Twilight  of an NFL God
Patrick Merewether

Twilight of an NFL God

Bizarre. Jerry Rice walks through the Broncos' spring locker room, courteously introducing himself to teammates who were second-graders when he won the first of his three Super Bowl rings. It's like Bruce Springsteen falling by to trade riffs with your kid's garage band.

Surreal. Rice announces, "Hi, I'm Jerry Rice" to players who used to have the wide receiver's posters on the walls of their bedrooms. Their mouths fall open. Strange. Jake Plummer says he is "nervous" throwing the ball to Rice.

And how about the numerical discombobulations? Decked out in Denver blue, Rice wears number 19; his once and possibly future coach, Mike Shanahan, says that the all-time former number 80, who is number one in every pass-catching category that counts and who holds some 35 NFL records, now has a chance to be number four or five -- the fourth or fifth man in the Broncos' 2005 pass-receiving corps.

"After this," Rice says, "it's just time for me to go out and play football."

Or Chinese checkers. Or God. And if Plummer is nervous throwing to the greatest pass receiver who ever lived, maybe Shanahan should get John Elway to do it. Or Craig Morton. Meanwhile, Riley Odoms can line up at tight end, and...let's see here...why not start Floyd Little at running back? Gotta be a few hundred carries left in that tough little bod. Word is that Tom Jackson is sick and tired of his ESPN gig and would like nothing better than to take up his old spot at linebacker and resume breaking heads.

Whatever else he is -- future Hall of Famer, Joe Montana's alter ego, idol to millions -- Mr. Rice, as he is known to many, is 42 years old. He might be Babe Ruth of the Boston Braves. Joe Namath a-hobble at the L.A. Coliseum, oddly costumed in Rams blue and gold, both knees reduced to red Jell-O. Figure him for Willie Mays the ancient Met, stumbling around center field like boozy Uncle Cecil at a wedding reception? Or Jack Nicklaus last month, trudging up the eighteenth at Muirfield, waving wanly to the gallery and praying that someone remembered to turn the whirlpool on back at the hotel.

What befalls a legend in his twilight? Last season, the 6'2", 200-pounder caught only five passes for 67 yards as a 41-year-old Oakland Raider before being traded mid-season to the Seattle Seahawks. For them, he snagged 25 balls for 362 yards and three touchdowns but was shut out in his final three games and ultimately released. In his nineteen previous seasons -- sixteen of them with the San Francisco 49ers (where Shanny forged a bond as offensive coordinator from '92 to '94) -- he racked up 22,466 yards in receptions and accounted for 205 more touchdowns, benchmarks that will never be broken unless by divine intervention.

For most professional athletes, age is a terror whose presence must be denied at all costs. "First you forget names," baseball executive Branch Rickey once said. "Then you forget faces. Then you forget to zip up your fly. Then you forget to unzip your fly."

The man we're discussing hasn't quite reached that stage. At the recent Broncos micro-camp, Rice remembers his own name, ties his own shoes, runs a dozen pass patterns no more slowly than Condoleezza Rice might and generally awes his young Bronco teammates, who have beheld him as a condition of life in the National Football League since their mothers drove them to Pop Warner games.

"You don't expect him to be the Jerry Rice of 28 years old," Shanahan says with a straight face, "but he's still good."

Week-old jambalaya is still good, too, as long as long as it's been properly refrigerated. The questions about Rice -- hotly debated in the newspaper columns and on the sports talk shows -- have less to do with the present quality of his talents (a junior-college defensive back could likely cover him these days) than with the residual power of his myth and his ability to transfer some of the skill that made him the best ever. Of course, the Broncos already have a wide-receivers coach: former Denver fan favorite Steve Watson. What Rice might be is a professor emeritus out there -- and the wily veteran who can convert the occasional third-and-seven on nothing more than the fumes of his peerless career. Forty-two? Until some hungry young cornerback puts him in traction, Rice might be a real asset, despite his looming AARP card.

One thing's for sure. If young Broncos receivers like Ashley Lelie and Darius Watts know what's good for them, they'll stick to Rice like country gravy when training camp starts. Hell, even the guy who wears number 80 for the Broncos, battle-scarred veteran wideout Rod Smith, can probably learn a thing or two from the best. And in case he doesn't make the team -- there are no guarantees, Shanahan says -- Rice might nevertheless have a salubrious effect on Plummer, a quarterback who throws to the guys in the wrong shirts way too often. Has Rice slowed down? Sure. Shanahan doesn't know if he's lost one step, or two, or twelve, but the precision of the veteran's routes, his unerring instincts and his knowingness on the field cannot but help raise the level of offensive play at Dove Valley -- even if the legend never makes it, wearing blue, orange and white, as far as Invesco Field.

So, let's wait and see. Jerry Rice may very well be O.J. Simpson at Candlestick, poor old Archie Moore clambering into the ring one more time in the ballooning satin trunks his mother made for him, or owner/player Michael Jordan in Washington Wizards blue. Remember timeless Henry Aaron, the all-time home-run king, stuffed into a disorienting Milwaukee Brewers uniform for the 1975 and '76 seasons? Never made sense. For that matter, neither did Tony Dorsett, Denver Bronco. After eleven sparkling seasons with the Dallas Cowboys, the tough, 183-pound running back was eclipsed by the bigger, stronger, younger Herschel Walker in Dallas. After the 1987 season, he signed on for a twilight season in Denver, rushed for 703 yards and five touchdowns in 1988 and was ready to come back for more. But in a routine practice, Dorsett's right knee "crumbled like a piece of spaghetti," in his words, and that was it. Career over. All that remained was his election to the NFL Hall of Fame.

So it will be for Rice, if not this year, then next. For now, what does he impart? Whose soul does he touch? He may be Willie Mays circa 1973, delusional and deranged, but with talent as vast as his, who among the children who revere him won't cherish the laying-on of his magic hands?

"ArenaBowl" sounds like a brand of toilet cleanser. But as soon as the Colorado Crush won eight-man indoor football's big prize in Las Vegas Sunday afternoon to cap just its third season in the Arena Football League, Crush players and principal team owner John Elway crowded into the cameraman's frame, sharing space with a big square trophy. They were grinning and cheering a last-second, 51-48 victory over the Georgia Force. Minority Crush owner Pat Bowlen got in the picture, too. But Bowlen's wistful, gazing-down-the-road expression suggested that he wasn't thinking entirely of the present glory.

Elway stood, toothy and dazzling, in the center of the celebration. Bowlen lingered quietly at the edge. Care to guess his thoughts? Odds-on he was remembering the last time he and Elway shared a shot with a trophy after a win over a team from Atlanta. And how long it might be until Bowlen's Elway-deprived Denver Broncos win a third Super Bowl. Think I'm wrong? Then feel free to substitute your own longing.


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