Honor the Heroes of the Game, Preserve Its History, Promote its Values & Celebrate Excellence Everywhere
Jon Kendle is Director of Archives and Football Information at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His biweekly columns tell unique and interesting stories starting from the league’s founding in downtown Canton in 1920 to the present day.
Jerry Rice ended his career at B.L. Moor High School in Crawford, Miss. with three straight all-conference selections and helped the team to a combined 18-2 record over his final two seasons. Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough to get Rice noticed by big Division I-A college recruiters. There was, however, a small Division I-AA school, Mississippi Valley State, that showed strong interest in the future Pro Football Hall of Famer.
Head football coach Archie Cooley watched the 6-foot-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 I-AA records. In four years at MVSU, Rice totaled 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 per game.
The concern most NFL 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 caught 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 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 10 NFL scouts and writers including the likes of Gil Brandt, Dick Steinberg, Pro Football Hall of Famer Ron Wolf, Joe Stein and Bob Oates. Rice ranked sixth on that chart. Still many clubs were not sold on the wideout’s ability to become a star at the next level.
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 first overall by the Birmingham Stallions. The hope was he would sign to play in the 3-year-old league if he slipped into the second round of the NFL draft.