Rice: Forever young

Posted: Monday, January 13, 2003

If age can be measured in spirit, Jerry Rice was the youngest player on the field.

He looked like a giddy rookie at the start, leaping and slapping hands with teammates as if this were his first playoff game rather than what seemed like his millionth.

He did a cute juke to break free for his first reception on a flea-flicker in the first quarter.

He gamboled downfield with the long, purposeful strides that have been his trademark, and though the ball rarely came his way, there was little doubt it would be in his hands when it mattered.

And suddenly, there he was, the old ghost in the back of the end zone, catching a 9-yard, fourth-quarter pass from Rich Gannon that broke open the game Sunday, sending the Oakland Raiders toward a 30-10 victory over the New York Jets and a date with Tennessee for the AFC championship.

He is 40 and a football marvel, if not a medical miracle. When he came limping off the field after a catch in the third quarter, his knee banged up, he stretched a little, shook it off and went right back in the game.

Rice had four catches for 47 yards, running his career playoff total to 2,133 yards and giving him the record over Buffalo's Thurman Thomas. Rice's touchdown was his 21st in the playoffs, tying him for the record with Thomas and Emmitt Smith.

Rice owns just about every record a receiver can hold, and he's far from done.

The fire still burns, he says, and the nervousness that grips a player before a big game hasn't faded. For all his years, he still got butterflies before this game.

''I feel just like a rookie. I'm having a ball,'' Rice said. ''I was so excited this week, I couldn't sleep. I was up all night long last night.''

Rice didn't take the opportunity to gloat over the Raiders' triumph on the same day his former team, the San Francisco 49ers, was walloped by Tampa Bay. The 49ers discarded him after the 2000 season, suggesting he was too old.

Turns out, he wasn't too old then, and he isn't too old now. He is, simply, forever young.

''I have no animosity toward the 49ers,'' said Rice, who won three Super Bowl rings with them and was the game's MVP in 1989. ''I'm just thankful to be on a team that appreciates experience. When I came here they welcomed me with open arms.''

If Rice has lost a half-step in speed -- and at times even that looks doubtful -- he more than makes up for it in savvy, grace and patience.

He tests defenders and waits for them to bite on a fake. He knows where the ball will be and makes sure he gets there. He's been doing it for nearly two decades -- from Joe Montana to Steve Young and now to Gannon, who won the NFL's MVP award, in part, because of Rice, Tim Brown and strong, young Jerry Porter.

There is a dandyish quality to Rice off the field. After the game, he looked again as if he had just stepped out of a fashion shoot for Esquire, wearing a perfectly tailored light brown sports jacket, peach sweater, yellow shirt and peach silk tie. He has an earring in each ear and his receding hair is neatly braided.

For all that, he is one of the toughest, most resilient football players ever. He pops up from crunching hits, smiling at defenders as if to say, ''Thanks.'' He has rarely been hurt in 18 years in one of the most vulnerable positions in the game.

He knows he doesn't have to be the star of the show anymore. If he's not open, Brown probably will be. Or the 24-year-old Porter, who, at 6-2, is as tall as Rice but 20 pounds heavier at 220.

Porter made the biggest plays against the Jets, including a 29-yard touchdown catch and a 50-yarder that set up Rice's TD. Porter finished with six catches for 123 yards, the kind of numbers Rice routinely had for so many years.

''I'm just happy to be playing football with a team that's very hungry,'' Rice said. ''This is the kind of team that makes it enjoyable to play. We have a core of veterans that know what to do in every situation. And we have young players who have talent and are willing to learn.

''When things are not happening, we just stay composed and we don't force the ball to anyone. I just waited for my turn.''

Rice has been waiting his turn for another Super Bowl and now he's one victory away from his chance for one more.

Steve Wilstein is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at swilstein@ap.org

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