Arguably the greatest football player in history was traded tothe Seattle Seahawks this week. Despite the relentless Northwestand national media coverage I almost missed it. In retrospect, Iwish I had.
I almost missed it because no matter how many times the variousmedia members told me that Jerry Rice had been traded to theSeahawks my mind refused to accept that the legend I grew upwatching could be reduced to the sporting equivalent of scrapmetal.
Growing up in San Francisco, I sat in the end zone atCandlestick Park eight times a year and watched Rice befuddledefenders with his unique blend of athleticism, determination andfinesse.
Jerry did it all. Whether gliding down the field, diving for atouchdown or simply gleaming in his red 80 jersey, he made the mostbrutal of games look elegant and utterly refined.
From December 1985 until this September – longer than manyfreshman at PSU have been alive – he caught at least one pass inevery game he played in. That’s 274 straight games, nearly 100 morethan the next closest player.
The NFL might as well rename its record book “Jerry’s Book ofWorld Records” considering his name is inscribed next to nearlyevery record, including: touchdowns in a career, touchdowns in aseason, touchdowns in consecutive games, career receptions, careeryards receiving…you get the point.
Four years ago, after a 6-10 season, the 49ers decided that a38-year-old Rice was past his prime and not suited to their youngteam. While it pained 49er fans to see him go, the team’s releaseof the greatest receiver ever drew minimal protests. After all, noreceiver in history had played at the age of 40 and Rice’s numbershadn’t been the same since a 1997 ACL injury.
To prove his doubters wrong, last year at 41 Rice lead theOakland Raiders in receptions, receiving yards and receivingtouchdowns. It was just another chapter in the legendary story ofthe bricklayer’s son who used to catch bricks his dad tossed offthe roof in order to toughen up his hands so he could be a goodreceiver.
But this year things were different. For the first time since1985, he played in a game without making a catch. Through six gameshe had five catches for 67 yards, or about half what he used toaverage in one game. More worrisome, the man who’d always been ableto get open looked like he couldn’t break out of a cookie jar.
I wanted him to stop. To turn in his cleats and accept that agecatches us all. To go down as the greatest.
Instead, he demanded and negotiated a trade to a falteringSeattle team desperate for a live body that can catch a football.Though to call it a trade is slightly generous. As a sign of howfar he has fallen, all the Raiders got back for him was aconditional seventh round draft pick they most likely will neversee. They decided they would rather save nearly $900,000 (theamount owed to Rice) than put up with the greatest player inhistory for another 10 games.
Inevitably, next week, Seahawk fans will flock to Paul Allen’sgleaming new stadium to catch a glimpse of the legend dressed inthe Hawks hideous teal and blue uniforms.
Instead of making the trek north, I’ll think back to an elevatorride I took when I was 10 years old. My mom and I had just goneshopping and were heading down to our car when Jerry Rice and hiswife stepped into our elevator. While he didn’t cut the physicallyimposing presence you might expect from a football player, heexuded confidence that made me feel both awed and special standingnext to him.
If you do go to Seattle next week, look for Jerry Rice, the man,to be roaming the sidelines, wearing number 80 and making theoccasional catch. Just don’t expect to see Jerry Rice, the legend,and the aura that surrounded him. He left a long time ago.