1992 Pro Bowl, Cowboy
quarterback Troy Aikman saw from a different perspective just what he
and his teammates are up against when they play the 49ers. ''We were
running a quick out,'' recalled Aikman, ''and I guess at San
Francisco they run it different than we do, which is I drop back five
steps and fire it. My arm was strong because I hadn't thrown in a
while, and the ball was in the air, and I was sure I was going to
kill him. He was still making moves, and the ball was almost at his
head, and it wasn't so much that he just reached up and caught it. It
was that he didn't even flinch.''
Rice's dad, Joe Nathan, was a bricklayer, and much has been made
of the fact that as a teenager, Jerry worked eight-hour shifts with
his dad and his brothers on scorching summer days back in Starkville,
Miss., hoisting mortar and catching the bricks tossed up to him on
the scaffold. This repetitive action, it has been written, is what
forged Rice into the greatest pass catcher ever. The story is nice
but probably not true -- at least not in the way people would
believe. After all, catching bricks is to catching footballs as
sawing logs is to slicing sushi. ''Catching bricks,'' said Rice,
''taught me the meaning of hard work.''
His dad was ''very strict and demanding,'' Rice explained in a way
that leaves one with the sense that his father was considerably more
than that. Still, after work Rice would jog to the high school
football field and exercise for two hours, then jog home -- in his
work clothes.
After he got to the NFL, Rice had difficulty turning down his
competitive flame when it wasn't needed. ''My first five years, I had
a hard time turning it off,'' he said. ''If things didn't go right
for me in football, I'd find myself not turning it off at home.'' His
wife, Jackie, is a strong woman, but even she'd had enough of his
intensity. Rice forced himself to let up. ''You hear about
stereotypes, about football players being very abusive off the
field,'' he said. ''I'd seen things when I was growing up, and I
decided I wouldn't be like that.''
What had he seen?
''I really don't want to go into that.''
In the early winter, the rainy season in San Francisco, Rice has
limited opportunity to hit golf balls or ride his Harley -- the two
things he does to keep from coming apart at the seams. On the
Wednesday before the Bronco game, he watched TV and played with his
two children, seven-year-old Jaqui and three-year-old Jerry Jr., but
he was not at ease.
''People come up to me and say, 'I'd love to be in your shoes,' ''
he said with a sigh. ''I say, 'No, you wouldn't.' They don't know
what it's like. The pressure. Before games, I can't sleep. I can't
relax. I should be able to enjoy it, but I can't. The table can
Someday Rice will probably score his 200th touchdown, which will
be 74 more than his closest competitor, Jim Brown, had. It's a figure
so high, it's crazy. But it may not be enough for this most graceful
and obsessive of men.
''It's a lot of wear and tear on me,'' he said of his intensity
down the stretch. ''I might not survive.''
Constant vigilance is required. The table must not move.