Proving Your Worth
By the end of ’s senior year at B.L. Moor High School in Crawford, Mississippi he had earned three straight all-conference honors and helped his team to a combined 18-2 record over his final two seasons. Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough to get Rice noticed by recruiters of big Division 1-A colleges. There was, however, a small Division 1-AA school, Mississippi Valley State, that showed a great deal of interest in Jerry.
Head football coach Archie Cooley watched the 6-2, 200 pound Rice on the basketball court during one recruiting trip. “When I saw him rebound and bring the ball down the court going coast-to-coast, running, jumping, dunking, I knew we had to have him.”
Rice developed into a superstar at Mississippi Valley State. With the combination of his athletic talent, tireless work ethic and a great coaching scheme Rice set 18 NCAA Division 1-AA records. In four years at MVSU Rice racked up 310 receptions, 4,856 receiving yards and 51 touchdowns. Coach Cooley’s “Satellite Express” offense usually featured four or five wide receivers and no running back. The receivers were often stacked at the line of scrimmage. The formation included as many as four, single file, on one side which forced single coverage on the other side where Rice lined up. This allowed him to often dominate games. During Rice’s senior season the Delta Devils’ exotic aerial attack averaged 57.1 points, nearly 500 yards and six touchdown passes a game.
The concern most National Football League scouts had was the type of talent Rice was playing against in the Southwestern Athletic Conference. They wanted to see how he would fare in the Blue-Gray All-Star game against big-time opponents. The skeptics got their answer as Rice hauled in four passes for 101 yards, two touchdowns and was named the game’s Most Valuable Player.
“I had a lot of morale coming into the game.” Rice said, “I wanted to make a point for small-college players everywhere. I wanted to play well for them.”
As the 1985 NFL Draft quickly approached, teams began to scramble to find tape on the wide receiver. A consensus ranking of the top 28 “best athletes” in the draft was released by a group of ten NFL scouts and writers including the likes of Gil Brandt, Dick Steinberg, Ron Wolf, Joe Stein and Bob Oates. Rice ranked sixth on that chart. Still many NFL clubs were not sold on the wideout’s ability to become a star in the league.
That didn’t seem to be an issue for the NFL’s upstart rival at the time, the United States Football League. Rice was selected number one overall by the Birmingham Stallions. The hope was that he would sign to play in the three-year-old league if he slipped into the second round of the NFL draft.
The Stallions chance at the talented received was quickly doused when one of the NFL’s all-time best personnel evaluators, Hall of Fame coach and offensive genius , started studying Rice’s film. The were coming off a championship season in which they had handedly beaten the Miami Dolphins 38-16 in Super Bowl XIX. They held the 28th pick in the draft. One thing that Walsh noticed right from the start in his research was that at MSVU coach Cooley required his receivers to read defenses and make sight adjustments to their routes. Walsh knew that this would translate perfectly to his ever evolving “West Coast” offense.
With the ’85 draft in progress Walsh knew he couldn't wait until the end of the first round and still hope to land Rice. By the 13th pick two receivers had already come off the board in Al Toon and Eddie Brown. Walsh decided to package his first three picks (28, 56, and 84) to the New England Patriots for the 16th pick of the first round. It was there that he selected the kid that would revolutionize the receiver position for years to come.
Walsh had this to say after the 49ers pick. “We are extremely pleased with our selection of , I recall watching him during the season and he was a sensational player, along the lines of a John Jefferson or Wes Chandler as a receiver. He has super instincts and is just a natural football player.”
After just missing out on a 1,000-yard receiving season during his rookie year, Rice became a star in his second season as he caught 86 passes for 1,570 yards and scored 16 total touchdowns.
“I really felt like I belonged,” Rice shared. “I knew the system, I knew what I could do, and I knew nobody could stop me if I just played my game. When I finish playing, after 14 seasons or so, I want people to say ‘ was the best to ever play this game.”
In the end, with 20 NFL seasons under his belt, 13 Pro Bowls, 11 All-Pro selections, three Super Bowl rings and virtually every major receiving record, and finally his election into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2010, certainly proved his worth.
Kendle is a researcher at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He joined the Hall of Fame's staff in 2006.
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