A Wide Receiver Looks at 60: Catching Up With Jerry Rice on His Football Life
It's been almost 20 years since the 59-year-old last caught a pass in the NFL — but he still has a lot to say about the game
Over the course of a 20-year career in the NFL that saw him catch an all-time-best 197 touchdowns (more than 40 more than Randy Moss with 156 and Terrell Owens with 153), Jerry Rice averaged a tick more than five catches and 75 receiving yards per game.
Rice, who is teaming with The American Red Cross to urge individuals to roll up a sleeve and donate much-needed blood or platelets, retired at the age of 41 after spending the 2003 season with the Oakland Raiders. Looking at the 59-year-old, who is a blood donor himself, on a California morning via Zoom it would be tough to tell it’s been almost 20 years since he last caught a pass in the NFL.
“I’m down at my playing weight and I’ll be 60 in October. I still go hard every day. I challenge myself. I dare myself to try to be great,” Rice tells InsideHook. “If I’m doing CrossFit, if I’m doing Peloton, whatever, I’m still active. I think it’s just in my DNA. That’s how I fuel myself and get going in the morning. And it pays off for me.”
That work ethic certainly paid off for Rice during his playing days as he played in 303 out of a possible 320 regular-season games during two decades in the NFL.
“I played for over 20 years, man. The lifespan of a football player is about four years,” Rice says. “I think it was all about my conditioning and how I worked during the offseason. I never got out of shape. My teammates thought I was crazy. ‘Why are you still working so hard?’ I feel I owed my teammates, the organization, the fans and all that. That was why we were being paid. We were going to do what we had to do to win it for the city of San Francisco.”
Though the game has changed a lot since the Sundays when Rice was catching passes from Joe Montana and Steve Young, he’s still a fan.
“I still watch the NFL and I still watch college football. I love the game. I love the physicality of it. I love players going out there and doing the impossible,” he says. “You’ve got defenders that have practiced all week long to shut players down completely and then they’re still able to go out there and be productive and excel and help their team win. It is a great game. I watch it all and I still believe we have the greatest sport ever.”
The greatest sport, but a different one that has evolved to the point that receivers like Deebo Samuel of the 49ers routinely carry the ball out of the backfield and wideouts without game-breaking speed like Cooper Kupp of the Rams can win Super Bowl MVP.
“The game is totally different now,” Rice says. “It’s not about big receivers anymore that can run exceptional routes.” The NFL legend explains how back in the day, a wide receiver had to be able to defeat the bump and run by being elusive at the line of scrimmage, and then fight off defenders the entire time downfield. “I had plays where I was on the left side and the ball was being thrown on the right side, and I was still getting hit.”
Rice recalls how linebackers in the middle of the field were “trying to take my head off” — the kind of rough play that doesn’t fly in today’s game. “I understand protecting players, but football, to me, is a gladiator sport. When helmets used to collide on Monday Night Football, you knew it was going to be a battle and only the strong were going to survive.”
And, while he still likes the game, Rice isn’t upset that he’s no longer playing it.
“I played in the era that I wanted to play in. There’s a lot of money out there, but I just wanted to be the best football player I could be,” he says. “Along with that, you knew the contracts, the endorsements and all of that stuff was going to come along. We opened the door for the players who have the big contracts now. But I played in the era I wanted against the best corners in Deion Sanders and Darrell Green. It was a battle. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
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