Rice closes book on storied career

Jerry Rice’s record-shattering 20-year NFL career reached its apex Saturday night, in the place we all knew it would: Canton, Ohio, where pro football’s most magnificent athletes have their greatness immortalized in bronze busts.

Five years after his retirement as the NFL’s all-time leading receiver and touchdown king, Rice was a Pro Football Hall of Fame lock. As one of the 44 selectors for the Hall of Fame, it’s my privilege to “present” San Francisco 49ers finalists to the rest of the group in the annual Selection Saturday meeting, the day before each Super Bowl.

Why waste everyone’s time?

We had been in a conference room for almost five hours Feb. 6 in Fort Lauderdale, passionately debating the merits of absolutely superb, Hall of Fame worthy finalists for the Class of 2010. Some presenters labored for 45 minutes or more to make their case for a particular finalist.

When Rice’s turn came, I looked around the room, stood up and said all that needed to be said.

“Jerry Rice.”

Next.

Saturday, I watched with great emotion as a player I covered for so many years, in my days as both a 49ers and an Oakland Raiders beat writer, get his due. He knew it was inevitable, yet Rice never assumed anything.

Imagine: Rice scored an NFL-best 208 touchdowns and posted 22,895 receiving yards. Caught a pass in a record 274 consecutive games. Had 14 seasons with 1,000 or more receiving yards.

“Well, he was open. That helped a lot,” his 49ers teammate, Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young, quipped before Rice took the stage.

Rice always ran precise routes. Kept his uniform immaculate and perfect, even during a training camp two-a-days. Practiced like every day was the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl.

“I made a mistake today – I have a blue and a black sock on today. Now, for me to do this speech, I need to borrow a black sock from someone,” Rice joked during his nearly 20-minute induction speech.

He was introduced by former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo, who worshipped his players and ensured they had everything they needed to be the best. The ceremony, Rice conceded, means his NFL career is now officially closed.

“This is finally it,” Rice said. “There are no more routes to run. No more touchdowns to score. No more records to set.”

From tiny Crawford, Miss., to this day, Hall of Fame enshrinement. The punctuation mark of it all. What an extraordinary journey.

“I had never been on an airplane until I was drafted for the 49ers,” Rice said.

Thank goodness Bill Walsh got him that seat. Jerry Rice, Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2010, has been soaring ever since.