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49ers’ Rice: His Airness Of The Nfl

If Michael Jordan played football, he would be Jerry Rice.

And vice versa… .

Summer in Starkville. There is no heat quite like Mississippi heat. Well, in Hades, maybe.

Jerry Rice would balance himself on the rickety scaffolding, squint through the sweat, teeter on a creaking beam, and catch the bricks tossed to him. Brick after endless brick, until he could catch them, quite literally, with his eyes closed.

And that is what helped create the greatest pass catcher ever. All that repetition, swaying on a precarious perch high above the ground, working with his bricklayer father and his brothers, in scorching Starkville.

Uh, no.

“What that taught me,” he said, “is the meaning of hard work.”

It was a lesson taken to heart. And that - simple hard work - is what has created the greatest pass catcher ever.

All his wonders will be on artful display again Sunday in the wild-card playoff game between San Francisco and Philadelphia. Eagles coach Ray Rhodes, who has observed Rice’s virtuosity from the stage wings and the front row, has selected cornerback Troy Vincent, poor soul, to defend. A man in such circumstances usually is offered a blindfold.

The forecast is for the playing field to be a quagmire. The Eagles can take neither solace nor hope from this, however. Bogs do not slow cheetahs. Keep him to single-digit receptions and it’s a moral victory. Of course, there is always the distinct possibility he will have turned three or four of them into scores.

Of all the neon numbers Jerry Rice has amassed, the one set that is the most extraordinary is this: He has never missed a game.

Not in college. Not in the NFL. Not in a dozen pro seasons. Not in more than 200 games.

How is that possible? With all the defenses stacked against him, with the game plan of every opponent being “clean his clock,” how is it possible he never has missed a game?

And all those collisions - more than a thousand receptions, and more than half of those over the middle - how is it possible to endure them and never miss a game?

Extreme luck, of course. A remarkable threshold for pain. Valor and resilience. Fierce, candle-on-the-water will. And a work ethic that staggers even the sleepdeprived, obsessive-compulsive Rhodes.

“Never, ever, saw an athlete work like he does,” Rhodes said. “Everyone else will be done for the day, he’ll be starting on another 2-hour workout.”

Rice, Jordan and Julius Erving between them share many traits and habits. They are incredibly in tune with their bodies. We’re not talking narcissism here. Rather, it’s almost as though they can step away and observe their physiques like sculptors, then add a refinement here, subtract a minute flaw there.

Rice weighs less now than he did in 1985. A dozen years into a career, who weighs less, has less body fat, than in his rookie year? Only the consumed. Only the compulsively dedicated.

Erving never took a night off. You never knew, he would say, who in the audience was coming just to see you and might never again. You didn’t dare tarnish the reputation of Dr. J. Jordan is the same. Rice, too.

Always inventing new motivations.

It rankled Rice, for example, that Al Toon and Eddie Brown were drafted ahead of him. They’re faded memories, and he is accelerating toward 200 touchdowns.

Then there were the rankings of NFL receivers by a magazine three years back. Michael Irvin and Sterling Sharpe were 1-2.

“It was like putting a match to dynamite,” Rhodes recalled, smiling.

Rice has responded with three consecutive 100-plus-catch seasons.

Along the way, he has reinvented the position of wide receiver. First and goal at the 1-yard line used to be a run. Now, your first defensive option is to account for him. Flyboys aren’t supposed to beat you in close. He has made a lie of that.

Rhodes sees a soul mate in Rice. The greatest pass catcher ever has a compulsion to prove himself.

“He can’t relax, can’t let himself enjoy it for even a second,” Rhodes said.

Yes, and whom does that remind you of?

“He gets up at 4 and paces the floor on game days,” Rhodes added. “He’s always worried somebody is coming to take his place.”

Fat chance.