Single page view By Bill Simmons
Page 2

Editor's note: This article appears in the june 20th issue of ESPN The Magazine.

When Jerry Rice's agent faxed every NFL team pimping his client's services for the upcoming season, every football fan had the same reaction: .

Would Pacino's agent cold-call Hollywood studios? Would U2's manager solicit music companies? Of course not. So why would Rice reduce himself to groveling? Where was his dignity? Rice eventually signed with the Broncos, even giving up his beloved No. 80 for the chance to play his 21st season. When you watch the 2005 Broncos, look for the slow guy wearing No. 19. You may not believe it, but that's Jerry Rice. Greatest receiver ever. Trust me. Which raises a bigger question: when an athlete hangs on too long, why does it bother us so much? Take me, for example. In my football column for ESPN.com, Rice's refusal to retire became a running joke over the past two years. Some highlights:

1. When Rice tried to grow cornrows:
"At some point in life, you need to give up on the dreadlocks and gracefully evolve to the shaved head, don't you? Poor Jerry looks like De Niro at the end of Cape Fear."

2. When Rice floundered in Oakland:
"Is there a difference between Rice and Ron Jeremy at this point? If you could only convince one to retire, which one would you choose?"

3. When Rice signed with Seattle and asked for Steve Largent's No. 80:
"It isn't like the Seahawks have had a cavalcade of heroes over the past 29 years; Steve Largent was the Seahawks! Why not just ask to have sex with his wife?"

I loved making Rice jokes – they were easy. Now I'm rethinking everything. If he can still contribute and make some decent coin ... well, what's wrong with that? Shouldn't we celebrate that he might play into his mid-40s at a position predicated on speed and quickness? Why do we take his desire to play so personally?

When Jordan signed with the Wizards, everyone climbed on their high horses and blamed him for tainting the ultimate career ending (winning the 1998 Finals on a 15-footer). But for whom did MJ taint that moment – him or us? Maybe he needed to play those final seasons, needed to know for sure he was done, needed to feel his body break down, needed Kobe and T-Mac to wipe the floor with him. Maybe that's how he found peace of mind. What's wrong with that?

When you think about it, two distinct qualities make pantheon athletes special: a defiant belief that nobody is better than they are, and a competitive nature that borders on homicidal. Rice was like that. So were Jordan, Bird, Magic, Ali. The list goes on. With new challengers coming at them every year, if they didn't adopt the I'm-better-than-anyone-else, nobody-can-take-me mind-set, they'd have been quickly taken down by the Next Guy. That's why so many hang on for too long. They can't turn off that mind-set; it's ingrained in them. So some need to be pushed out the door before they know they're done.

Is that final stage somewhat sad to watch? Absolutely. I can still see Magic waddling up and down the court on the '96 Lakers; Gretzky wearing cement skates on the Rangers; Sugar Ray getting the crap kicked out of him by Terry Norris. But sad to watch is the only phrase that applies. When writers say, "You're disgracing yourself," or, "Don't taint the way we remember you," they're just being selfish. (Notice how nobody writes those things about Julio Franco?) Why should they care what we think?

Continued...


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