Jerry Rice won three Super Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers, who had legendary battles with the Dallas Cowboys in the 1980s and 90s. But can you imagine if Rice had played for Dallas instead?
The Cowboys held the 17th pick in the 1985 NFL Draft, and Rice admitted that he thought he was Dallas-bound. “I felt like I was going to wear that star on my helmet,” Rice told Bally Sports.
San Francisco head coach Bill Walsh wasn’t going to let that happen. He desperately wanted Rice, a Division I-AA All-American wide receiver at Mississippi Valley State, so the 49ers swung a draft-day deal with the New England Patriots to move up from No. 28 to No. 16 — one spot ahead of the Cowboys — to select Rice.
Playing with Hall of Fame quarterbacks Joe Montana and Steve Young, Rice spent the first 16 seasons of his 20-year NFL career in San Francisco and is regarded as the greatest wide receiver to ever step on a football field. He holds the NFL career records for receptions (1,549), receiving yards (22,895), receiving touchdowns (197) and total touchdowns (208).
Rice, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2010, reminisced about the 49ers-Cowboys rivalry and his battles with fellow Hall of Famer Deion Sanders, arguably the greatest cover cornerback ever. He also gave his thoughts on Sanders’ coaching job at Jackson State and two of the NFL’s biggest stars right now — Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Arizona Cardinals wideout DeAndre Hopkins.
Below is the full conversation, which has been lightly edited for clarity.
You were teammates in San Francisco with Deion Sanders. You also played against him when he was a member of the Atlanta Falcons. What do you recall most about the 90s with “Prime Time”?
I recall one (game) in Atlanta, and it was right before the snap of the ball. He’s reaching out — he wants to shake my hand and I’m smacking his hand away like, “Are you serious right now? OK, we can talk after the game, but right now we’re enemies!” This is mano-a-mano. And so, I’m slapping his hand away and stuff like that, but we built a great relationship and it’s something that we still talk about to this day, you know?
Going against the best. Those sleepless nights. You’re up processing the game in your head over and over and over, and I was telling Deion that and he was like, “Well Jerry, you know what? I was also up playing the game over and over and over in my head because I knew that I was going up against the best.” That’s what we live for — those types of challenges — and it was a lot of fun and it’s something that I’ll never forget.
What do you make of Sanders’ role as head coach at Jackson State?
I think that he’s doing a fantastic job and that he’s bringing so much recognition. And Deion is that type of coach, you know? Prime Time. I remember way back in the day when we beat Jackson State University, we had never beat Jackson State University (laughs) in about 30 years? I remember winning that game and it was like over 100,000 people in that stadium and we were able to get that win. So I think that he’s bringing so much recognition to the SWAC (Southwestern Athletic Conference) and what he’s doing at Jackson State is really incredible.
And when you think about one of the greatest players ever to come from there: Walter Payton — Sweetness. Back in the day, everyone wanted to be like Sweetness. I wanted to be like Sweetness! (Laughs). But I think he’s doing a fantastic job.
Traditionally, the Dallas Cowboys are America’s team. Did you ever dream of playing for them?
The Dallas Cowboys … they had the 17th pick. San Francisco traded with the New England Patriots to get down to that 16th spot. I felt like I was going to wear that star on my helmet, and it was “America’s Team” from Roger Staubach back in the day to Tony Hill and all those guys, and I’m saying to myself, “I’m gonna get drafted by the Dallas Cowboys.” … San Francisco made that move and the second they drafted me, they had just won the Super Bowl against the Miami Dolphins at Stanford University, and I thought about Joe Montana, Dwight Clark, Ronnie Lott, Roger Craig and all those guys. … So my mind went to the San Francisco 49ers, but I thought that I was going to get drafted by the Dallas Cowboys.
And another thing … Dwight Clark. When he made “The Catch" (to stun Dallas in the 1981 NFC Championship Game), he started the dynasty for the San Francisco 49ers. It was against the Dallas Cowboys. I’m sure you remember that. So he started that and that rivalry. … We did not like each other at all. Dallas didn’t like San Francisco. San Francisco didn’t like Dallas. And I remember those battles that we had. It was almost like Boston and the Lakers — that type of game — and it was something you looked forward to and you wanted to win that football game.
You played at an HBCU. What would your numbers look like with the rule changes or if you played in this era?
With the rules and stuff, I’ve been asked this question many times and the era that I played in. … That’s the era that I wanted. This new era is great, and I think they do a great job of protecting players. But I love the physicality of the game. It was something about those Monday night games when those two helmets collided, you knew that it was going to be a battle. It was going to be a fight to the end, and I think that I put the numbers up when the game was really raw. It was like that gladiator sport. But I still love the game today, and if I played in this era, I feel like I would be able to adjust and still put up great numbers.
Now with the players coming out of HBCUs, I think the thing is that we are hungry. We are determined and we are just willing to work a little bit harder because when you think about USC, Notre Dame … you have players there that are used to having everything. They’re used to having so much. We had to work for everything, and I think that was the thing that really pushed me when I came into the NFL. I didn’t have everything. Now it’s time for me to show and produce, and if I’m successful, then other players from the HBCU schools, you know, are going to have the same opportunities.
What records would you have broken if he were playing alongside Aaron Rodgers?
(Laughs) Oh my God! To be honest with you, I thought that we were going to get Aaron Rodgers (in San Francisco) because it was like — it’s crazy because you’re talking about one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game and he’s still putting up outstanding numbers. So just watching him and his leadership, I mean, there’s a certain swagger and I always looked for that in a quarterback. When he walks into the huddle, he has to own that huddle, and you notice the second that he walks in everybody is quiet. They’re looking straight at him for direction. And I feel like all quarterbacks — the best that play the game — they have to have that quality, you know? You look at Tom Brady the same way. He’s exceptional, and I think he’s going to be somewhere in the hunt this year.
If you could go back, what quarterback would you have enjoyed playing with besides Joe Montana or Steve Young?
Oh man! There’s no other! From John Elway to Brett Favre to Tom Brady to Drew Brees to Peyton and Eli (Manning) … I mean, the list would just go on and on, because those guys — all those guys that I named — (they had) that swagger. You knew that they wanted to be great. You have to lead by example, and if you have great quarterbacks like that, everyone else is going to do the same thing and work just as hard. That’s how you win championships.
How big of an adjustment was it playing alongside Joe Montana and then Steve Young?
Well, I had never caught a football from a lefty, and Steve Young, he was that guy. I mean, the chemistry that I had with Montana was like doing a dance. He knew my body language. He knew when I was going to come out of my cut, and I knew if he looked at me a certain way, I knew I had to get open. So we had that great chemistry, and then all of a sudden, Steve Young is in the mix with a different spin on the ball and he’s a lefty so the ball will have a different spin. So in between the drills, we had a trainer that was a lefty and he would just throw me so many balls over and over and over until I got comfortable with that spin, and Steve Young and I went on to have so many touchdowns together. I think we had around 80 until Tom Brady and Gronk broke our record.
(Editor’s note: Young and Rice connected for 85 touchdown passes. They rank fourth all time behind the 89 TDs by Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates, the 90 by Brady and Rob Gronkowski and the NFL-record 112 by Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison.)
So it was that different spin, and I told Steve, I said, “Look Steve. Let’s talk man to man here, all right?” Because Steve wanted to run the football. That’s going to hurt my stats. If Steve is going to run the ball, that’s not good for the receiver. So I had a little one-on-one one talk with Steve, and I was like, “OK Steve, I need you to stand in the pocket and I need you to throw the ball downfield to me when I get open, OK? And not run up my back while I’m downfield or run by me.” … I hear the crowd start cheering (and) I’m thinking that Steve is about to throw me the football and Steve is running by me. (Laughs) At least let me know so that I can get in position to block for you or something! But we went on and we were exceptional and I had a great relationship with Joe Montana and Steve Young. Two of the GREATEST football players to play the game. Two Hall of Famers and it’s something that I’ll never forget.
What current NFL wide receivers are you following today?
DeAndre Hopkins. And I sort of like said something and he kind of took it the wrong way when I said something about — because he had a hamstring pull and I went on social media and I said, “Man. What is going on? In 20 years I’ve never had a hamstring pull.” So I think a lot of people lashed out at him and all that, but I didn’t mean that in a bad way or anything like that. I just feel that there is something going on with football where there are so many injuries now and, so you know, just watching him and what he does on the football field with his route running, his jumping ability and his attitude that says, “Hey look, there is no way that someone is going to cover me one-on-one.” And as a receiver, you’ve got to believe that no one can cover you one-on-one … and you have to make those difficult catches and it’s all about leading your team the right way.
What do you make of 49ers rookie QB Trey Lance?
I love everything about him. I think he’s the quarterback of the future for the 49ers. Very raw, very talented and he’s hungry. So he’s going to outwork you, and he’s going to do what he has to do to be successful on the football field. Standing (6-foot-4 and 224 pounds) — here I am standing next to this guy and I’m short. (Laughs) I thought I was a tall guy, you know? The game plan was I used to list myself around 6-2, which is pretty tall. But he’s looking down at me and doing all that. … I had a chance to catch some footballs from him and he put some velocity on the ball. He’s going to do some great things in the NFL.