NFL: Jerry Rice should have smooth ride to Hall of Fame
By Cam Inman
Contra Costa Times
Jerry Rice’s mandatory five-year wait is done. He will be invited into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday by what deservedly could be a unanimous vote.
What an awkward five years they were. That wasn’t the Jerry so many had grown to marvel.
His myriad post-career appearances simply haven’t seemed natural, not like him catching a pass on a slant pattern or deep sideline route. Perhaps it’s a curse. He’s typecast as a record-shattering football star, making it tough to see him as a wannabe television personality on reality shows, ballroom dance floors and sitcom cameos.
On Saturday he returns to his rightful spotlight as a true NFL legend. His receiving records, three Super Bowl rings and other feats from his 20-year career will earn him a first-ballot path to this summer’s enshrinement ceremony in Canton, Ohio.
Rice didn’t lay low these past five years. He wanted to stay in the public eye, which he has every right to do.
It’s seemed off-kilter, though. It seemed like he was forcing himself into a new line of stardom, hoping we’d cherish him as if he still wore No. 80.
He’s now “Jerry Rice, professional football player; reality-show contestant,” which is how TVGuide.com lists his bio. The title of his Thursday night gala in South Florida: “Miami Rice.”
Don’t take this as scornful bashing of his post-career choices. He certainly deserves as much exposure as he wants. Rice, Joe Montana, Jim Brown, Johnny Unitas and Walter Payton rank right up there as the greatest to ever play what stands today as America’s most popular sport.
It’s just that this afternoon’s honor — bestowed in South Florida, where Rice won two Super Bowls with the 49ers and site of Sunday’s Super Bowl XLIV — should be a refreshing flash back for Rice and his fans.
His gridiron glory is today’s dance partner. Catching footballs is what Rice did best, certainly better than anyone who’s ever played professional football.
He did it for as long as he could. He refused to retreat after 16 seasons with the 49ers, accepting his 2001 release and immediately heading across the Bay to the Raiders.
Seeing him in silver and black took awhile to digest, but at least he remained Bay Area property, and two years into that second life, he was playing in his fourth Super Bowl. He headed north to the Seattle Seahawks in 2004 via an in-season trade. It wasn’t until after 2005 training camp with the Denver Broncos that Rice decided to retire and enter pseudo-civilian life.
His lengthy list of TV credits likely challenges that of any other sports star since 2005.
Finishing second in ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” in 2006 made him more of a household name. (That show’s champion the following season: Emmitt Smith, the NFL’s all-time leading rusher who also will be invited Saturday to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. Ten bucks says the NFL Network folks try to get Rice and Smith to do a celebratory tango together.)
If you missed Rice dance, maybe you saw him on “Pros vs. Joes,” “The Biggest Loser” or “Deal or No Deal.” Maybe you saw his cameos on a few sitcoms. Maybe you saw him with Jay Leno, Carson Daly, Jon Stewart, Rachel Ray or even co-hosting in place of Regis Philbin.
He’s stayed connected with his original fans by occasionally co-hosting NBC Bay Area’s “Sports Sunday.” And he’s regaled as a hero during return trips to Candlestick, such as last season’s opener when he presented Eddie DeBartolo Jr. for induction into the 49ers Hall of Fame. (Note: Rice wants DeBartolo to present him at Canton; the late Bill Walsh was his first choice, and Rice confirmed on “Sports Sunday” that Walsh recorded a video tribute to him for this summer’s enshrinement.)
Maybe you’ve caught a glimpse of Rice golfing in celebrity tournaments at Pebble Beach or Lake Tahoe. Maybe you got his autograph while he served as a NASCAR grand marshal in Sonoma. Maybe you heard about him mentoring NFL prospects for DeBartolo’s budding sports agency.
“Guys respect the way I played, my dedication to it and how I gave 100 percent every play,” Rice said while watching pupil DeSean Jackson at Cal’s Pro Day in 2008. “I like what I’m doing and the place I’m at.”
All this post-career notoriety isn’t the true payoff for his record-setting playing career.
A spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame is his just reward, for his 208 touchdowns, 1,549 receptions, 22,895 receiving yards, countless treks up that Peninsula hill, unparalleled work ethic on the practice field and brick-catching days as a youth in Mississippi.
It’s the stuff movies are made of, one that Flash 80 surely wouldn’t mind playing a role in someday.
By then, the tardy 49ers had better retire his damn number and award him a spot on Candlestick’s “49ers Hall of Fame” corner marquee. That’s where he made his name—not in Hollywood.