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Rice turns early struggles into Hall of Fame career

August 6, 2010

In this Jan. 28, 1990 file photo, San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Jerry Rice raises his fist in celebration after scoring his second touchdown of the day with 34 seconds left in the second quarter against the Denver Broncos, in New Orleans, during Super Bowl XXIV. (John Gaps III/The Associated Press)

Reaching the status as a Hall of Fame wide receiver didn't start well for Jerry Rice.
After the San Francisco 49ers took Rice with the 16th selection in the first round of the NFL Draft out of Mississippi Valley State, he remembered being a little overwhelmed in his rookie season.
"I had some adversity in trying to find myself in the scheme of everything," Rice said. "When I first stepped into that locker room, I looked across and there was Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott and all of these Hall of Famers. At first, it was like deer in the headlights.
"I had to get comfortable with that and also learn the system. It didn't help that I was dropping footballs so when I first came in, people thought there's no way this guy should have gotten drafted in the first round as the 16th player taken by the San Francisco 49ers. I had to fight through that adversity."
Rice calls a December game on a Monday night of his rookie year his "coming out party." He caught 10 passes for 241 yards and three touchdowns against the Los Angeles Rams.
"When I went into that game, I did not have to think about anything," Rice said. "I knew the system and had to just go out there and play. That was a start for me, but I never gave into the situation that I have arrived now. I always wanted to come back the next year and have a better season. That was the extra incentive to stay focused and work hard."
The hard work paid off and it began to show in Rice's numbers.
Rice led the league the next season with 1,570 yards receiving on 86 catches and 15 touchdowns.
In 1987, he achieved the NFL Player of the Year after catching 23 touchdowns.
A player who patterned his game after receivers like Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Freddie Solomon, Dwight Clark, Drew Pearson and Tony Hill was beginning to make a name for himself.
Rice was honored to represent all former great receivers, but never felt like a star. He just enjoyed playing football.
"I loved going out on that given Sunday in front of 60,000-plus people and entertaining them," Rice said. "That's the way I conducted myself on and off the football field as a professional athlete. With the way I wore the uniform, I took pride in that."
Rice is the all-time NFL leader in touchdowns scored with 208, receptions with 1,549 and yards receiving with 22,895. He was selected to the Pro Bowl 13 times from 1986-96, 1998 and 2002, and was chosen All-Pro 11 times during 20 seasons.
When it came to playing football, Rice didn't focus on honors and records.
"A lot of people base their career around records, but I loved football in general and it was a very important part of my life," Rice said. "I still miss it a lot, but I think I played it for a long time and was able to play with some of the best football players to play the game. I'm happy to have had that opportunity."
Some of Rice's finest moments appeared on the biggest stage by leading San Francisco to three Super Bowl titles and appeared in another toward the end of his career with the Oakland Raiders. He owns Super Bowl records of eight touchdowns, 33 receptions, and 589 receiving yards.
While helping the 49ers defeat the Cincinnati Bengals 20-16 in Super Bowl XXIII, Rice was chosen Most Valuable Player with 11 catches for 215 yards and a touchdown.
Rice said the thing that made San Francisco successful was the players bought into what was going on during practice and it carried on into the games.
Gameweek began on Wednesday and Rice recalls taking it seriously.
"I worked to make every catch and finish every play," Rice said. "It becomes instilled in you where you don't have to think about it during a game. It just happens. It became a reaction.
"When you came to a 49er practice, it was like a game situation. It prepared us for the long haul."
Since 49ers like Rice, Roger Craig, John Taylor and Brent Jones treated practice like a game situation, it wasn't a surprise when a receiver or running back broke a run of 60 to 80 yards.
"If Roger broke a big play, we had guys already downfield ready to block," Rice said. "We feel like we complimented each other and I think that's why we had so much success as an offensive unit because all of the preparation was made during the week. On Sunday, all you had to do was go out and play. You had put the work in and now it was time to enjoy the game."
With the work on the field now behind him, Rice is set for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame later today. The 2010 class includes Rice, Emmitt Smith, Russ Grimm, Rickey Jackson, Dick LeBeau and Floyd Little.
Hall of Fame activities have taken place all weekend in Canton, Ohio, and the induction ceremony is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo will be Rice's presenter.
"I'm getting ready to embark on something I never really thought about," Rice said. "I have to pinch myself because this small boy from B.L. Moor High School goes off to college to Mississippi Valley State University; gets a chance to play in San Francisco for one of the greatest owners in Eddie DeBartolo, greatest coach in Bill Walsh and the greatest team in the San Francisco 49ers; and now gets ready to go into the Hall of Fame where this is a very elite group of guys. I'm honored and humbled."

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