The NFL is celebrating its 100th season this year, and it’s been great fun to read stories and watch videos about those first 100 years. I don’t keep up with the NFL like I use to, but remember vividly how I fell in love with football and the NFL’s Green Bay Packers when I was a youngster and they had guys like Bart Starr, Elijah Pitts and Jerry Kramer roaming the sidelines.
I had no idea at the time that for the first 15 years of my journalism career I would be a sports editor and columnist, often writing about college football and the NFL. I think it was that first love for football that eventually led me down that career path.
Anyway, recently I read a story in USA TODAY about the 100 best players in NFL history. Nineteen current and former reporters were asked to rank the players, then a formula was used to come up with the top 100.
One of the great benefits of writing sports for all those years was getting to meet and sometimes get to know some of the legends; Some of them, when I first got to know them, were years away from being a legend.
As I read through the list of the top 100, I suddenly realized that I had met quite a few of them. So, I added it up. Here is my list of NFL legends I got to meet, and in every instance, get to share at least a little time with through a conversation or two.
Jerry Rice is tops on the list. Lawrence Taylor is at No. 3. Walter Payton at No. 5. Joe Montana at No. 6. Reggie White at No. 7. Peyton Manning at No. 8. Ronnie Lott at No. 13. Deacon Jones at No. 15. John Elway at No. 18. Emmitt Smith at No. 19. Brett Favre at No. 26. O.J. Simpson at No. 40. Bart Starr at No. 63. Joe Namath at No. 68. Terry Bradshaw at No. 75. Derrick Thomas at No. 86 and Tony Dorsett at No. 90.
That is a heck of a lot of NFL talent, including six of the top 10. Meeting all those football players doesn’t qualify me for anything other than interesting dinner conversation, and only about half of them would probably remember me.
There is an interesting story to go along with each and every one of them, and if you want to invite me to dinner I will tell you all 17 stories. But for brevity’s sake today, let me tell you about No. 1, and leave it at that.
I agree that Jerry Rice is not only the greatest receiver of all time, but the greatest player. I watched him play for the San Francisco 49ers several times in person and countless times on television. Rice went into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2010. A three-time Super Bowl champion, he was selected to 13 Pro Bowls and leads the NFL in all-purpose touchdowns (208), receiving yards (22,895), receptions (1,549) and TD receptions (197). He caught at least one pass in 274 games, also an NFL record, and has 36 NFL records in all.
But most of you know all about Jerry Rice the NFL legend. Let me tell you about Jerry Rice the kid out of Oktibbeha County, Mississippi.
B.L. Moor High School was in a county adjacent to Columbus, Mississippi, where I got my first big-time sports writing job, writing for the Columbus Commercial Dispatch. I use the word was, because B.L. Moor changed its name to East Oktibbeha County High School a few years back. No matter the name, not many people have heard of the school.
Simply put, in the middle of nowhere is where Rice went to high school. He was a totally unknown commodity in recruiting circles, living in the same county as where Mississippi State University is located. I doubt he even made the Commercial Dispatch all-area team.
The only reason I even remember Jerry Rice the high school kid is that his mother, Eddie B. Rice, often called me on Monday mornings to let me know Jerry scored a touchdown or made a big tackle, hoping colleges would take notice and give him a call. I could be wrong about it, but I believe I remember Eddie B. – she went by Eddie B. – dropping a homemade apple pie by my office one Monday morning when she was in Columbus for an appointment of some sort. She appreciated what I was doing to help Jerry’s football career, and Jerry’s career needed it.
Well, not many people noticed Rice on the football field, but Archie “Gunslinger” Cooley out of Mississippi Valley State either got lucky or saw a star in the making and signed Rice to play football. The rest is college and NFL history. Cooley designed the Satellite Express offense, with Willie Totten at quarterback and Rice one of five wide receivers in the game at any given time. They went no huddle. They went fast. In 1983, Rice caught 102 passes for 1,450 yards, an NCAA Division I-AA record. In 1984, his senior year, he caught 112 passes for 1,845 yards and 27 touchdowns as the team averaged 640 yards offense and 61 points a game. The 27 touchdowns were the most TD receptions in college football history.
San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh saw Rice’s last game on TV, and you know the rest of the story.
But let’s back up. Jerry’s dad was Joe, a bricklayer by trade who got help from Jerry during the summers and after school. Legend has it that picking up all those bricks left Jerry with the kind of strong hands it takes to catch a football on an NFL level. Plus, legend has it that Jerry’s time in the 40-yard-dash improved phenomenally from his days at B.L. Moor to his senior year at Mississippi Valley State.
I never met Jerry Rice when he was in high school, just his mom. I talked to him briefly on the phone when he was in college, and we did a story on him at the Commercial Dispatch. I finally got to meet Rice when he was in Starkville, Mississippi, home from the pros and working out with the Mississippi State football team. I will never forget his smooth, fast speed and his hands that snatched every ball that came his way.
We talked a good bit that day. I told him about his mom and her phone calls, which brought a sheepish smile from the man who would one day become arguably the greatest NFL player of all time. He told me about living in San Francisco instead of the Oktoc community in Oktibbeha County, or Itta Bena, where MVSU is located.
We crossed paths several times after that Mississippi State practice. I covered a handful of games when the New Orleans Saints played the San Francisco 49ers, and the Super Bowl where Rice and the 49ers demolished the Denver Broncos. After every game I made it to the 49ers’ locker room to get a few quotes from Rice. He was always accommodating, always glad to see someone from home.
When I was online refreshing my memory about Rice and his stats to write this story, I found that Eddie B., one of 16 children, died in 2015 at age 77. She died on Christmas Day and was survived by three daughters and six sons, one of them a really, really good football player. I read her obituary in the Commercial Dispatch, bringing back a lot of memories about not only legendary football players, but the back stories that make those stories even better.