Rice goes out a winner

Posted: Monday, December 18, 2000

SAN FRANCISCO -- One last time, Jerry Rice left Candlestick Point a winner.

Rice, the NFL's most prolific receiver and career touchdowns leader, likely played the final home game of his San Francisco career in the 49ers' 17-0 win over Chicago on Sunday. He left the field on the shoulders of his teammates while thunderous cheers echoed across the wind-swept field.

''This is home. It will always be home,'' Rice said. ''I will always look back on these memories.''

Both Rice and 49ers general manager Bill Walsh expect the team to release Rice in June because of salary cap constraints, though Rice expects to play at least one more season in another city.

Rice joked earlier this week that he wanted to ride a white horse into the sunset after his final game at 3Com Park. Instead, Rice got seven catches for 76 yards, an afternoon of ovations from adoring 49ers fans and one last victory in the stadium he has called home for 16 seasons.

He even got one last catch. With 16 seconds to play and the victory well in hand, the 49ers threw one more time to Rice -- a 24-yard strike which Rice caught easily before falling to the turf. It was the 1,275th reception of his career.

''That was a signature route and a signature catch,'' said Terrell Owens, who caught an NFL-record 20 passes as the Bears harassed Rice with constant double-teams. ''Jerry has been a big, big part of my success. This is his team.''

Afterward, Rice removed his helmet and took a victory lap, shaking hands and slapping high-fives with the fans who followed the 49ers through years of dominance and stuck with them through the recent down seasons. Pointing at his heart, Rice thanked them as they chanted ''Jerry! Jerry!''

Then Rice stood on a podium at midfield. He was nearly overcome with emotion as he thanked teammates past and present, coaches and Walsh before urging fans to support the team he'll leave behind.

''It's up to these guys to carry on this tradition here,'' Rice said. ''I think it's time for me to go, but San Francisco, you guys will always be No. 1 for me. I love you guys.''

Rice is the final link to the 49ers' two decades of excellence. Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott, Steve Young and countless others already have retired, and the 49ers' fans got one final chance to cheer San Francisco's last remnant of a dynasty.

''This would have to rank right up there with winning three Super Bowls,'' Rice said of Sunday's experience. ''Basically, I just wanted the fans to know I appreciate what they've done all these years.''

When Rice took the field to warm up 45 minutes before game time, hundreds of fans were clustered in the stands above the tunnel from San Francisco's locker room -- dozens wearing Rice's No. 80 jersey. They erupted in cheers and chants.

''Jerry is my favorite player, favorite person. It's been a great run,'' said Walsh, who drafted Rice in 1985 and now might release him. ''Who is to have ever considered the possibility that we had the greatest player of all-time here?''

Before the game, Rice was given a national award for fatherhood, and his 13-year-old daughter Jaqui sang the national anthem.

It was obvious the 49ers were looking to Rice early, and he didn't disappoint. On the first play, Jeff Garcia faked a handoff into the line and hit Rice for a 25-yard gain up the right sideline. Just like that, Rice had a reception in his NFL-record 224th consecutive game.

But the farewell game wasn't perfect. Though he caught four passes in the fourth quarter, Rice fumbled on the 1 in the fourth quarter while trying to reach the end zone.

Throughout the game, the 49ers flashed Rice's records and highlights of his career on the scoreboard. Fans held up signs reading ''Thank you Jerry!'' and ''You'll always be the best!'' One fan even wore a larger-than-life papier-mache rendering of Rice's head that would have looked more at home at Mardi Gras.

Rice's resume is incredibly full. He has three Super Bowl rings and 12 trips to the Pro Bowl. He was the NFL Player of the Year in 1987 and 1990, and the Super Bowl MVP in 1989. After Sunday, his most important NFL records stand at 19,162 yards receiving and 176 TD catches.

Though the 49ers wanted Rice to retire with San Francisco -- and would have given him a $1 million bonus for doing so -- Rice wants to play at least one more season. He repeated those intentions Sunday, even after an afternoon that could have served as an excellent final chapter to his career.

''This is something I chose to do a long, long time ago. I think it has to be my decision to walk away from it,'' Rice said. ''I want everything out of me when it's time to move on.''

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