The Football Girl: A Personal Thank You to Jerry Rice

Even as a football connoisseur, I normally only have a passing interest in the yearly Pro Football Hall of Fame Enshrinement.   For some reason, it never seems as hallowed as its Cooperstown cousin, and the ceremony can often be overshadowed by an event NFL fans have anticipated for six months – the season’s first game.  And just wait until those pre-season fantasy leagues take off.

But for a girl who grew up in San Francisco, in the heyday of DeBartolo, Walsh, Joe and Steve, tomorrow’s induction ceremony holds special meaning.  Those lucky enough to be in Canton will honor the greatest wide receiver of all time, the man who single-handedly turned me into a football fan, Jerry Rice.

As a youngster, long before I knew my Cover 2 from my bump and run, my mother would encourage me to watch the local team that was all the rage, the 49ers.  On our little nineteen inch, standard definition television I’d watch the guy on all the billboards round town, Joe Montana, coolly lead the 49ers down the field.  Montana’s work seemed effortless. If his team was ever in danger of losing, he’d simply lead them 90 yards down the field in what seemed like fifteen seconds. No problem.

But as impressive as Montana and Roger Craig and Ronnie Lott and company were in those days, Jerry Rice had the most impact on my budding football fandom.  With amazement, I would watch his hand and foot work as he skillfully caught balls he wasn’t supposed to and glided down the field with the grace of a Dancing with the Stars champion on the way to one of his NFL record, 207 touchdowns.  Rice was the guy who always seemed super-human, the guy who gave me chills. One of his most-chill inducing plays came on a November in 1995 when the 49ers, hampered by an injury to Steve Young and huge underdogs, headed into Texas Stadium to play their hated rival, the well-oiled Cowboys (led by fellow Hall of Fame inductee, Emmitt Smith).  As fans, we were just hoping to avoid humiliation – and a smirking Jerry Jones.  Luckily the football gods were smiling down upon the 49ers that day.  Elvis Grbac, filling in for Young, dumped the ball off to Rice in the slot on the second play from scrimmage, which Rice broke for an 81 yards touchdown, running down the field like a strutting gazelle.  It was beautiful and a momentum setter that led the 49ers to a 38-20 victory.  I’ll never forget Pat Summerall’s powerfully monotone call, and when I wasn’t really motivated for school or my part-time waitressing job, I’d pop in my VHS tape of that game for an instant pick-me-up.

As my football brain developed, I realized that even in batteries with Montana and Steve Young, Rice was the one making everyone better.  It was, of course, all due to his super-human work ethic.  No one matched Rice in that department.  His grueling off-season hill workouts were legendary – and bear in mind this was in a time period when players didn’t always maintain the strongest off-season workout regiments. Training camps were actually a necessity.  Rice was the first guy at practice and the last to leave, the guy who was already the best but would go above and beyond every second of every day to get better.  You don’t think that rubbed off on his teammates? Jerry set the bar high and if his teammates met him at even fifty percent, the 49ers were the most conditioned team in the league, even if they were tagged with the “finesse” label.   Rice was quiet and not the team jokester by any stretch, but he was the quintessential leader by example.

A few years ago, in my adult life as a television producer, I was casting for a male co-host for a sports talk show and was conflicted when Jerry’s camp showed interest.  I was looking for a young, edgy, non-ex-athlete to pair with my young, edgy female co-host.  Jerry didn’t fit the bill at all. But no matter the venue, I was not about to turn down a phone meeting with him.  Yes, I was nervous and skeptical at the same time.  Was he really leading man material?  Was he going to invest the necessary time in my little project?  But really, it was how on Earth was I going to turn down Jerry ‘freakin’” Rice?

Never, ever, has a phone interview (and subsequent meeting) gone better.  Everything he said was perfect, almost as if he had studied my concept, which of course had he not.  I asked him some tough questions, tangentially related to the casting.  For one, while a young radio producer in San Francisco, I had covered his last year as a 49er and wanted to know why he was so standoffish to the media, secretly trying to gauge whether he had changed. His answer was perfect – he wasn’t a jerk; he simply wanted no distractions while he was playing. He only cared about being the best. He wasn’t interested in befriending media members and having a weekly show.  In fact, he admitted to alienating much of his friends and family during his career. But he said without doing so, he couldn’t have been the best.    In hindsight, it makes perfect sense.  Still not convinced he was the right guy, although my producer heart was softening, Jerry hit me with a touchdown line: “I will put the kind of effort into this show that I did during my playing career.”  That was it. He was signed.

Although our pitch was one step away from airing on a major network, the economics of green lighting a non-reality show in 2008 were not meant to be.  To Jerry’s credit, he spoke the truth about the mimicking his on-the-field work ethic.  He was prompt for every meeting.  He tossed around good ideas left and right as though he was a co-producer, and he was respectfully pushy with the right network executives, a step most “talent” aren’t generally willing to take.

Tomorrow night, after Eddie DeBartolo (Mr. D) introduces Jerry Rice and the Canton crowd goes wild, I and other 49er and football fans will be watching with a special appreciation. We know that even though Rice was surrounded with mega-stars, it was his undying work ethic that made him a king among men.  That is why Rice was and is the simply the best.

Thank you, Jerry.