Rice plugs along


Published: Friday, January 24, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 24, 2003 at 12:53 a.m.

SAN DIEGO - To Oakland's Jerry Rice, lugging around bricks is no different than catching footballs.

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Oakland Raiders wide receiver Jerry Rice fields questions from reporters during media day festivities in Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, Calif. The Raiders will meet the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl XXXVII on Sunday.

AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi

Both require work.

The brick story's an old one. It has to be, because Rice long ago broke the spring turning back the hands of time.

As a boy, the NFL's all-time leader in everything receiving helped his dad, a brick mason, in the summer. He made sure pop had enough bricks. Made sure everything arrived at the job site on time.

The two would labor from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Work finished, Joe Rice would drop off son Jerry at his school for football practice.

''Everything has taught me the meaning of hard work,'' said the 40-year-old future Hall of Famer. ''Once I got to the pros, I knew exactly what hard work meant and I continued to go out there and do whatever it took to get it done.''

Super Bowl week has a way of overblowing everything and everyone. On the scoreboard, hyperbole's always in front. The media wait at attention for Warren Sapp, Keyshawn Johnson or Frank Middleton to spurt the outrageous.

The only thing outrageous about Rice is his continued commitment to his craft, his ability to still ply it better than most, and the modesty he displays in the face of career numbers so staggering, they would leave a lasting legacy for two players.

''For him to be out here at 40 years old, playing at the level he is,'' said Tampa Bay safety John Lynch, ''is just remarkable and it keeps guys like me smiling.''

He walked into Wednesday's media session wearing a white sweat suit and a smile. The man who began catching passes and winning Super Bowls during the Reagan administration clearly loves the spotlight.

And why not? After 18 years, it's never seared him.

Rice won three Super Bowl rings as a member of the San Francisco 49ers. Winning one with the team across the Bay, the Raiders ''would be the ultimate.''

''I know toward Friday and Saturday, I'm not going to be able to sleep,'' he said. ''I'm going to be up all night long, pacing around. I just hope I don't fall asleep right before the game.''

This season, playing on the league's most explosive offense, Rice was its most explosive receiving weapon. His 92 catches and 1,211 yards led the Raiders. His seven TDs were second.

''It's a testament,'' said Tampa Bay's Warren Sapp, ''to the freak that he is.''

''Look at the stats,'' said fellow Raider receiver Jerry Porter. ''That would indicate 40 years of work, considering the fact he only played 18 of them. Some receivers won't get stats like that even if they played for 40 years.''

In the record book, he's a legend. On the practice field, he's a rookie free agent.

''I take the same approach,'' he said. ''I'm just aggressive. I'm not changing anything. I'm not saying that I have to up what I do, but I keep everything basically the same and try to keep myself in shape and it really pays off for me.''

Before the 2001 season, Rice worked as if he still had a job, which he didn't. Believing he had slowed down, the 49ers phased him out of their offense, then phased him out completely. All it took for Rice to become a card-carrying member of the silver and black was a meeting with Jon Gruden, then the Raiders' coach.

''I talked to Gruden,'' said Rice, ''and Gruden told me, 'Look, I want you to come in and I want you to be the old Jerry Rice. I don't want you to be the second or third receiver.' Once he told me that, I was ready to go.''

''He is unbelievable on a football team,'' said Gruden. ''He is the best coach, the best role model you could ever be around. For him to have the success he has had at age 40 is astonishing to me. The way he is playing I wouldn't be surprised if he signs a new five- or six-year deal.''

Gruden, of course, was kidding, but another season or two seems within Rice's reach. Only when he completely lets go will he allow a swivel of the head. A look back.

''Maybe when this is all over with and I can let my guard down and say, 'OK, look, I can't believe what I have accomplished over the years,''' he said. ''But right now I've got the pedal to the metal and I'm still staying focused.

''I don't feel like I'm the best to ever play the game. I feel like every year I try to go into mini-camp saying, 'Hey, I got to make this team. I got to prove to everybody that I can still do the job.'''

That he can still lug those bricks.

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